As far as racing games go, I consider Codemasters and Turn 10 kings of the motorsport scene. While Turn 10’s Forza franchise became my go-to simulator during Gran Turismo 5’s extended development, Codemasters’ Dirt and Grid series deliver the unreal depictions of arcade speed I desperately crave. Few titles realize my boyhood fantasies of flying down crowded city straights before kicking on the emergency brake and launching into a tightly executed, tire-squealing drift. Grid 2 continues that rubber-burning power trip, even if this sequel stalls at the finish line.
By Codemasters’ standards, Grid 2 is their most aspiring narrative. Players begin as a – wait for it – burgeoning driver, a yet undiscovered talent that gets the shot of a lifetime when videos of his first big win go viral on YouTube. Wealthy entrepreneur and petrolhead Patrick Callahan has plans for the sport’s future: World Series Racing, a league that combines all non-rally disciplines – head-to-head, drift, time attack, eliminator, and many more – into one. But first Patrick needs you, his golden goose, to get the premier racing fraternities across the U.S., Europe, and Asia to sign off on the project.
With five seasons to achieve that dream, players will build the league's credibility and surpass drivers of global acclaim, though Codemasters deprives the story of notable opportunities. Instead of earning money for podium finishes, you gain fans; the more fans following you, the more events unlocked. (Vehicles come free of charge.) While I was keen on the idea of ESPN broadcasts and social media sites encouraging me to hit that apex sooner, beat that lap time, or dodge that massive pileup, players have no interaction with the fanbase tweeting their virtual usernames, reading fake interviews, or applauding from the tracks' sidelines. Grid 2 squanders potential in a genre looking for its next big hook.
You'll have to work your way up from the minor leagues before Koenigsegg or Bugatti let you test their toys.
Consequently, I still prefer Grid’s campaign. Grid 2’s fans are the equivalent of your reputation from the last game: another artificial goal for gating progress. With Grid, at least the sensation of building a team from scratch was there, starting you as a rookie motorist saving small-time sponsor cash to purchase your first ride. Furthermore, you had some direction over your team when hiring co-drivers, accepting rivals' challenges, buying and selling cars on eBay, and skipping championships like Le Mans. In Grid 2, the management is done for you, and your fan club is just another gimmick.
That does not mean Grid 2 completely crashes and burns. The arcade physics combine loose controls and sharp turns that could snap necks from sheer G-force, balancing an accessible handling compromise between Forza and Need for Speed with the new TrueFeel system. The developers reproduce the nauseating speed wobbles of Camaros pushing 150 miles per hour, and you can still slide a Mach 1 Mustang around corners while pinning the throttle, but you will struggle to keep the beast's exceptional weight under control during the ensuing drift.
Also, players no longer need to check their rear-view mirrors every ten seconds for the belligerent AI. Previously, competitors would plow into you for no benefit beyond costing you the race. In Grid 2, your computer-controlled adversaries have been neutered significantly. Although they may spin out, wreck each other, or adapt their own racing lines – giving the game a less mechanical feel – they are more conscious of your presence, and hesitate to put their cars out of commission early.
Grid 2 features the series' first night races.
The computer will give you no quarter, however, while you learn the ins and outs of each track. From California’s forested, coastal highways to Japan’s steep mountain circuits to Chicago’s industrial streets, each win is a testament to how well one masters those hairpins. And players will need every ounce of concentration for LiveRoute events, which remove the minimap and randomize the road ahead, sealing off and reopening paths previously traveled down. It is not truly dynamic – some virtual trickery does go on without the minimap – but without a proper braking line, speed demons must keep their eyes on the speedometer and the turns ahead, as that bend you normally enter at 100 miles per hour becomes a death trap when pushing 50.
You are guaranteed to wreck, then, when testing the limits of your car’s handling and the strength of metal guardrails, so consideration of your vehicle’s class – grip, drift, or balanced – often means the difference between second-rate silver and first-place gold. Front-wheel drive cars are prone to understeer, and therefore a terrible matchup for Paris’ cramped streets, for instance. Likewise, players must regard the weight of their ride before making contact with another driver. An Ariel Atom (a large go-kart, essentially) does not have the mass to survive sideswipes with an Aston Martin.
Thankfully, Codemasters’ patented flashbacks help wannabe champions, allowing you to shake off that crash and correctly maneuver those chicanes once again. Unlike Grid, which penalized you with less cash the more rewinds spent, veterans and amateurs are invited to abuse the flashback feature here. I cannot speak highly enough of this decision. In Dirt, Forza, and other franchises, even three-quarters of the way through the race, I always restart the event should a sudden spin-out cost me the gold. Not now. I still hesitated to use rewinds for menial accidents, yet they set my mind at ease for what was to come.
At least one of these cars will be introduced to the cliff's rocky surface before this event is over.
A blindsiding spike to the CPU's skill after the story's third season is a giant middle finger to the game's default difficulty. At first I was able to work my way up from the back of the pack by trading a little paint – and extend my lead once at the front – but now I had to restart competitions multiple times (with all my flashbacks gone) because I could not catch my rival or gather enough fans for future heats. It was during these trials that I really caught wind of the terrible rubber-banding, especially in head-to-head bouts. One particularly nasty collision ended with my opponent’s car doing three barrel rolls before coming to a stop upside down on its hood. What should have been a paralyzing crash proved a minor inconvenience. Within 20 seconds, my foe was tailing me, a missing front bumper and chipped paint job the only signs of his near-death experience.
Although you may leave your opponents eating your dust in other race types, not even the fastest Grid 2 players can shake the repetition inherent to the genre. Of my 200 total career wins, I cruised the same dozen courses at least as many times. I could practically navigate the tracks with my eyes closed upon reaching world champion status, and despite the scenery, Grid 2's damage modeling will likely disappoint anyone expecting Dirt’s unrequited dismantlement. Rather, Codemasters has gone to lengths to ensure not one byte of memory goes untapped elsewhere. The reflection of lights off city pavement, the sparks of cars grinding on guardrails, the blanketing smoke kicked up by tires wearing away their tread, and the bent axles that make turning impossible seal the authentic presentation.
Customization, on the contrary, has been limited to paint schemes and liveries for the campaign – no tuning allowed. Instead, players must delve into the wholly separate multiplayer if they wish to upgrade their speed machines, provided they want to begin from scratch with no money and zero cars. Things are made worse by the number of rides locked for purchase until you reach another frivolous rank, and even the sporty Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus cost too much for the meager race payouts. Luckily, players are given one free vehicle from each tier.
Yes, the game does look this detailed on PCs (sorry, console owners).
Yet Codemasters' foresight does not change the outcome of many races, which usually begin with every driver slamming into the first turn, T-boning opponents, then watching others increase their insurmountable leads. I cannot hold Codemasters accountable for the behavior of online challengers, even though I remain disappointed with developers that have not found a solution to such grief tactics (beyond making other drivers intangible ghosts). There is a childish glee to the chaos when friends decide no one’s going to finish the race in one piece, but Codemasters dampens that plan, too. In my experience, players that did not own all the pre-order DLC could not join lobbies with those that did. This effectively prevented me from playing with my buddy until I gifted him the overpriced content.
So, what is Grid 2 chasing? Is it to be Codemasters’ defining racing entry, to be the pinnacle of its genre, or to simply be the best Grid? That’s more a question for the developers, but from a critic’s eye, none of those yearnings come true. Without enough traction to gain a leg up on other racing series, Grid 2 is stuck doing donuts while the competition laps this smoke cloud of misfortune.
Developer: Codemasters Racing
Release Date: May 28, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-12 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3