Codemasters is well known as one of the leaders in the racing game market, but with the PGR, Forza and Gran Turismo series all leading the way the UK-based publisher needed Race Driver: GRID to be something special. With the most impressive visuals ever to grace a racing game, brilliant variety and game-making rewind feature GRID is everything we wanted it to be and quite possibly the racing game of 2008.
GRID sees you driving for a new racing team. To begin with you need to earn enough cash to buy your team's first car, and from then on it's all about earning cash and reputation points. Cash buys cars needed to enter new events and reputation points add up to earn new licences and access to new event tiers. Essentially, if you place on the podium regularly you'll soon be raking in the money and rep.
Things aren't quite as simple as they seem though. The events are split into three territories: USA, Europe and Japan. Your cash is put into a global pot, but your rep points are territory specific. So, you could focus on the drift and head-to-head race events found in Japan, achieve a new license and access to a new tier of events in that territory, but still be languishing in the beginner races in Europe and the USA. How many rep points you earn also depends on the difficulty settings you choose to race with.
Choosing harder AI racers, a fixed in-car view and disallowing race restarts all increase the potential rep points, but a harder difficulty also affects one of GRID's core gameplay features: flashbacks. At any point during a race you can pause the game and rewind back a few seconds, with the number of times you're allowed to do so being determined by the difficulty you've set - four by default. At first this magical ability seems like a copout, but it makes complete sense given GRID's arcade-style racing.
While previous games in the Race Driver series have been pretty hard to get into due to the simulation handling, GRID feels far more like PGR than Gran Turismo. In fact, it feels slightly more forgiving than PGR's already quite flashy driving model. With an emphasis on speed and some rather competitive AI drivers you're going to be having a lot of fun, but will also find yourself buried in a tyre wall fairly often. Heavy crashes can even result in your car being totalled, so being able to rewind is a huge relief.
Whereas in other racers you might take your foot off the pedal during tricky sections of track, perhaps settling for second place instead of first, in GRID you feel compelled to go for the win. Instead of worrying about every corner, you're free to drive how you really want, which actually has a very beneficial effect on your performances. The initially twitchy controls soon fade into the distance as you scream around each track, often not even thinking about flashbacks.
Although the early parts of your career will see you racing in the bottom rung of cars available in the game, you can accept freelance offers from other teams to earn some extra cash. These offers always see you driving in a high-powered car. One of the best examples of this is the yearly Le Mans 24-hour race - shortened to 12 minutes of game time. Unless you want to fork out for a proper racing beast your best option is to drive freelance for another team, hoping to place in the top three in your class. With a full day and night cycle winning this race is seen as the pinnacle of your racing career.
Race variety is one of GRID's most impressive features. With a host of city tracks and racing circuits, drivable in muscle cars, touring cars, tuned cars, Formula 100 cars, destruction derby bangers and more, you always seem to be doing something new. One of the best new additions to the series is Pro Touge, which pits two drivers head to head on a treacherous mountainside road. These events have a knock-out tournament structure, with each battle consisting of a race down and then up the mountain. Racers take turns starting in the lead, with the overall time leader over both runs awarded the win. What makes this so exciting is the one-second penalty given to the pursuing driver if he touches the leading car. You can overtake, but touch bumpers and you're likely to be staring at defeat. Thrilling enough during the day, at night these high-speed chase events are about as tense as racing gets.
Pro Touge might bring back memories of Need for Speed, but GRID is an altogether more accomplished game. Take the drift events for example. Tried by many racing games down the years, including Need for Speed and Juiced, PGR is the only series that's managed to make drift racing fun. Well, you can add GRID to the list as it effortlessly adds yet another event type to its impressive roster. Fans of PGR will find many similarities, but the inclusion of drift-based races against other on-track drivers gives it an identity of its own.
On top of the racing GRID features a fairly simple team management system. Your first task is to add sponsorship to your cars, rewarding you with cash bonuses depending on the place you finish in each race. After a few hours you'll have gained a team mate, racing for the team but taking a cut of the earnings. It's up to you to try and pick the right driver for the job. You can also dabble with eBay to buy and sell used cars instead of models straight off the production line. None of these are complex features, but combined you get the sense that you're doing more than just racing to earn money.
GRID looks stunning, somehow managing to appear realistic and dream-like at the same time. Key to its impressive visuals are highly detailed tracks and cars, stunning lighting and a damage model that can only really be bettered by Burnout Paradise. Seeing such a graphically rich game run at a smooth frame rate is quite something, with some beautiful motion blur effects brilliantly disguising the 30 frames a second frame rate. Other than the odd occasion when there's a big pile up you won't notice a dip in the smooth refresh rate at all.
The all-round presentation is top notch, with fully 3D menus, superb audio work and even an in-game assistant that says your name - if your name is on the large list you're able to choose from. Although it's hard to argue with Gran Turismo 5 Prologue's attempt at photo realism, GRID is simply a more visually pleasing game to look at. Show me a Gran Turismo where an AI racer spins out on a corner, crashes into a road-side barrier, rolls and then takes out two other drivers, and then it might be able to hold a candle to Codemasters' quite brilliant technical achievement. Even the loading screens look brilliant, giving you game stats and updating you on your progress towards achievements.
Online play for up to 12 players feels incredibly solid, and if you're just interested in going for the fastest times on the global leaderboards the excellently integrated ghost car downloads will be all you need. Online races is in the majority of games on the market often boil down to who can get the best line on the first corner, effectively using the other cars to cheaply sneak around the corner. In GRID the damage modelling is good enough to punish players that use other cars as barriers, making for an altogether fairer and more competitive online game.
When I played a work-in-progress build of GRID a few months ago the flashback feature seemed like a clever gimmick. After extended time with the game it's clear that it's anything but. With a new found freedom to take risks GRID sits up there with the mighty Project Gotham Racing 4 as a leader in the arcade-style racing genre. If you're bored of Gran Turismo 5 Prologue's po-faced appearance and rigid driving model, look no further. Race Driver: GRID is tearing up the tarmac this summer without a challenger in site.