Think back to the racing games of mid-2008. Forza Motorsport 2 was the only entry available for the Xbox 360, Criterion Games had yet to swoop in to save the Need for Speed franchise (although they had just released the fantastic Burnout Paradise), Midnight Club: Los Angeles would not be out until the end of the year and Gran Turismo 5 was a big mystery to the entire world. If you wanted a racing game with real vehicles in it, there was little to choose from.
This perfect storm allowed for British studio Codemasters to roll the dice on a title that was as exhilarating as it was refreshing when they launched Grid in May-June of 2008. Codemasters had garnered a reputation for churning out a steady stream of racing games that presented themselves as simulators, but had the accessibility of an arcade styled racer. At the time, they were primarily known for their Colin McRae Rally and their TOCA Race Driver series’. The studio was enjoying a period of success after their re-envisioned Colin McRae Rally series had a solid launch under the Dirt moniker. Taking their engine from Dirt, Codemasters refined it for track racing and renamed it their EGO engine which would be used in Grid, the successor to the TOCA Race Driver series.
What is striking about Grid is how dynamic everything about it is. From the way the cars handle, the careful navigation between rival drivers, to the gorgeous lighting effects from day to night and even how the menus are surprisingly alive. Everything in Grid feels like it was done with incredible purpose, to really pull the player into their world.
The core of the game is centered around the Grid World career mode where you start as the prototypical unknown racer looking to climb the world rankings. In Grid World you are tasked with not only skillful driving and winning events, but managing the specifics of your team from vehicle purchases and event participation to sponsor and teammate management, with each choice playing a pivotal role in how much your team can potentially win.
The races in Grid World are divided up into three regions; United States, Europe and Japan. Each region has events that cater to their particular racing styles. The US has muscle car races and demolition derbies, Europe has touring cars and Japan features pro tuning and drift racing. There is even a bit of open wheeled racing included. But the dominating event of Grid World is clearly its focus on Grand Touring events where the flashiest supercars go head to head with each other in a variety of race classes.
Winning events earns you points to progress through Grid World seasons and ultimately to the Grid World championship. Event wins also net new sponsorships who provide bonus payouts if certain criteria are met. Sponsor criteria can range from finishing a race in first place with no damage to just crossing the finish line in (mostly) one piece.
Your teammate is also affected by the same sponsorship parameters so it would be foolish to load up on first place bonuses. Your teammate driver can hail from a number of countries (mine is Japanese and as such has a Japanese accent) and each has their own salary and event participation cut. Each potential teammate is graded on attributes like consistency and technique. Additionally, your teammate will excel in a particular racing discipline. My teammate is great in Pro Tuning races (Japanese circuit), but is awful at American muscle cars. This can be a bit of a burden because event points are distributed to a team, not just the individual driver. You can win a bunch of 20 point races but still be hobbled by your 12th place teammate.
As you participate in events you will have constant communication from your team manager, spotter and teammate. Your manager will give you general advice on what to expect from events and the subtle nuances of making decisions for the team. Your spotter will chat you up on the radio during races to inform you of crashes during the race, how serious any damage you may have suffered and encourage you to keep climbing through the field. Lastly, your teammate has a simple task of informing you where he is, he is a fantastic to have right behind you as a blocker and he will let you know when he is nearby or if he has had bad luck in a race.
As it turns out, bad luck happens often in this game. The opening lap is often a like navigating an asteroid field with a chaotic group of racers scrambling for better driving lines. The result is a lot of fender bender collisions, tapping others into walls and spectacular spin outs. Shattering debris and car parts will litter the track with bumpers and spoilers to provide a little extra challenge as the races progress. And much like the Dirt series, it is easy to suffer a race ending crash.
Thankfully, Grid introduced the Flashback system, which allowed the player to rewind their progress to before a violent crash or poorly navigated corner and resume play from there. Today, not only has the Flashback feature jumped to the Dirt series, but in a showing of imitation being the most sincere compliment, Forza Motorsport added their own version of Flashback in Rewind.
But what truly sets Grid apart is their season feature of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Every season of Grid World wraps up with the opportunity to race in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Just being able to tackle this highly technical track while three distinctly different car class compete simultaneously is an amazing experience. You might think that your Porsche 911 GT3 RSR is fast, but wait till it gets lapped by the Audi R10 TDI. The race has shows the off the incredible lighting of Grid as at cycles from day to night with each time period posing a bit of a different challenge. Sunset is hazy and difficult to see in, midnight is completely dark with nothing but the signage and headlights to navigate by and sunrise glares into your windshield, effectively blinding you on a number of corners. The race is typically accelerated to a 12 minute race (complete with 12 minute day/night cycle), but there is an option to freely race for the full 24 hours (with several other time options as well).
The driving experience in Grid is something that even today I find exciting. Each car has a distinct weight and power to it, with no car taking a corner the same way as the next. Some will have a propensity to oversteer when exiting a corner if the throttle isn’t controlled properly, others will go skittering off into the wall. Even the open wheeled racers have an incredible feel to them, they are fast and lightweight, but stop so quickly that you can allow yourself to drive with a bit of aggression. Just don’t be too reckless with those F3 cars, as they will disintegrate with any significant impact.
When Grid came out five years ago, there was nothing really like it. Here was a predominantly circuit racing game with its roots firmly entrenched as a simulator, but with simplicity of play like an arcade racer. It was a delicate balance that few have been able to match. Gran Turismo clearly has no interest in such a game. Forza Motorsport only just touched the subject with Horizon. Even Need for Speed took cues from Grid by making its Shift sub-series. Codemasters struck gold with Grid and I firmly believe it is the most under-appreciated racing games of this generation. To this day it plays well and is just as exciting as I remember it.
One thing I have to point out was Grid was probably the first game that I truly embraced cockpit view. The option was available in several games before it, but the sense of speed and adrenaline in Grid’s cockpit view was something I adored and use as a measuring stick for other racing games today. It is my adoration for the cockpit view that I am truly heartbroken that it won’t be making an appearance in Grid 2. But design choices aside, Codemasters has a reputable pedigree for racing games and I am ripe with anticipation for Grid 2 to launch next week.
8.5/10 As exciting as racing games can be, Grid manages to achieve a remarkable balance between simulation and arcade racing. It remains a gorgeous game to look at and it certainly is worth a look at the inexpensive price it sits at today.