Codemasters’ latest offers a dizzying variety of cars and racing disciplines, as well as the peculiar novelty of live action cut scenes.
The problem with racing games is fundamental to the sport they simulate. You play a character stuck in a seat, whose interaction with the world is limited to steering left or right and deciding when to speed up or slow down. Fun though that is, the genre has long struggled with how to spice things up and make that incredibly restricted set of choices into something gripping and emotionally meaningful.
Gran Turismo attempts to engage your nerdy collector’s instinct with its infinite tinkering and fastidiously extensive car list, and the DiRT series revels in its spectacle and all-round mess-making. There’s also a small list of driving games that have dabbled in the dark arts of story and plot, attempting to give your motoring career a context beyond the track.
2008’s Race Driver: GRID was one such game. A successor to Codemasters’ classic but somewhat strait-laced TOCA series, it took the earlier games’ refined handling model and transposed it into a title that featured non-stop action and also told the story of your racing team’s transition from intrepid underdogs to all-conquering heroes.
Subsequent instalments of the franchise abandoned the idea, but GRID Legends has decided it’s time for a comeback, featuring a story mode to go with its career, multiplayer, and DIY race creator options. Once again it tells the tale of a racing team coming from humble beginnings, and this time your arrogant rivals are fuelled by mountains of cash.
It’s a set-up ripe for cringe, but luckily the cut scenes are both short and well acted. They also cast the Brits as heroes and the rich Americans as villains, in a pleasing reversal of Hollywood’s habit of making baddies of posh Englishmen. And that’s only the start of its offering. Perhaps stung by criticism of 2019’s reboot, GRID, which was woefully short on content, Legends is overflowing with things to do.
Career mode is the heart of the game, starting you off as a rookie driver and charting your gradual progress to the pro leagues. Races are introduced by the GRID TV commentator offering up mercifully brief scripted banter, before plunging you into action whose variety never lets up. One minute you’ll be driving a race-modified 1960s Mini and the next a Formula E electric car that look as though it’s recently arrived from the near future.
The constant barrage of race styles and car types helps maintain a sense of variety as you slowly unlock tracks and championships in your pursuit of glory. Every stage in career contains multiple car classes, each of which has a number of events containing several races apiece, making it a very substantial slab of racing to get your teeth into.
It’s underpinned by the series’ trademark handling model, which walks a fine line between simulation and arcade style slapstick. Whether you’re driving racing trucks or open wheel single seaters, the consistently intuitive feel of steering and drifting makes for one of the most satisfying drives currently available.
It helps that its options provide for a diversity of player skill. While easy and normal difficulties offer next to no challenge for experienced players, the harder settings make a big difference. Opponents get cannier, you get fewer flashbacks that let you rewind time, and they also reduce driving aids like anti-lock brakes, stability control, and the visible racing line.
All those systems are scaled, so you can ease down on traction control rather than turning it off completely, and even the racing line can be set only to appear on corners. Getting rid of it is of course the purists’ choice, but you need to know tracks like the back of your hand before that becomes a remotely viable choice.
Story mode supplies a scripted campaign to go with your career, but despite its generally high production values it doesn’t quite work. Sets of races are bookended by cut scenes that never outstay their welcome, and add a sense of rivalry between you and your over-financed opponents, but the mode ruins the sense of progression.
No longer can you see your points between races, building tension as you near the end of a championship. Instead, you just drive each race and afterwards watch your team mechanic worrying about the future or nepotistic bad guy Nathan McKane being haughty, but it removes the excitement of competing in an actual championship.
There are other problems. Since cut scenes are performed by live actors rather than CGI avatars, it raises the expectation that they’ll behave like humans. So when your task in a race is to come 10th or above and ‘show them you at least belong here’ and you instead finish in pole position with nobody else even visible in your rear view mirror, there’s no surprise or delight on behalf of teammates. They just say well done and move on, which feels out of kilter with your performance.
Another of the series’ innovations, the nemesis system, falls just as flat. During races if you rear end another car at sufficient speed, its driver will hate you for a lap or two, marked by commentary over the radio and a red icon next to their name. Unfortunately, all their hatred amounts to is occasionally giving your car a half-hearted nudge, something that makes absolutely no difference to race outcomes. All too often you simply never see them again, their seething anger counting for even less when they stay comfortably behind you.
It’s still a fun game though, with an admirable dedication to plunging you into the action. Unlike Gran Turismo there’s no starting off in a Daihatsu Charade, you get straight behind the wheel of a race-tuned touring car, and that breathless pace just never lets up. Its attempt to reintroduce story to the franchise isn’t entirely successful but the sheer variety of cars it throws at you, combined with Codemasters’ finely honed handling, means the driving itself is never less than first rate.
GRID Legends review summary
In Short: Although its addition of plot and characters doesn’t quite work the racing action is as thrilling as ever, with a huge diversity of vehicles and the compelling handling fans have come to expect from the series.
Pros: Huge amount of content to play through, consistently excellent car physics, and even the slightly misfiring story mode is well acted with cut scenes that keep it brief.
Cons: The nemesis system is a nice idea that in practice does very little. Even with the racing line switched on many tracks have stretches where it fails to appear, and cars look floaty and detached from the track in your rear view mirror.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Release Date: 25th February 2022
Age Rating: 3
By Nick Gillett
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