GRID: Giving me my PC driving fix

I’ve spent the last couple nights playing Codemaster’s GRID, available for free on Gametap (if you’re a Gametap subscriber).

I’ve been a racing fan all my life. I didn’t do a lot with my dad growing up; he wasn’t the kind of dad who hung out with his kids very much. One thing he did do, though, was take my brother and I to dirt track races on Saturday nights in the summer. We usually went to Flemington Speedway (close to where I grew up in New Jersey), but we’d occasionally visit other Jersey tracks as well. My dad might not have spent a lot of time with us, but he did pass along his love of racing.

Racing was also the only sport my dad watched on TV, and I remember, from a very young age, watching the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 on television. This was in the 70’s, and long before every race was televised, so the 500’s were big events. Looking back, I think it was the only time my dad ever said that we were watching what he wanted to watch; I don’t think there was much else on TV that interested him. It was rare to see my dad get excited about anything, and to let my brother and I share that with him, so I think racing meant a lot to us when we were kids, getting to share that time with our father.

Naturally, I was always drawn to racing video games. I’ve played a ton, from the Atari 2600 and mall arcades back in the 80’s when I was a teenager, through the Papyrus Nascar series, and now the Codemaster games. I wrote about Colin McRae’s Rally here before (also available for free on Gametap), and now GRID has me hooked.

Graphically, GRID blows me away. A lot of the old games I mentioned required quite a bit of imagination to create an entire racetrack around you, but GRID is spectacular. Gorgeous cars, detailed locations, and plenty of landmarks on and around the tracks that you can really memorize your lines and braking points. You can check out movies and screenshots on the Codemasters website. Warning, though, it’s a busy site, takes a while to load on my non-gaming work computer. The screenshots are in the Media section, and the videos should be available right in the middle of the page. The game really does look as good as the screenshots, although once the race starts, you’re usually going way too fast to notice.

There are a ton of great cars (45, I think), spread out over three series. I’m playing the Career Mode, and I started my own racing team after making enough money racing for other teams. You can buy more cars, get sponsors, hire other drivers, and unlock more racing series as you develop a good reputation.

Because of my NASCAR/dirt track/rally perspective on racing, I have to admit that I struggle to find the right words to describe the type of racing you’ll find in GRID. There are three series, but there’s quite a bit of variety in those series. Instead of me fumbling to use the correct words to describe the series and cars, here is a one minute video from Ralph Fulton, one of the GRID developers, talking about the series and the cars.

I’m not a hardcore racer, worried about physics and exact simulation. I play the game using the keyboard, which is probably anathema to sim fans, but I really appreciate having fun racing without requiring a peripheral. I’m sure my driving would improve if I used a wheel, or a good gamepad, and the game’s difficulty could be increased to match my improved driving, but I like that I can just sit down and play without needing extra peripherals plugged in around my desk.

GRID is really accessible. You can adjust the difficulty of the game, and you can restart any race from the beginning if you’ve crashed horribly. There’s also a Flashback option, which lets you rewind your race (usually after a crash) to an earlier point, so you can attempt to get through without a wreck. There’s a cost; you’ll pay in reputation points for a Flashback, but if you’re on the last lap of the 24 Hours of LeMans, and you make a mistake, it might be worth the reputation points to get a do-over. Ralph Fulton has another short video talking about damage modeling and the Flashback feature. Even if you already get the idea how Flashback works, this is a wicked video showing full speed crashes in gameplay footage. There are moments where I blink and think that the game could be a video clip from TV.

The Codemaster games really appeal to the perfectionist gamer in me. I love memorizing each track layout, trying to find the perfect lines, getting in and out of a corner with a minimum of tire squeal and maximum velocity. It’s easy to pass other cars if you don’t mind inelegance; it’s possible to wreck other cars and get around them, but there’s not much challenge in that. I prefer trying to make clean passes (relatively clean, a little bumping is just racing :) ) and trying to drive like I imagine real racers drive. If I make mistakes, it’s so easy to restart or Flashback that I don’t feel punished for my perfectionism.

About the only thing that’s missing is some sort of driver reputation system, where you get in trouble for driving like an idiot. At least, I haven’t noticed it yet. I might not want to turn it on, since I do make mistakes and crash through corners, passing 5 cars at once because I caused a wreck, but it would be a fun way of increasing the challenge level.

I’ve said it before, but I absolutely love Gametap. My first year subscription isn’t up yet, and I’m still not through all the games I’d like to play. It’s the best $60 I’ve ever spent. GRID is definitely going to get a lot more play.

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