Mark Warren

Review: GRID (2019)

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Credit: Codemasters via Gamespress.com

When I heard earlier this year that Codemasters were dusting off the GRID series and rebooting it after a short hiatus, I let myself get a little bit hyped.

I know, I shouldn’t have let my guard down. After all, 99% of all games that attract any kind of hype, from mild excitement to almost religious levels of pre-release praise, end up being at least a bit disappointing. Often that’s due to audience expectations going through the roof. If, based on nothing but pre-rendered trailers and vague statements from publishers, you expect a game to offer you the sun and the moon, but then all it has on release are a couple of cardboard cut-outs that kind of resemble the sun and moon, that’s a bit of a bummer.

The thing is, when I pre-ordered (another slap on the wrist for me here) the lavishly titled Ultimate Edition of 2019’s GRID, I genuinely don’t think my expectations were entirely unreasonable.

I didn’t expect the second coming of Christ, just a reboot of a game series that I’ve always had a soft sport for to bring the GRID name up to date, ditching some of the worse features that earned mixed reviews for some of the franchise’s previous entries, GRID 2 (yes, a game called GRID 2 now inexplicably predates a game called GRID, I don’t know either) and GRID Autosport, while bringing back and building on some of the features from 2008’s Racedriver GRID, one of my favourite games of all time.

After all, why bother announcing this game as a franchise reboot if you don’t plan on making some fairly significant changes to the direction the games have been taking over the past few entries? As it turns out, the game I’m reviewing for you right now might as well have been named GRID 3.

So, what’s left me so jaded? Well, we’ll begin with the fact that this GRID feels pretty much like a natural sequel to GRID 2. The Americanised presentation style for one, makes an unwelcome return, meaning that before every race you participate in you’ve got to grit your teeth while an overtly dramatic American sports style announcer yells bland platitudes for a good five minutes. It’s the kind of thing that might work in one of Codemasters’ other series, that being the DIRT games, where leaning into the Americanised extreme sports thing would feel more natural, even if it would get on your wick at times. However, it simply doesn’t belong in a GRID game.

Though, arguably the more damning shadow from GRID 2 that hangs over GRID is the lack of any relatable story beats to connect each race series together. You might well be wondering why this is such a big deal in a racing game. I’ll give you an example. One of the reasons Racedriver GRID received a lot of praise was for the manner in which it allowed you to create your own personalised team, complete with unique name and custom livery to go on all of your purchased cars. This made the main goal of the game to manage and expand your team, winning your way up the racing ladder and going from a small team that can barely afford to field one pre-owned muscle car, to an international racing powerhouse with huge sponsorship deals that can field brand new cars for both you and a team mate.

This gave that game a natural sense of progression and, more importantly, made the experience feel more like a realistic portrayal of the motor-sport world. In 2019’s GRID, you own a two car team from the start, with no explanation of how that came to be. You’ve already got a generic team mate, something that you might not even notice in your first few races unless you happen to pass them on track and wonder why you’ve just overtaken a car that looks a lot like yours. Aside from this, they won’t let you know they’re there over the radio, like Racedriver GRID’s team mates would occasionally, informing you if they took the lead or were now running behind you. They’re just kind of there, a faceless name that you can hire and fire without thinking about it.

What I’m coining the invisible team mate problem pales in comparison to the effect that faceless AI has on a new feature of GRID, the nemesis system. In pre-release theory, this sounded like a solid addition. If you get a bit too rough with an AI driver and use your bumper to smack them out of the way, they’ll become your nemesis and try for the rest of the race to get you back, like a real racing driver might do. However, in practice, this feature proves fairly gutless. Sure, if you hit someone, they get a red tinge around their name and drive a little bit more aggressively, but they rarely, if ever, get back to you to make you pay for what you did during that race. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the game had another way of giving your actions consequences, such as an in-game social media platform where you’d get angry tweets from drivers saying mildly mean things about you, but that isn’t there, so the nemesis system never really feels fleshed out.

As for the racing itself, that’s as good as ever, with each car presenting a new challenge and carving your way though the pack being as fun as it usually is. Although, the range of cars and tracks on offer at launch has clearly suffered from Codemasters’ now omnipresent season pass method of charging £30 to add in extra cars and tracks gradually over time, which would feel like a way of keeping the game fresh in the long-term, were it not clear that at least the first few cars and tracks to be added should have and could have been in the game from launch. That said, there are enough categories to offer a number of different racing experiences from launch, including European touring cars, American muscle and Japanese tuners. Although, the inclusion of a rather bland time attack mode as the only alternative to traditional racing, rather than for example, drift competitions or touge events like in Racedriver GRID is a particularly unambitious and uninspiring choice.

Overall, 2019’s reboot of GRID is a fairly decent modern racing game, sliding smoothly into place next to Codemasters’ other racing titles. It isn’t necessarily bad, but, to me at least, it is shrouded in an unshakeable feeling of unrealised potential and seems like a missed opportunity by Codemasters to rocket the series back to the top of the racing market.

Then again, this could just be because I let myself get hyped up for it.