Codemasters' original Race Driver: Grid was -- and still is -- a pinnacle of automobile racing games. Back when it was released in 2008, I spent literally hundreds of hours with the game trying to rack up cars, medals, sponsors, and good teammates.
From its excellent utilization of a very real cockpit view to the smart implementation of teammates that you could choose to hire or fire, the game took on sim racing with a slightly more arcade approach. Races were fantastic and exciting, but you needed some real skill to truly progress through the game's lengthy main campaign.
Fast forward to present day, and Codemasters has finally heard the clamor of fans like myself and responded with a sequel to its shining star.
Unfortunately, the cries for a true champion seem to have gotten loss in the noise for a quick and dirty 'sequel' that barely gives a nod to its predecessor.
GRID 2 (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Codemasters Southam
Released: May 28, 2013 (NA) / May 31, 2013 (EU) / July 25, 2013 (JP)
On the surface, Grid 2 is still a beautiful race for the finish line with hot cars and plenty of thrilling matches against aggressive AI opponents that will give as good as they take.
Unfortunately, beyond these surface details, the actual game suffers deeply from sequel-itis. Ignoring the glaring issue of a complete lack of cockpit view for the time being, there are many other smaller problems with Grid 2 that surmount to something that falls way short of what the first game even aspired to be.
The first thing one has to understand about this game is that it follows more closely in the footsteps of Dirt 3 -- or even the series spin-off Dirt Showdown -- with all pomp and circumstance, and then notches up the douchiness just a bit more to really get on any gamer's nerves. Instead of having the game narrated by managers who give constructive criticism and generally have a positive vibe, you're left with a middle manager of your promoter, the mysterious Patrick Callahan, who might as well be the Illusive Man for all of his underling's dickishness. Your narrator relishes in taking credit for your wins, talks creepily about how he can't wait to get into your new car, and admonishes you for a 'mistake' even when it has actually helped you out in your race.
The biggest issue with this new narrator is that he is implemented sloppily -- he's inconsistent and unhelpful throughout. In one race, he told me more than three times that my front wheel was damaged and thus I would have performance issues, even as I crossed the finish line in first. In the next race as I drove my vehicle like a bumper car against guard rails, he was mysteriously silent until he spouted a generic line about getting ahead of the pack early.
In fact, the narrator will even spout lines more suitable to a completely different event, such as telling you to get ahead of the pack when you're the only one in a time trial race. Between this shitty, inconsistent narrator and lazy interface issues that show all of your opponent drivers saying the exact same thing about the next race, the game reeks of a certain kind of laziness that its predecessor would not dream of attempting.
Another example of how Grid 2 seems to want to destroy your enjoyment of it comes from the fans in each race except for the World Series Race events. I can't count the number of times I took a sharp turn and noticed that the cardboard cutout fans all seemed to be incredibly bored with anything around them, at times not even facing the track and on their cell phones. I guess this was supposed to be a nod towards realism, but it's the wrong kind of realism as it destroys the whole idea of playing games for escapism where you're supposed to be the rising star, not some asshole on a race track that's being promoted by an even bigger asshole.
The noises from the fans themselves are outright bizarre, and I could swear that around just about every other curve was the drunk chick from Family Guy, yelling out a very inebriated "WOOOooOoooo!" I'm not really sure why the fans are as terrible as they are besides a certain kind of cynicism, as the game doesn't rely on winning actual currency but instead garnering social currency, and even at beyond four million fans it seemed like many of my races still had a lot of bored, terrible people.
Before the game was released, the new "Liveroutes" system was touted as something fresh and original, an idea that had never been introduced in racing games before. The thought behind this new system of randomized turns in the tracks of certain races was that it would truly test your reflexes and skills as a racer. While I actually did enjoy the Liveroutes racing during my time with Grid 2, I found it to be the easiest event to complete throughout. Even up until the late game I was able to get several seconds ahead of the second-place opponent long before the race ended.
At first, I figured it was because I've gotten relatively skilled behind the virtual wheel -- but as I lost tragically to events in other disciplines, I started to get a feeling that the whole Liveroutes thing was still a bit undercooked. I'm not sure whether it was Codemasters' intention to make the AI during these races become dumber to appear to be more 'real' or whether they actually do struggle more with randomized tracks, but in any case, the biggest disappointment I had with the new system was that it didn't really challenge me in the same way other events did.
And speaking of the other events, while the one big positive I can say about Grid 2 is that the races are generally still pretty solid and fun, the difficulty curve is all over the place, even within the same discipline. This was also present in the first game, but with so many choices then, the player had a lot of agency to practice or skip certain events altogether until he or she was skilled enough to move on.
Here, the first three seasons of races move in a very linear fashion, forcing you to beat a race in a certain discipline before opening up the series. This becomes a barrier to entry for races that aren't even necessarily as challenging as the first race in the first discipline. When the game introduces Togue, that first race is a complete shift in difficulty from earlier races and I nearly threw my controller through the TV screen in frustration at the sudden change. Imagine my surprise when I finally mastered it and decided to try the next Togue event for shits and giggles, only to realize that it was a cake-walk compared to that first one, and not because of my own improved abilities.
Further expounding this issue is the unfairness of the AI drivers. While I actually love aggressive driving and really dug the first Grid for the way it was implemented within the spectacle-filled races, I really hate what they've done with it in this game. The drivers now find the absolute cheapest moments to take you out, and their vehicles are ALWAYS heavier than yours, even when you're driving a muscle car and they're in a dinky formula one-type go-kart.
I spent hours in several races attempting to repeat the exact same move that a driver pulled on me to destroy my race, only to see myself ping-ponging off the other car's tank-like exterior. I believe it was only once that I actually managed to take down another car, though I took myself down in the process. The car even flipped and as I watched him disappear helplessly in my rear-view mirror, through some black magic he got back on the track and caught up to me, only to take me out of the race completely just before the finish line.
Of course, I have to also mention the lack of cockpit view and how it affects the game, because no matter what Codemasters might argue, it changes everything in a fundamental way. The lack of that view from behind the steering wheel really kills the realism of the first game. While hood view is a tolerable enough substitution, for some reason the developers decided to make just about every car hood incredibly shiny and reflective (despite whatever paint job the car has), so that EVERY LITTLE THING is reflected on the car hood.
While it's a very pretty idea for a tech demo, in an actual race it is incredibly distracting and doesn't really add anything useful to the game. Added to this is a much floatier handling in just about every vehicle, whether they're balanced or drift vehicles. The game plays a lot more like a Need For Speed/Ridge Racer hybrid than its own roots, and though it makes for a more accessible game, it also disappoints with its further lack of simulation.
When the dust settles, Grid 2 serves as a solid enough racing game with generally strong opponent AI. What it does not serve as is a worthy successor to the first game -- instead offering a stripped-down version of itself that is filled with lazy design, unfair AI opponents, special ESPN 'live' broadcasts that no one really asked for, and to top it all off, its bizarrely irritating narrator and loudly drunk or completely apathetic fans. If this is what racing in the modern age is, maybe it's time to hang up the helmet and find another hobby.