GRID 2's single player starts with Patrick Callahan, a self-made millionaire with the goal of setting up a new motorsports series, but he needs a star -- a racer -- to help make his dream a reality. That's where I come in, and Patrick's going to be disappointed since I'm willing to admit straight away I'm not the most experienced racing game fan. Nonetheless, I was able to meet up with Codemasters' Senior Executive Producer Clive Moody and try out GRID 2 myself. I may not be exactly the star Patrick Callahan is looking for, but from what I saw of GRID 2 I'm on board for doing whatever necessary to make his dream a reality.
Clive Moody and a team from Codemasters were able to show me three new tracks, from Barcelona to Red Bull Ring in Austria and back to Chicago which was first shown in August 2012. This time Chicago is part of World Series Racing, replete with a generous visual makeover captures the world-stage the series represents. There are new details on the game's single player storyline, touching on some of the mechanics pertaining to progression as well as features to help immerse players in the experience.
Needless to say, Codemasters is pulling out all the stops to make GRID 2 the best racing title of this generation. I saw just enough of the game to leave me starving for more. Consider me a born again racing fan.
World Series Racing
World Series Racing is quite literally just a dream at the beginning of GRID 2. There's you, the racer, and there's Patrick Callahan, the man with the money and the plan, but the rest is going to take a lot of work. Just as the series itself is in its infancy, you also are simply a rookie racer with aspirations of becoming the best of the best. Of course, it's not so simple, because World Series Racing is meant to be something more -- the mixed martial arts of racing. How else could you become the ultimate racer unless you defeated all challengers -- street, road and track racer alike.
Again, getting ahead of ourselves. GRID 2 will be broken into four seasons of racing, the first being the club level and requiring you to earn the respect of racers in the United States before moving on to... broader pastures. That doesn't mean you'll be driving some junk heap your parents loaned you for the weekend, the team at Codemasters aren't that malicious. They'll start you off with a tier one vehicle, which includes the BMW E30 M3, Subaru BRZ and Mustang Mach 1. Again, I may not be a car guy, but the look of a sexy car and certainly how fast it can accelerate.
From the first season in the United States, racers will then move on to season two in Europe, season three in Asia, and finally the global season four when World Series Racing and you as a racer finally reach your goals. Codemasters will be going to extreme lengths to ensure this progression is an immersive and rewarding experience, not some cheap list of races with nothing to mark your progress along the way.
As you complete various races, and it wasn't made clear to me how they'll be introduced, you'll acquire fan support. This fan support was described to me as an actual measured mechanic that is closely tied to your racing performance. As races are won, the player will gradually be shown the effects their talents have had in the racing community. I was shown a few of these clips, which include short videos of comments being posted to social media, polls on large sports websites, and coverage straight from ESPN's Sportscenter.
This fan rating, along with the clips helping reinforce your progress, are all part of Codemasters' goal to make progression a visceral and immersive experience. As such, the player is less likely be taken out of the campaign each time they finish a race. Every race and top finish is just one more step on the road to a fully realized World Series Racing and ultimate stardom. Of course, there's other rewards too -- rewards like new cars, new races and a garage that will evolve with you as you progress.
While much of these campaign details were described to me, as opposed to shown directly, it's still exciting to hear Codemasters is taking the single-player campaign seriously. Whether GRID 2 actually delivers on this single-player promise I can't attest to, but it certainly sounds exciting.
Barcelona, Red Bull Ring and Chicago
Oh glorious day, I can't wait to show everyone these three races that I was able to try out. Barcelona was a street race we ran with a BMW E30 M3 with heavy drifting and speeds topping out around 100MPH. Perhaps the most exciting race, purely because of the Elimination game mode that was shown, Barcelona is scarred into my memory as a map I must return to as soon as possible -- return so I might conquer. Elimination is a mode where the racer currently in last place is eliminated around every twenty seconds. In other words, this map gave me free rein to get ahead by any means necessary. I put on my Burnout hat, or in other words embarrassed myself in front of the Codemasters' team, and banged and drifted my way to... third place. The best I did was third place.
Yet my placement in the race felt rather inconsequential in retrospect, considering just how blown away I was with Barcelona's visuals. The map is considered a street race, and you really can't get a more apt description than that. It felt, quite literally, like driving through cordoned off streets in Barcelona. An obviously enormous amount of attention has been spent recreating the details of the city, with specific attention shown to the astonishingly beautiful architecture. Still, from the bus stops to the large crane in the distance, I felt like I was visiting another city for the duration of the race. Of course, the myriad of small detail was unforgettable as well. Flares, camera flashes, birds flying overhead, it was indescribably cinematic. I almost felt like I was insulting the game by focusing on the race itself.
Chewing on the Red Bull Ring after trying the Barcelona street race was a meal I was not prepared for. Where Barcelona focused on drifting and high-speed corners, the Austrian circuit required a level of realistic racing prowess I was not prepared for. Topping out at speeds around 160MPH, these high-speed, ultra responsive BAC Monos required a bit more careful breaking than I could provide so quickly after the Barcelona map. Honestly, it was a bit of a wake-up slap in the face. "This is the same game?" I asked myself. It was, or so I was led to believe, but nonetheless I decided to move on to the next track after noting how impressive the circuit track with its woodland backdrop was visually.
Chicago was a map that was shown off around August of last year, and initially I didn't recall it when I was shown the "new" Chicago map. You see, later in the game the World Series Racing circuit returns to Chicago -- only now it's rather well known, hugely popular, and has money to spare. Basically, it's an entirely different Chicago map showing off how the game scales between season one and season four. The difference... was striking. Hundreds of people lined the streets, fireworks constantly went off in the background, and countless balloons, flags, billboards and more pried my eyes from the street. Our ride, which I believe was a Chevrolet Camaro SS, was topping out around 140MPH before being leaning into another hold-your-breath corner. Pure. Adrenaline. Enough said?
Night enshrouded Chicago, but where cloudy, colorful skyskapes were used with the previous tracks, an inky black filled the horizon. This allowed the cityscape of Chicago to shine brightly -- towering skyscrapers reflecting WSR logos on their windows. While there were a few odd textures used for windowpanes, at 140MPH it all blurred spectacularly.
Where Barcelona featured an elimination-style race and Red Bull Ring had a classic race-til-you-finish mode, Chicago utilized an arcade-like checkpoint time trial mode. As in, each checkpoint added more time for you to finish the track. Odds are if you wrecked, as I often did, you'd lose out before reaching the next checkpoint. It was a terribly tragic flashback to my younger days wasting quarters in a racing machine I had no business playing. Still, the street race was wonderful if only to contrast the handling and racing style of the previous tracks.
If whatever other racing tracks Codemasters has in the works live up to the standards set by Barcelona, Red Bull Ring and Chicago they've got something very special on their hands. Something very special, indeed.
Real Tracks, Real Cars
I'm not one to ask as to whether GRID 2 felt realistic, or whether its cars felt true to the style and nature they share in reality, but I can say this -- every car I drove and every map I explored felt unique, exuding their identity like I've never experienced in a racing game before. Sure, I'm a rookie, I can say Yoshi on a motorcycle rides differently than Bowser in a Kart in Double Dash, but I feel gross even thinking of comparing the two. Without knowing anything about cars, I left my demo with Codemasters -- not with additional knowledge in my mind -- but with the feel of these cars in my hands. The weight, the acceleration, the grip of the tires, all beginning to feel natural to me. I won't make any claims to being a better racing game player, but the brief demo I had was definitely one of the most visceral experiences I've had with a racing game.
Codemasters describes their new TrueFeel handling system at first seemed to me to be a buzz word of sorts, but after playing GRID 2 I can vouch for the talent of the experts behind the system. They've certainly persuaded me. It's meant to strike a balance between arcade and simulation, which is kind of funny. I tried to think back to which tracks felt more realistic and which more arcade-like, and I couldn't really differentiate that aspect between them. They each just felt... well, they felt like they were meant to feel.
I only grazed the topic before, but as I'm going over race and car identity I wanted to punctuate just how wonderfully realized these vehicles are. With car damage implemented, I could see how my reckless BWM driving had severe ramifications, yet it effected the body of the car in much different ways than wrecks in the BAC Mono. See? I doubt players with a better grasp of how these cars handled would have been able to really check out each car after heavy damage. Exclusive! They break apart extravagantly! It made me feel like an idiot, but I was still struck with awe!
Despite spending quite a bit of time going over the details of GRID 2's single player, after actually playing the game I was left with one major question. It's not as to whether I think Codemasters can deliver a cinematic experience, or how rewarding it will be to play. No, it has to do with the developers ability to make sure the campaign doesn't feel disjointed. It's an admirable goal to create a game based around a "mixed martial arts" of racing, but my only frustration was that going from one race to another seriously left me unprepared for the dramatic changes in gameplay. If Codemasters and Patrick Callahan can figure out a way to smooth that process out, or even tie it into some narrative? Then I've completely run out of criticism.
GRID 2 was simply that great. To be fair, I don't play as many racing games as I'd like and when I do play it's for much less time that I'd prefer to invest. Still, for what its worth, I haven't been as excited for a new racing game since Kaz Hirai yelled Ridge Racer at me... and that's really a completely different situation. There's an attention to detail that's clearly supported by a very talented design team over at Codemasters. Not just in visual design, which is as good as you can find this generation, but through gameplay that I'm still trying to wrap my thoughts around. Did I just play three different games, or did GRID 2 really just imbue several different styles of racing into its tracks and cars?
My hands pulse just thinking about trying GRID 2 out again. Maybe next time I'll get the tighter drifts down in the Camaro, or maybe I should just stick with the BMW E30. Maybe I should just shut up and patiently wait for the game's release on May 28 like everyone else... or maybe I should sit on the edge of my seat in anticipation of what could be the best racing release of this generation.