by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 24th October, 2018
Codemasters is one of those developer studios that specializes for one genre of video games, and in their case, that genre is racing games. They developed the famous Colin McRae Rally series, the best rally video game franchise of all times (which got renamed to Dirt in 2007). And one of those games, Colin McRae 2.0 from 2000 is considered as the best rally games of all times by many. Others would say that the excellent Collin McRae Dirt 2 was the best rally game made by Codemasters. The other racing series from Codemasters TOCA Race Driver, which represented the studio's take on classic track racing, got quite successful but the company abandoned it and decided to introduce a new track racing serial, called GRID.
The first game carrying the newly established moniker came out in 2008 and Race Driver: GRID soon became one of the best racing games of the previous console generation. The game had it all - long and interesting single player campaign which took place across three continents and included a huge number of racing classes; superb visuals which were way ahead of its rivals in the form of Project Gotham Racing, Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, and Forza Motorsport 2; and finally, excellent handling model that was in the sweet spot between arcade and simulation. Games that followed Race Driver: GRID couldn't match its quality, each ending up way behind the first one. It's simple, Codemasters reached its apex with Race Driver GRID, and here's why.
PS3 and Xbox 360 came out a couple of years ago and brought the largest leap in graphics ever since the original PlayStation redefined gaming in 1994. New games featured immensely improved visuals compared to the last generation of consoles but it took a couple of years for developers to really squeeze every single atom of power from new machines. And people from Codemasters did just that with Race Driver GRID.
While Colin McRae Dirt, which introduced the studio's next-gen game engine, called Neon, GRID utilized its upgraded version called EGO. And EGO managed to redefine visuals for then-next-gen consoles, PS3 and Xbox 360. GRID featured amazing visuals in every department. Firstly, cars looked photorealistic, like they just came out of a car saloon and into races. Models were incredibly detailed, with an astounding number of polygons per vehicle and sharp and crispy textures used for liveries and various print ads players could put all over their vehicles.
Road textures also looked incredibly sharp and lighting was truly next-gen, with incredible sun rays effects, HDR shading, and amazing night lighting. During the day, the game looked like a filmed video of the real world instead of computer graphics. And tracks were something else entirely. While cars and lighting looked way better than in any other racer of the time, tracks looked better compared to racing games that came out years after GRID. That was especially true in the case of city tracks. San Francisco, with detailed buildings that looked like they came out from some pre-rendered CGI footage used in a Hollywood blockbuster and Milan, which looked better than the real city were the two best-looking tracks we ever saw, at least until we finally saw the nightly wonders of Shibuya in Japan.
That track looked like it came from the future. Tons of neon sings which reflected on super detailed cars and the fact that the game supported huge crowds of fans measured in thousands made Shibuya track a true next-gen wonder and by far the best track we ever saw in a racing game. Even today, the track looks excellent and it could pass for Forza Motorsport 7 or Gran Turismo Sport track without anyone even noticing it is taken from a game released a decade ago. Race Driver GRID was ahead of its time in terms of graphics and the game stayed the prettiest racer for years.
While TOCA games usually leaned more towards simulation, which made them pretty tough for those without lots of experience in driving games, Race Driver GRID turned more towards arcade waters. But the good thing is that the handling model didn't go overboard with simulation elements. Sure, braking distance was much shorter than in sim games and cars were easy to control while hitting the brake pedal, and the game didn't feature any tire wear or other advanced simulation systems, but there were lots of sim elements that gave GRID depth and challenge while keeping it fun to play.
Attacking corners and controlling cars while cornering was pretty tough, especially with each driving assistance turned off. Yes, you could control which training wheels to keep and there were plenty of options to choose from. The usual suite of ABS, traction and stability control made the game relatively easy for beginners but turn those off and you got yourself one hell of a challenge even with arcadey braking distance.
Next, you could destroy your car in a second because the damage model was top notch. One late braking, or a bit stronger hit to a wall and you would end the race in a second because your wheel would fall off or your engine would become too damaged to reach the first place, or your chassis would become dented in the wrong place, destroying your car's aerodynamic shape.
Even drifting, which is the weakest part of many games, was perfect in GRID. You would end up loving drift events because, once you learned the basics, cars like Nisan Silvia would dance sideways for miles on end making drifting as enjoyable as it is in real life.
Cars didn't have that sense of weight we usually have in simulation racers but they featured lots of sim handling elements that made them complex but fun to drive and with assistances turned off, GRID would become an excellent racing game filled with challenges and exciting driving.
The single-player campaign mode, meat and bones of almost every game and extremely important in all racing games, is the best part of GRID. The campaign spans over three continents (North America, Europe, and Asia), and goes from humble beginnings - you get the old Ford Mustang Boss 302 from 1969 and compete in the classic muscle US championship - to grand finale as you sweep across most famous tracks in the world behind some of the fastest and most exclusive racing machines available.
There was a huge amount of events the player could choose from, and the campaign lasted for dozens of hours. The special treat was the final part of it unlocked after you've beaten all other championship, which would span across all three continents and include all of the most exclusive event types available in the game.
But the plethora of additional options available during the campaign were the things that really put GRID in front of other racing games. Firstly, you had your own team that grew and became better each season. You could pick sponsor contracts (and then manually place sponsor stickers on your cars), define colors of your team, hire new drivers depending on your current budget, and find new mechanics who would make your cars even better.
As you advanced the campaign you could see your team slowly growing, becoming better and better. From ending up on the middle of the table because you couldn't hire best drivers to compete with the best teams for the first position, the journey was exciting and it truly represented the way teams grow and evolve through years. And that feeling once you finally managed to take both first and second place in a championship was priceless and it is a shame no other racing game managed to recreate the excellent team management mode that was the best part of GRID's campaign mode.
And let's not forget the end of each season, which was celebrated with the most exclusive race of them all - 24 hours of Le Mans. You would have to settle racing in lower classes during the first five seasons or so because your team just didn't have enough funds to buy LMP1 or LMP2 cars. You could race for other teams, but that just wasn't it. And when you finally had enough money to get that monster Audi R10 TDI LMP1 car and managed to snag your first Le Mans win in its premier class, all that effort finally got cashed in and the game became the best racing experience ever.
While Race Driver GRID had only about 40 cars on its roster, which is an extremely poor number in the world where a game like Forza Motorsport 7 comes with more than 700 cars, each of the machines was expertly curated and there wasn't a single filler in the game. Each car would be driven at least during one full championship and each racing machine presented the best of what racing world offered at the time.
From the legendary 1969 Ford Mustang Boss to the then-brand-new Chevy Camaro, or magnificent 2007 Koenigsegg CCXR, cult classic Honda NSX-R, track beast Porsche 911 GT3-RSR, raging bull 2003 Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT, and the monstrous Audi R10 LMP1 Le Mans Prototype, each car in this game was the best of the best.
The game featured one of the best opponent AI seen in any racing game to date. They would relentlessly fight for their place, not allowing you to overtake them easy. But once overtaken, opponents would react in milliseconds to prevent crashing into your car, or any other racer on the track. They would be almost unmistakable at higher difficulties but would sometimes show human-like minuscule mistakes like breaking a tad too late, or entering a turn just a tad too sharp which would grant you a moment when you could pass them.
And from time to time an opponent would make a serious mistake, like braking way too late or completely falling out of the track, which were real-life mistakes that happened extremely rarely but showed just how much developers took care about the smallest details regarding opponent AI. Sure they were faster at straights and slower when taking turns compared to you, but that was a part of every racing game back then.
A small feature included in Race Driver GRID that made racing line completely unnecessary was a small braking notification casually tucked in the lower left corner of the HUD, just under the minimap. It would flash in yellow when it was time to hit that brake pedal, and it would start flashing red once you really had to start braking, and this small part of the HUD was one of the best things I've ever seen in any racing game!
You see, with that small notification there was no need for the dynamic racing line, even the line that shows just during corners was completely unnecessary. You could clearly see the small light going yellow with peripheral vision so there was no need of looking at it and moving focus from the race. It really boggles my mind why no one else copied it or why even Codemasters didn't include it in their other racing games.
Another revolution brought to the world of racing games by Race Driver GRID (really, that tiny braking light was a revolution and if someone put it in Forza we wouldn't have to use that dynamic braking line that completely ruins the immersion) was the phenomenal rewind feature. Okay, many of you probably despise it but rewind changed the world of racing games in a good way. And soon after it was introduced in Race Driver GRID, many other racing games (Need for Speed, Forza, even Gran Turismo) implemented the feature. No more we had to restart a race after each mistake; no more one tiny moment of lost attention would mean going back to the pre-race screen. The rewind feature made us more aggressive, we are now willing to take more risks while driving because each large mistake could be erased with rewinding the whole race.
And it also introduced a layer of strategy to the racing genre, at least in games which limited the number of times you can use rewind feature. You have to decide which mistakes can be looked away from, and which have to be fixed by doing a bit of rewind. The limited number of uses is the thing that makes this feature good. When you have an unlimited number of uses, it can really make you too irrational while driving, often transforming racing into a series of rewinds that happen every half a minute.
And the final part of the genius of Race Driver GRID was its config file, which could be altered by users in the PC version of the game. This could lead to removing that ugly-looking yellowish tint the game had, that made it look muddy and simply too blurred. And once you removed the yellow tint, the game would look much better. The second cool thing you could do is increasing car reflection resolution. By default, even the highest setting made reflections grainy and low quality, and by doubling the default resolution you could make the cars look miles better.
Race Driver GRID isn't the best racing game ever, but it is a phenomenal experience that can be played over and over again. It is one of those games you could play each year at least once because the game packs tons of fun and while it surely had to have more cars (even though each machine was excellent and extremely fun to drive) and a few more tracks, it represents everything we love about racing. The excitement of battling for the first place, the joy of driving the best racing cars in the world, the feeling of proudness when looking at how your team grows and becomes better, and that unmatched level of happiness after you win your first 24 Hours of Le Mans in Audi R10 LMP1. Because of all that, Race Driver GRID is the best racing game made by Codemasters, ever.