When Codemasters first unleashed Race Driver: Grid on an unsuspecting world back in 2008, they can’t possibly have expected it to be so well received. The almost arcade-style handling that allowed you to drive somewhat wrecklessly but that also rewarded skilful driving was the highlight, and the multitudes of race types, courses, and vehicle classes on offer were also to the game’s credit, alongside an excellent damage model. With that game still a very, very playable affair some five years later, the hype surrounding the build up to the release of Grid 2 was – for once – well deserved.
And initially, it looks like Codemasters have delivered exactly what gamers were waiting for. Grid 2 is effectively two entire games. One is an offline experience where fictional investor Patrick Callahan headhunts you to convince various racing clubs from around the world to join his fledgling World Racing Series, by beating them at their own game. The other, is an online mode where you begin with an all but empty garage, and have to compete with other online racers in a variety of race types in order to build up your level, purchase new vehicles, and tweak the ones that you already have.
One of these modes is entirely successful. The other is not. Can you guess which is which?
Well, we’ll break the suspense for you. Offline, Grid 2 is a fantastic game that looks absolutely beautiful, handles like the most fun dream you’ve ever had, and provides a real challenge. Aside from going up against the different racing clubs, promotional events such as overtake challenges and standalone time attacks are available, and vehicle challenges give you the opportunity to win new rides. The difficulty curves are set just right here, and as you progress through the game, you’ll find that those easy wins are turning into head-and-head battles for any sort of podium finish. This of course, means that the game is beautifully rewarding – unless of course, you’re the type of person that cries whenever they don’t win.
Somewhat fortuitously, this leads us to the online portion of the game.
The actual structure of Grid 2 online is outstanding, and there’s something here for everyone. If you don’t want to actually race against people, you can battle against players on your friends list in high-score-style challenges, which reset each week. If you do, then your first destination is liable to be the Online Playlist. Here, you’re thrown into a party of up to twelve people, and the game – as you’d expect – rolls through different race types, car classes, and courses on an infinite loop. This is fine, but once you get on the track, you’ve probably a 10% chance of having an enjoyable experience. The fatal flaw is that in every playlist race mode – even time attack – collisions are enabled. If you’re a very, very good player who starts at the front of the pack, there’s no problem. For the 99% of us though, the whole thing is a bit of a mess. The relative ease with which cars spin out of control means that the lightest bit of contact can have you spinning across the track – and that’s something that hasn’t passed the more dim-witted of the Xbox Live player base by. Drift events where there’s no advantage in crossing the line first turn into nothing but avoidance races, where superbly intelligent people with names like “BongWaterXXX” and “SuperGhostKillah3992” have nothing else in mind other than ramming you into a wall over and over. They don’t care if they finish 11th. Just as long as you cross the line in 12th. Races are generally all but over by the time you get to the first corner. If you get away unscathed, you’ll probably end up on the podium. If you don’t, you’ll be at the back of the pack, getting smashed and spun all over the track every time you dare to brake so that you can take any subsequent corners properly.
There are also a few bugs to be found online. A rolling start at the sumptuous Yas Marinas course sees you starting with a damaged vehicle, as the game throws you into a wall whilst you don’t have control of the car, for example. Touge events unfairly disqualify you for – ironically enough – causing a collision, when the opponent has quite clearly just caved the back portion of your car in as you were slowing to get around a 90 degree bend. In a few cases, we’ve seen players disqualified before a race has even begun, only for them to then show up twice on the results list. How about that “quick reset” button for when your car spins out of control and you want to get back on course? Hit it, and half of the time your vehicle will be reset to a point where you’re drifting into a wall with no hope of recovering. Minor niggles also detract from the experience too. Why are there no split times in time attack, for example? This is a mode which is entirely dependent on setting the quickest lap times, but you can’t tell how you’re doing in comparison to the opposition, until you’ve actually finished a lap. Come on, now, that’s just fundamental.
Don’t misunderstand us here – if you’re lucky enough to get put into a decent group of players who are interested in actual competition, or you find a full complement of 11 opponents who are playing a custom event with collisions turned off, Grid 2 is a fantastic online experience. Winning money which you can use to upgrade your cars gives you a genuine reason to keep on playing, over and above just raising your win count. You’ll fight to shave milliseconds off your lap time, and take part in some real racing that ends in the tightest of photo finishes. The only problem is that this perfect scenario happens so rarely that you probably won’t stick around long enough to ever experience it.
Fortunately, the single player mode is meaty enough to mean that for most, this won’t really matter all that much. Some will baulk at the fact that there’s considerably less open-wheel racing on offer than there was last time around, although bombing around Brands Hatch, the aforementioned Yas Marinas, and the Indianapolis circuits in any car is always good fun. The handling model is still as fun and rewarding as it was before too, and you can get away with a fair bit of less-than-perfect driving just by throwing the back end out a little more than you should. It has to be said that losing control of the car is a lot easier than in the debut title though, so when you do get your racing line all kinds of wrong and attempt to drift a corner, you’ll need a decent amount of skill to stop from going into a flat spin. But with practice, you’ll learn exactly what you can get away with.
Each vehicle features ever so slightly different nuances when it comes to handling, so you can have two cars rated exactly the same in all areas, and find that you prefer one over the other. Effectively, this is personalisation in full effect, and it means that the Volkswagen Golf R that you’ve tuned to the maximum and given a slick paintjob suddenly becomes “My Golf” as opposed to just another on-screen pile of metal and aggression. This sort of thing adds to Grid 2’s charm, and even though more skilled players will blast through all of the single player goals in relatively short order, you’ll be drawn in enough to genuinely want to go back and try to get the winners’ trophy in every possible event.
Graphically, Grid 2 really gets the job done, too. The courses really feel as if they’re set in the cities that they’re supposed to be set in, mainly thanks to some great trackside detail and some very, very accomplished lighting effects. Powering around Barcelona in a McLaren MP4 feels as you’d imagine powering round Barcelona in a McLaren MP4 would do, and utilising the pure grunt of a Dodge Challenger to get around the Miami hills is nothing short of racing perfection. At times, you’ll long for weather effects beyond that great lighting, though. An overcast Parisian sky threatens rain within the next minute or two, but it never comes – and that’s a bit of a downer, especially when you consider how brilliantly the rain was implemented in another Codemasters title, F1 2013.
A good portion of Grid 2 is frustrating, bordering on the point of being unplayable. You can join custom races online with collisions turned off, but far fewer racers are available to compete against. We hope that changes. Even if it doesn't though, Grid 2 is still an essential purchase for any racing game fan. The offline modes are so strong, so playable, so close to perfection, and so ridiculously addictive, that you’ll be begging for more once you’ve won every cup and every trophy that you can win.
With the first Grid being such a compelling game, we were expecting great things of Grid 2. Initially, it appears to have brought us all that we wanted and more, but were the online side of things implemented with more thought as to who the likely audience would be, this very, very good game could – and should - have been a true great. With that said, what remains is still a very, very good game.