Grid 2 review
For the follow-up to 2008's Race Driver: Grid, Codemasters has grabbed hold of the zeitgeist and squeezed it until it pops. Where once you would race for money and glory, now your sole mission is to justify your existence in the form of online fans.
Social networking is welded to Grid 2 like a roll cage in a 1989 Nissan 300 ZX. Your very first race, thrust upon you before you even hit the menus, is recorded on a thousand smartphones and splurged all over YouTube.
This attracts the attention of a mysterious billionaire, whose dream is to set up a worldwide racing league with "the high-speed racers from the US, the technical guys from Europe and the drift kings of Asia all in one competition, to determine the world’s greatest driver".
To get such a league off the ground, you don’t need endless discussions with TV rights holders, legions of lawyers and Bernie Ecclestone. What you need is fans. Fans form the entire currency of Grid 2. After your first victory you see a montage of comments, YouTube videos and disembodied cursors clicking Like buttons, and this first flurry of approval from the nameless online army gets you invited to compete in your first racing league.
Winning more races leads to more exposure, which leads to more race invitations, until you have enough racers taking you seriously to jump ship to other continents. Money is never mentioned; as long as enough people follow the World Racing Series, teams will join you and sponsors will line up new cars for you to drive. It's the Venture Capital model of racing; like any good social network, making money is secondary to popularity, as there's always a VC outfit to prop you up.
Grid 2's story is pretty ancillary to how enjoyable the game is. The obsession with social media will date it appallingly, but it just provides a framework to give the game an enjoyable progression beyond shaving nanoseconds off your lap times.
You do get a good variety of tracks and racing types, which are unlocked as seasons progress. There's straight racing, one-on-one battles, endurance and elimination contests, where the slowest car is kicked out every thirty seconds.
The racing itself sits partway between arcade and simulation. There are no Forza-style driving aids, where the track lights up to show you where to brake; the only obvious help is an automatic gearbox, but Grid 2 makes up for this with a forgiving driving model. It's pretty easy to react to oversteer, and only muscle cars like the Dodge Charger were prone to spinning out. It's fairly easy to step out the back end and hold the slide, which is handy considering it’s a prerequisite to completing certain challenges.
You'll want to avoid smashing your way up the pack, as it leads to penalties in some race types and car damage affects handling if you enable the option. You have to ruin your car to an astonishing degree to make this trouble your chances of victory, though; we were still hammering around the track with a burst front tyre, which barely caused an impact to our steering. Bringing a car home with a front wheel sparking on the tarmac is perfect fodder to upload to Youtube from within the game.
Any pretence that this is a serious simulation is put to bed as soon as you start flicking through the customisation options. There's no fiddling with damper settings or bolting on aftermarket turbochargers here - instead, you just get to muck around with the paint job and wheels. This is also where you get to assign your sponsors, which not only affects what stickers you slap on your car, but unlocks different challenges. One controversial change made since the original Grid is that there is now no cockpit view; apparently this was only used by a minority of gamers, but it will still put off those looking for a serious racing experience.
Once you've had enough of dominating the world's major cities in the single-player game, it's time to head for the multiplayer. This has a completely separate campaign and makes heavy use of the LiveRoutes feature which alters courses on the fly. The result is a huge variety of tracks to race on, where you compete corner to corner instead of learning the track. It certainly makes races more about reactions than strategy. Fans of sitting on the same sofa as their adversary will also relish the two-player split-screen mode.
Whether Grid 2 is right for you depends on what you want from a racing game. We missed scrimping and saving to buy new vehicles and upgrades and tinkering with the result, and the connection between accumulating fans and being rewarded by a benevolent overlord never seemed as satisfying as making money and spending it yourself, but there's no arguing with the sheer variety of vehicles, game modes and stunningly-rendered locations available.
Grid 2 is a beautiful-looking game which manages to strike a fair balance between all-out arcade and po-faced simulation. The racing itself is fun, but the glue that holds it all together is lacking; it's always a thrill to unlock new races and cars, but we found the customisation options limiting and struggled to care enough about accumulating fans (fans come in chunks of 25, like blank DVDs, further distancing them from any kind of real person you should care about). If you're dead set on a racer and want to climb to the top of the online rankings, dive in, but for most Grid 2 will only have limited long-term appeal.