As this console generation slowly begins to wind down, we start to think about the best games in various genres. We all have lists of our favorite first-person shooters, RPGs, fighters, etc. The racing genre is filled with a lot of stellar examples from the past eight years, with titles like Burnout Paradise, DiRT 3, Forza 3 and 4, and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. One title that I don't hear mentioned in the same breath is Grid, which was developed by Codemasters and released five years ago.
The original Grid did well with critics and players, but while it was a competent racer, there wasn't a whole lot that was remarkable about it in comparison to the best titles in the racing genre. In retrospect, Grid didn't do anything wrong, but it didn't do enough to set itself apart from other titles, and it also tried to blend realistic racing with arcade style controls. While the title enjoyed some popularity when it released, the positive word of mouth seemed to drop off quickly. I was pretty surprised to hear that a follow-up was planned, especially considering how much time had passed since the initial release.
Grid 2 was recently released for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. The version up for review is on the Xbox 360, but a quick comparison between this and the PS3 version didn't reveal any major differences beyond some very negligible variations in image quality. The PC version of the game is the way to go if you're concerned about how good the game looks, but if you're primarily a console gamer, the Xbox 360 iteration stacks up well to the PS3, making either option viable.
Grid 2 still tries to ride the fence between sim and arcade style without excelling at either. There seems to be more emphasis on drifting than standard road and track racing, but while the track design in Grid 2 seems to favor arcade-style handling from the vehicles, there's a lot of initial trial and error that goes into making the drift system work well. The initial track, for instance, is filled with curves and tight corners that seem to emphasis drifting, but I often careened around corners too quickly, not being able to compensate for the next turn. Instead, taking my time around curves benefited my progress more often than not, making what should have been a fun track a lot less exciting.
As you progress through the single-player mode, which is called World Racing Series, you'll find that the opponent A.I. is also far too aggressive but doesn't suffer from the massive penalties that hamper you when colliding with other objects. The slightest impact with a wall or rock outcropping can cause your car to take significant airtime, often flipping over and forcing a quick restart to the last track position. Losing any significant portion of time, even on a five-lap race, can be a death knell if you want a place on the podium. Grid 2 offers up a rewind feature that's somewhat standard for racing games nowadays, but I'd prefer to have some more precise controls instead.
There's a hefty amount of "rubber-banding" that goes on when you lead the pack, so you don't get the benefit of a hefty lead for quality driving. On the flip side, catching up to the leader of the pack is a cumbersome race against the clock when the pack boxes you out on every turn, requiring you to often smash into opposing vehicles in an effort to gain ground and hope that you don't go careening off-course in the process.
The single-player portion of Grid 2 is densely packed with events, all structured around your character's desire to create a new competitive racing series for pros. There are some light story elements involved between your driver and the game narrator, who doubles as the event organizer. New vehicles are doled out slowly, but there's enough difference between each vehicle that you feel the reward is significant, if infrequent. Every vehicle is taken from the real world, featuring notable car manufacturers both domestic and foreign. There are also some hefty livery options for customization, but the auto aesthetics don't provide any other effects or benefits.
In addition to competing in events, you'll be tasked with special objectives from the sponsors. Completing objectives can lead to more fans, which serve as an in-game experience meter. Building more fans leads to more events, more racing series, and more tracks. The initial group of tracks varies in quality, but as you advance, the overall track design improves greatly. Again, progression feels a little sluggish at first; you'll see a lot of repeats when racing between the initial tracks, but patience pays off when you hit the halfway point.
Visually, Grid 2 won't qualify as the best-looking racer on the Xbox 360, but it's no slouch, either. I'm a bigger fan of the tracks than the vehicles, which look pretty detailed in the surrounding environments and the beautiful-looking skyboxes above. I wish the weather were more of a factor, so there could be more variety than just flipping the tracks backward. Overall, Grid 2 is a pretty game, just not wow-inducing. The audio, however, is completely forgettable. There are some musical selections that I assume are original, but not a single tune sticks in my mind for more than a few seconds after playing. On the plus side, the narration is never obtrusive, and what little speech is featured sounds professional and non-grating.
Outside of the single-player World Racing Series, there are a handful of multiplayer modes in Grid 2. The standard multiplayer on Xbox Live is divided into two playlists, featuring regular races of various laps and lengths, and events that include drift challenges, timed events, and face-off events that transition from the single-player portion. There's also a playlist that combines both of these playlists in a random order, with player veto options for event type and track.
The multiplayer is completely separate from the single-player portion when it comes to progression, featuring its own leveling and experience system and available vehicles. The cars you can own and drive are divided into four classes, and they can be customized in appearance and upgrades to engines, handling, and transmission. Upgrades can bump a vehicle up to another tier — or down a tier, if you remove previously installed upgrades. Cash for doing either is also earned by participating in races and events.
Online progression is pretty slow, unless you're able to compete with the established top-tier drivers who are dominating the online space. Also, you'll run into a mix of people who actually want to play the game and folks who prefer to play a variation of demolition derby. There's not much to control the onslaught of online trolls, which is unfortunate because it only takes one disruptive player to ruin a race.
Also contained in the multiplayer portion of Grid 2 are challenge events, which are essentially single-player races and events that are tied into Codemasters' RaceNet service. You can enroll in the online service and post your best times or scores via Grid 2 when completing events. Rival leaderboards show how you stack up to others on your friends list. This aspect is implemented well throughout both the single-player and multiplayer portions of the game, and your experience is enhanced by an active friends list.
Grid 2's online side also works well on a technical level, with few issues regarding lag or bad rolling starts that have plagued some other online racers. I was never inexplicably dropped from the game, and Codemasters' RaceNet service isn't nearly as faulty or unreliable as other publisher services. The only real negative is that progression is pretty slow, both with experience and cash. With most players online topping out at max level now, you'll have a rough time trying to access cars and parts that will make you competitive.
I enjoyed Grid 2, but much like its predecessor, little about the experience was remarkable or noteworthy when compared to other racers. This is hardly a title that you'll need to drop what you're currently enjoying to check out, but it's something that I'd suggest purchasing when it drops in price. It's certainly worth a rental or demo, just to give you a taste of what Grid 2 brings to the table. Even though Codemasters is one of the better racing developers on the market, I'd rather see it spend more time with other established properties, like DiRT.
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