Friday, October 31, 2008

PC game review: Grid

I’m a bit behind the gaming times. I don't have a video game system and just recently finally grew weary of shooting down police helicopters in San Andreas and had a hankering for a more serious driving game. Because it was available on Valve’s Steam service and decently reviewed, I opted for Grid from Codemasters.

Grid is marketed as being focused on driving. That’s code for not being able to tweak your car. That’s okay, it means that learning to win is a matter of driving, not manipulating a spreadsheet, though some would probably wish for more cars than the included 45, which isn’t that many when they’re spread out over disciplines ranging from Le Mans prototypes to drifting. However they do all handle distinctly while being “balanced” so that cars in the same class are more or less competitive, which is not realistic but does mean you might actually drive more than a handful of them regularly.

The other task is managing your team in the career mode, which consists of hiring and firing a teammate and juggling sponsors. Once a “year,” you get the option to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and it is appropriately gruelling, even if actually only 12 minutes.

The graphics are about as good as you can get without the hardware requirements of a Crysis. Cars—up to 20 per race--and hospitality tents literally glimmer in the sunlight. Bugs and tar accumulate on your bumper. The 3D spectators react if you crash into the wall in front of them. The cars have probably been made unrealistically durable to better show off the damage modeling that runs the gamut from scratches to missing body panels and crumpled suspension.

I can’t say how accurate the reproduction of the gear whine from a Koenigsegg CCX is, but pieces of bodywork that get knocked off cars will stay on the track, and if you run into them they might stick to your car and you’ll hear them flapping around. That’s adequate for me to rate the sound effects “excellent.”

The rest of the audio is my one big disappointment in the presentation, especially after spending a month or four on GTA. That may not be fair, but when the game yaps at you, giving you such useful information as explaining how fourth place is one step from the podium, I must assume the goal of such chatter must be to create atmosphere just like the radio stations in San Andreas. There is nothing close to what’s needed in the quantity or quality of quips from your crew chief, teammate, and business manager for them to do anything but get on your nerves.

As you’ve probably already gathered, Grid is not a hardcore simulation. It’s realistic enough that taking a high-speed turn in a new Dodge Challenger at about 130mph, going wide and having the wheels bite the gravel in a slight depression at just the right angle, will result in rolling eight times, losing a door and the windshield, shattering the mirrors, and caving the roof...but it’s still 100% drivable. If you do manage to bend a wheel into the passenger seat, you get a second chance with the Flashback feature, which lets you rewind the last few moments and restart from any point. If you turn off the electronic nannies there is a general air of realism, but the cars do accelerate and brake too fast, which I would extrapolate helps it tend towards a driving style a bit too much like off-road rallying(which makes sense considering where the physics engine originated.)

It’s definitely fun, though, and definitely challenging. It can be tricky to simply get the faster prototypes around a track without hitting anything and you can dial the AI’s skill level up to 11. Enter a race that you’re not quite ready for and the AI will quite deliberately push you out of its way. There are some real tracks and some fantasy settings, unless there really is a street course in Milan that goes through a cathedral.

Because I’m afraid of never getting any work done again I haven’t tried online multiplayer, though skimming user forums shows some concern about races turning into demolition derbies. The online feature I have used is the “test drive” mode where you can race against a “ghost” of your personal best time or the "world record," though there seem to be some glitches or cheating since the world record for most tracks is something less than one second.