Race Driver: GRID Preview - 25/01/2008

We've been avidly following the fortunes of Codemasters' Race Driver series ever since its inception in 1997. Despite that, the racing-simulation genre's as stale as mouldy bread at the moment. What does GRID bring to the table apart from a catchy name?

Originally born as Race Driver One, Codemasters obviously decided to change the name once they realised that the last console version was TOCA: Race Driver 3. While the new name is somewhat gridicuolous (Ed: awful, simply awful!), it follows the evolution that the Colin McRae series has undergone with DIRT, i.e. capitalised letters that don't stand for anything, but moreover, appeal to the great unwashed; DIRT did this in particular, as you might imagine from those filthy beggars.

Rather than waste three-quarters of this review with name jokes, let's get down to business. As alluded to earlier, the racing-sim genre seems to have lost the charm it once had. Forza 2 wasn't particularly successful, or indeed fun to play, and the other mainstay of the genre, Gran Turismo, has had pretty bad reports of late too. The early demo was great, but more recent indications are not so hot.

TOCA and the Race Driver series has nevertheless always managed to capture the imaginations of many a racing fan. With DIRT however, it basically stole everything the Race Driver series has come to stand for of late, i.e. different kinds of vehicular racing. So, what does GRID do to warrant your interest?

The graphics already look fantastic

Well in fact, Codemasters seem to be advertising this as more of a blend of the two series, both Colin McRae's rally titles, and the Race Driver series. We know now that there won't be any more McRae games, following the iconic racer's tragic death, so maybe this is the logical route for Codemasters. While no specific mention of rally racing has been made, it has been present in the last few instalments of the Race Driver series, so hopefully it'll feature again.

This possibility is further emphasised by the fact that GRID will use the next iteration of DiRT's Neon engine. Not at all confusing. The graphics were of course the highlight of DiRT, which battered down the door and rained muddy goodness on Emerald in his review, when he gave it a whopping 9.7. Codemasters' engine uses superb lighting and motion blur, while still managing to render entire cockpits of the vehicles and huge open plains of backgrounds.

The idea is to make racing fun again, at least according to chief Game Designer Ralph Fulton, and he should know. The game will feature packed racing grids, hence the name, and focus on the actual atmosphere of race day, and no doubt some pretty fine gameplay will accompany it too. There's not going to be any complicated tuning menus or a single player game designed around car collecting, a la PGR4. Which is for the best in our view, as Gotham does the whole car-porn thing just about as well as it can be done.

Hopefully they'll bolster the licenses even further

Based on your opinion of the Underground element in the Need for Speed series, you'll either love the next new feature, or hate it. Basically, one of the additional classes of racing will be of the street variety. Just how much focus they will put on this is unclear, and we, for one, hope it's not too much. The Race Driver series has always been about professional racing, and we loved the street racing in TOCA: Race Driver 2, where the streets were sealed off and you raced in real racing cars, rather than Ford Fiestas, and with no chavvy vinyls or neon lights. Just as long as it's the right sort of street racing, we'll be happy. Understandably they want to reach the mass market, just as long as they don't alienate the TOCA fans, I'm sure everyone will be happy. From the screenshots, it appears to be in the right direction.

The two main varieties of races will be circuit and drift. While drift has its critics, it can make for some really addictive gameplay that is a welcome distraction to the tension and drama of proper races, where one mistake can rule you out. The focus will be on real-world race tracks, and as long as the Laguna Seca is there, we'll be suitably cheerful. Similarly, manufacturers such as Aston Martin, Dodge, Koenigsegg and Pagani have all put their name to the game so far, and going by past iterations, you can expect many more. Realistic damage akin to McRae's series has also been confirmed. The performance affecting damage has been a mainstay of the series for years now.

Drift events aim to break up the tension of high-octane races

With a nod again to Project Gotham Racing, North American cities such as San Francisco, DC and Detroit have been confirmed, all with specific pre-race build up and events. The street racing here will circle around V8 muscle cars, and with all this talk about atmosphere and realistic race build-up, we can't really see it going down the chavtacular, scantily clad women waving chequered flags route at the moment.

In Japan, night races will be the main feature, with drift races high on the agenda too. Picturesque mountain tracks and neon-soaked cities are sure to make for a really atmospheric setting. The mention of 'the opportunity to compete in races that operate on the fringes of legality in the back streets and industrial areas of Yokohama' as termed in the press release accompanying the game's name change is slightly worrying, but as long as they're not illegal, it should be just the right side of professional.

The name of the game is Race Driver, and as long as the vast majority of events are of the professional nature, GRID should go down well with those disillusioned by Forza, and who have long been awaiting a next-gen version in this brilliant series. GRID is set for release in the middle of this year, on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, and we'll bring you news and media on the game as it hits us.

- Mike Hazleton



PC - PS3 - 360