Chicago. The camera frames the city buildings as they stretch away from me, limitless and luminous in the dry afternoon sun. String chords move from one note cluster to another with ominous tones, the sort of musical progression that makes your eyes narrow from side to side – the villain is near.
Quick camera cuts – a road sign, a train track, a road – make you think that nowhere is safe. The chords continue their dreading drone. Chicago and its ghostly entirety is against you. Fear it.
I’ve been in the company of GRID 2 for less than a few minutes but I think I can safely say that a racing game has never presented me with such an inflated sense of purpose and foreboding before, and I’m not sure if I like it.
It’s not that the presentation is clinical, as is largely the case with Codemasters racers (unless it’s Dirt ‘crazy town’ Showdown), it’s that the presentation is hopelessly vain while being simultaneously insipid. This is largely because all the Bond-esque beguilement doesn’t reveal itself to be hiding some sort of spy-tale surprise from the racing masters at Codemasters (that would have been a stunning shock though, wouldn’t it?). Instead I’m informed that I need to win this race to become a YouTube sensation so I can get picked up by someone with the cash to fund further four wheeled exploits around the world. It’s so painfully modern that I feel inclined to express my rage with a meme face.
With all the faux tension I find myself a little flustered, trying to encourage the entertainment before me that ‘you’re just a racing game’, but the achingly dramatic chord shifts continue to advertise this as the Citizen Kane of racing games – those chord progressions say that there could never be a race more vital than this one in Chicago right here, right now.
So I race.
Thankfully the raw thrill of the race is nowhere near as manipulative as GRID 2’s other elements, starting on a high with car control that feels both tight and incredibly weighty, landing on the right side of entertaining accessibility while still feeling more real than an arcade racer. My introductory Mustang lurches through the corners of Chicago with a real sense of presence; shunts feel significant, spins disorientating and crashes brutal. GRID 2 makes me feel as if I’m driving a big, expensive, violent car – and it is magnificent.
Nowhere is this more apparent than a later Elimination Race in Paris (GRID 2 still features plenty of ways to play. Racing on tracks, countryside or streets are here, as are challenges such as the drift challenge). I don’t feel that it’s remiss to draw comparisons to Destruction Derby as, truthfully, that’s what the proceedings felt like.
Big moving hunks of metal all wrestling for room, coughing up plumes of choking smoke as they squash each other into barriers and corners causing wing mirrors, doors and bumpers to detach as if connected with blue-tac, while frameworks buckle with the apparent stability of cardboard. Racing in GRID 2 is an intimate and intoxicating affair – a feeling enhanced through the loud car sounds and lack of outside audio stimuli, such as music. It’s largely telling of my playstyle, I suppose, but I soon found myself having to compensate for a dicky front left wheel with a ample counter-steer. It wasn’t long before the tire blew completely and I found myself struggling on any left turn, of which there were a lot. By the end of this manic and aggressive race my car would be more accurately described as a mess with two wheels; GRID 2 is brilliant.
To anyone that’s played the game’s predecessor, GRID, this scene will sound familiar and from this preview build the following appears to ring true – GRID 2 is largely a creature of refinement and polish. The damage engine is superior, the cars feel heavier, and the Flashback system (a way to rewind time and correct mistakes) is every bit as instantaneous as the many copy cat systems that have appeared in the first GRID’s wake.
GRID 2 does have one trick that is very new, however, and that is its Live Route system. This is essentially a dynamic track that is set within one of the game’s existing cities, with the game actively changing the route on the fly as the race goes on. On paper it sounds like a good idea, and in practice it’s even better.
It took me a few attempts to land first place on the races and challenges present in my taster of GRID 2 and, as I’m sure you’ve done with racers in your time, winning became easier as I learned the ebb and flow of each track. Live Route represents Codemasters looking at you, cocking a smile and shaking their collective, metaphorical head – that isn’t going to work here sunshine.
I misjudged, I assumed, I panicked and I crashed. Live Route tested my ability to read a route in front of me and react accordingly, presenting itself as a greater and more pure examination of my racing prowess over typical mastery earned through memorisation. I largely failed.
But I had a lot of fun with it. Partly due to GRID 2’s massive, delightful cars, and partly because I enjoyed not knowing when a left turn was definitely coming up, it felt spontaneous. I enjoyed being forced to react on a pinhead, and I can imagine that when taken online it is this mode that will ensure that GRID 2 retains a unique appeal, simply because it’s harder to master something you can’t perfectly predict.
I don’t necessarily gel with the presentation or the characters – imagine Tony Hawks Underground presented by a stable of invisible, soulless, suit wearing investors and you’re somewhere near the style – but I can totally get behind GRID 2’s racing because it’s brilliant. In truth the characters are unimportant; the souls are in the cars. So while I tend to prefer it when my racers are having a bit more fun with their style, GRID 2’s intense racing and its cars, with their handling, damage, and powerful presence, somehow makes every other racer feel a little pathetic in comparison. And in a racing game, isn’t that what will win out in the end?