The actual driving is a real mix between arcade and simulation. Some might find this a bad thing; it will be too arcadey for those wanting a true sim, but too sim for those wanting a pure arcade bash. But for our taste, we reckon Codemasters have tuned this engine just right. It's fast, intense, but also difficult and equally rewarding.
On the tracks you can feel every bump and touching the sand will have you spinning out in no time. You most certainly won’t be winning all the races and you’ll have to be happy filling lower slots now and again, and you won’t be punished for it. Overall it is about advancing your team through team rankings; a loss here or there makes little difference to this. The damage model ensures it remains at least partly a simulation. The damage is so incredible and realistic you will be cringing as you see the tyre wall hurtling towards you. The destructible track side environments mean you will plough right through the tyre wall, which is amazing to watch. All the parts and tyres will remain on the track for the duration of the race, which adds more obstacles to the later laps.
But if you do terminally destroy your car to the point that you've lost a wheel somewhere in the crowd, you will have the ability to Flashback. This takes you to a replay where you can rewind to the point where everything went wrong, and fix it. Careful though, you only have a limited number of these depending on the damage you have done to your car. You can also call in Flashbacks when you lose it on a corner and drop some important positions. We know what you're thinking, but this isn’t a cheat, nor is it fair to say it's the dumbing down of a sim. Flashbacks are in short supply and they simply ease the frustrations that can occur when you are on the last lap of an endurance race and you lose concentration for a second. Sure that’s part of the challenge, but this is a game, and it’s meant to be fun!
Graphically, Codemasters has put an exceptional amount of polish into Race Driver: GRID. The vehicles and the environments all look exceptional. Cars have gorgeous reflections and show damage accurately, as well as scuff marks and grime if you forget to wash it. You also are treated to an incredible in-car view with the cockpit being accurately modelled to the real world counterpart, with all the working gauges and everything.
Tracks are the most detailed we have seen to date, with the most realistic crowds so far. The crowds truly give you a sense of being at a real race. They wave their arms through the railings as you fly through a corner, leaning into the track. They cheer at good overtaking manoeuvres and are equally shocked at brutal accidents (both yours and those of the AI drivers). They are animated and 3D; the cardboard cut-outs of old are no more.
Now the AI, as well as the AI accidents, is another point of great praise. The AI drivers are vivid and alive, they race as hard and as fast as you do and they make mistakes, just like you do. Seeing an AI car spin and fly straight into a tyre wall, followed by a huge cloud of dust and smoke as well as flying car parts which you can’t see through, really adds to the race feel. Not knowing what carnage awaits on the other side of the dust cloud is adrenaline fuelling; do you hit the brake or do you power through? Its up to you but if you're wrong, you're going to feel it. The AI are excellent over-takers and they are also quite careful drivers. They rarely take you out and respond well to your movements. But accidents are definitely a big part of Race Driver: GRID and they won’t be completely avoided. The AI will most certainly give you a run for your money however, as they too are trying to stay high on the driver rankings as well as slot in another win for their respective team. All the drivers have characteristics and some are simply much better than others, and this is obvious in the races where certain teams and drivers will be winning more than others.
Having taken the game online several times since the launch we found this experience to be a mixed bag. A real winner with us is the 12-person online racing, which takes off to new heights with the damage model and the dust clouds kicked up in accidents. This makes online carnage all the more brutal, and if your car is knocked out of the race you’ll be left to spectate. Unfortunately, drivers online are still a bit rough around the edges. Clean racing does not seem to be the name of the game, yet, and it is difficult to avoid accidents. Some people will simply take you out on the first corner and it might well be race over for you, which is frustrating. The Forza 2 community profited as time went on, there were less newbies coming in and those wanting clean tight racing were left to play amongst themselves, so hopefully the same will happen with Race Driver: GRID.
Another unfortunate point was that while playing we encountered a couple of game breaking crashes which involved us being thrown out of the race by a brown screen, then the game awarding us a range of achievements (incorrectly) and thinking we had won. We then had to go back to the Xbox dashboard before being able to continue the multiplayer racing. It made no difference to our online stats though, neither clocking as a win or a loss.
For racing fans, Race Driver: GRID is the total package. While the range of cars is small compared with the likes of Forza or Gran Turismo, it's more than made up for by the wide variety of racing classes, which makes the game feel large. But due to how it is presented you don’t feel overwhelmed as had been our experience with previous Race Driver titles. The game strikes the perfect chord between realism and fun, and coupled with Codemasters's now famous damage modelling, this game is a must have for almost any racing fan.
Now, if they could just patch the occasional online bug and weed out some of the crazier drivers...