For the record, you people are lucky this review even exists.
I have attempted to write this review at least a dozen times. Every time, my mind wanders to just how I'll describe the experience. It's around that time that I long for continuing that experience, rather than simply cranking out a thousand words about it.
This is attempt number 13, and my Xbox 360 is unplugged. Let's see where this goes.
The box that encases every copy of Race Driver: GRID gives off the image of it being a driving game. While it does not lie, it does not tell nearly the whole truth. Yes, GRID is a driving game, that much is certain. It is a sim-leaning, and very demanding, driving game. However, it's also a role-playing game, a team-management game, a financial simulator, and a fantasy career pressed onto a disc. GRID is to driving games, both as Madden is to sports games, and Ninja Gaiden is to action games. It demands so much of the player to succeed, yet it is fashioned in such a way that you almost never feel as if anything is beyond your control or capability. It manages to be all things to all people, and for that, it deserves your applause, your time, and your money.
In GRID, you will start out as just a driver and a name, and race for other teams so that you can grab enough cash to refurbish a Mustang and create your own team. From there on is where the game truly starts, as you race for reputation, huge wads of cash, sponsors, partnerships and overall glory. Touring car races, Formula 1 speedouts, circuit races, drift contests, demolition derbies, the Le Mans — if there's a type of race that's been invented, odds are you'll get to experience it in GRID, with largely positive results.
This is all doubly surprising considering that GRID's pedigree is known for making some of the most obtuse racing games in existence. Codemasters has been undergoing a period of reinvention with its franchises, and while DiRT was most definitely a step in the right direction, it is here with GRID that their efforts truly pay off. This is due to a large number of welcome concessions to people who, for some reason or another, just weren't blessed with college degrees in car physics.
As mentioned before, GRID is a driving game that leans toward the simulation side. Simply holding down the accelerator and braking every once in a while isn't going to cut it if you want to win any races in this game. GRID features full analog acceleration and deceleration steering via the trigger buttons. The right trigger (which controls acceleration) will only ever be fully depressed when on a straightaway, and even then, for only seconds at a time. At all other times, you will be subtly nudging the trigger, micromanaging your speed output. Realism demands things like that.
This does mean a couple of things, however. It means that the drifting contest in this title isn't as fun as in other games. It requires strange timing and overuse of the emergency brake to succeed, making initial drifts really tough, and drift combos more so. It's no Need for Speed: ProStreet in this regard, much less Outrun 2006 (which contains, bar none, the most fun drifts ever in a video game).
This also means that off-road is sort of a nightmare. When your car's tearing down the asphalt, you can at least get your bearings quickly. The second you go onto the dirt, the game becomes … well, DiRT. Get ready to spin out like crazy, and trade any position you were holding for dead last! Again, probably great for realism, but all it did for me was lead to a whole bunch of restarts, and as a result, I spent the least amount of my time on the European circuit (where there are the most off-road containing tracks). You may fare better than I do, but that's still part of the game's beauty — if there's a certain type of race you'd prefer to avoid, GRID will usually let you avoid it without rendering you "stuck" in the game. It also pays you money even if you come in dead last, so that you make at least some progress. Finish in better places, however, and you'll get extra cash both from the race and your sponsors, so there's incentive to practice.
Speaking of restarts and race variety, they are only a couple of the concessions for gamers who just want to experience the joy of racing without hang-ups. Another is the difficulty settings that actually affect the AI drivers' skill. On Basic (where, admittedly, I spent most of my time), the AI drivers have faults, slow down on curves, and sometimes make mistakes that end in pileups. Even on this difficulty, it becomes a practice in precise thread-needling, and you feel like an expert once you manage to carefully weave through the opposition to snag the gold. On the higher difficulties, you have to be more skillful on turns, and having faster cars helps too. Fortunately, higher cash and reputation point payouts await those who are up to the challenge.
This is, of course, to say nothing of the new Flashback feature, which is pretty much a godsend for a game like this. You're given a certain amount of "Flashback Tokens" per race, which allow you to rewind the action, Prince of Persia style. This allows you to come back from a nasty race-ending crash, fine-tune a turn, or even take a limited number of high-speed risks, which, in turn, heightens the racing excitement without breaking the game.
It's not just the thrill of speed where GRID sucks you into its world, but the large amount of detailed environments. GRID doesn't waste much CPU power on your driver or even your car models, but everything else gets the royal treatment. Asphalt, trees, cities — all of them are convincing. The fans themselves are also a bit on the low-poly side, but there are so many of them and you cruise by them so fast that you don't even notice this unless you pause the game. Either way, they carry a positive effect.
The game ups the atmosphere with its ambience; the music is quite nice, though it shows up less often than I'd like — still, it knows just when to play what it has. Suspenseful music kicks in when you're a lap away from the finish line and in a high position, victory music is suitable for rocking out, and the garage music is quite relaxing after a hectic race.
As for the voices, you'll definitely want to keep them on this time around (unlike with DiRT). Your business manager and race partner call you by name, walk you through the management aspects of the game, and are helpful for telling you what's going on in races. Did an opponent just spin out, making him easy to overtake? Your partner will let you know about it.
After a good amount of thought, I'm not so quick to label Race Driver: GRID as "the perfect racing game," but it's definitely one of the best on the market ever made, and it is the perfect example of compromise between the two divisions of the genre. It's forgiving enough for arcade-style players to get into, yet challenging and rewarding enough to make them want to get better, while not leaving them stuck in one place. Sim nuts, naturally, will be quite pleased as well. I don't say things like this often, but if you play only one racing game this year, it really should be GRID. It absolutely has to be experienced to be believed.
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