It’s been five years since Codemasters’ acclaimed Race Driver: Grid hit the stores, a revolution of flashy visuals and an amalgamation of arcade-style driving mixed with driving sim elements. The EGO engine is onto its fourth iteration now, and has worked wonders with the visual elements of Grid 2, but is the entertaining spark of the original still there?
Opting for a more immersive storyline than many of its rivals, Grid 2's single-player mode is encapsulated in the WSR (World Series Racing) league, the fictional brainchild of the equally fictional Patrick Callahan who has enlisted you to help it achieve prominence by gaining fans and encouraging different global racing clubs to join you. Before the WSR kicks off, you're pushed through a welcoming tutorial section which has you racing against these clubs whilst learning the game mechanics. It doesn't feel forced and it is an enjoyable introduction to the game, especially for newbies to the genre.
You gain fans by completing races and other challenges and an array of these are available to you from the outset. They range from Vehicle Challenges which include time trials and reward you with new cars for completion, to Sponsor objectives that offer you additional fans in return for completing tasks such as finishing ahead of specific drivers or drifting for a set length of time. Endurance races also feature, but the label is a little misleading given that most are only around the five minute mark. Overtaking challenges are more fun, with a multiplier offering more points for getting past vehicles within a short timescale but resetting if you hit a wall (or, more likely, the vehicle you are overtaking).
When you've built up enough fans the WSR launches and you'll be pitted against other drivers in a league system, bracketed by notably authentic ESPN SportsCentre segments which review your performance and offer a measure of narrative that gives Grid 2 more purpose than its stoic and often sterile competitors. As the league builds, so too does the racing landscape and you will move from Nissans and Chargers to Alfa Romeos and Mercs as the brand is picked up across Europe.
The sense of progress feels real, but is let down slightly by the limited number of tracks you get to race on. Codemasters have dropped the ball in this regard, which is a real surprise given the pedigree they have established in their two other racing franchises: F1 and DiRT. A dozen more tracks would have offered far more replayability, but it feels as though this has been jettisoned in favour of LiveRoutes, a new feature which dynamically builds tracks on the fly. It isn't as successful as one would hope, with some cruel turns being created at the last minute to scupper your lead. Fortunately, the AI is excellent and reacts to the tracks in as realistic a manner as you could hope. Trailing cars will aggressively try to overtake you - and in some cases, ram you - whilst lead cars make understandable mistakes on turns, rather than ploughing the familiar route of near-perfect driving combined with ridiculous last minute cock-ups that has persisted throughout the genre.
The cars themselves can be customised with the usual range of paint jobs, so making a pimpin' ride with flick paint and red alloys is as simple as moving a couple of sliders. All very well, but how do they drive? The answer is "solidly", with some models requiring more delicate manoeuvring than others to navigate tight corners, whilst others react better to full on brake-and-slide handling. Drifting is an important part of the game and the cars you come to know best will ultimately be the ones that you are competent at navigating around hairpins and sharp turns. They are weighty beasts and look the part too, with some superb hi-res textures at play on and off the track. Flashy editing and communications from the big boss via text message make off-track antics enjoyable and interesting - although they may feel somewhat dated in a few years' time - and the interface is slick and intuitive. Flashback makes a return from the first game, allowing you a limited number of chances to rewind and retry the moment you overshot a corner. It means that races feel much fairer and don’t require a restart during crucial races if you happen to sneeze or take your eye off the track when your cat jumps onto your lap. Add to the mix a number of difficulty levels and the option to make the damage you receive on track visual rather than full, and you have a game that caters to all skill sets.
Gorgeous visuals aren't confined to the vehicles though. Codemasters have created a vibrant set of courses to race on from Chicago to Tokyo, each with their own personality. Newspapers flutter across the road, roadside crowds cheer and take photographs, and lonely mountain paths open out onto breathtaking vistas. It's almost too interesting, and you would be forgiven for losing sight of the race as you get distracted passing by yet another graphical wonder. Audio fares just as well, with booming engines adding even more meat to the already imposing cars. Things are toned down for the menus and off-track moments, striking a good balance between bombast and elegance. A modicum of controversy surrounded Codemasters' decision to remove the cockpit view, with Codemasters claiming that only five percent of players used it. Bumper and bonnet cams are available, but those who want to fully immerse themselves in the driver’s seat, however small that number is, will be disappointed. Less forgivable are the occasional glitches that mar the experience such as leading cars that disappear and end up behind you as you approach them, or game freezes during multiplayer set-up.
Multiplayer comes in split-screen and online flavours, but has been given a separate progression route to single-player allowing you and eleven friends to set up your own league and grade each other on your paint job style, or lack thereof. Unlike single-player mode, you can purchase new cars for cash which are unlocked as you progress with the added bonus of having the majority of the single-player aspects lifted in their entirety to the online mode.
Like its predecessor, Grid 2 offers a pleasing mix of driving sim and arcade racer and is accessible to seasoned veterans and tarmac newbies alike. It’s an evolution which doesn’t take many risks, instead opting to refine and polish the original game to a glistening sheen, but doesn’t do it to the game’s detriment. The streamlining of the first game may cause consternation amongst fans of the franchise, but other than a sense of repetition in the later stages due to a lack of track variety, there’s plenty to enjoy here.