What Does Grid 2 Want to Be?
The original Grid had a very distinct fusion of simulation-style gameplay and straight-up, motorsport racing. For players intimidated by depth of control and individualized car specification tuning, Grid achieved a comfortable, introductory medium to the world of simulation racing sports; it offered help along the way, but still presented players with toggled handling assists, car choices with mechanical implications, and a realistic cockpit view (which is sadly gone from Grid 2).
Racing games have recently been pouring to the scene, though, and Grid 2 doesn't face an empty market: Project Cars has some of the most amazing graphics we've ever seen, the new Gran Turismo was just announced, and Trackmania: Stadium rounds-off the arcade market segment. Looking at these examples alone, we can see just how many sub-genres of "racing" there really are: Arcade racing, simulation racing - complete with car tuning, customization and collection-centric racers, and then the hybrids (like NFS and Grid 2).
Speaking with Ross Gowing, Senior Game Designer at Codemasters, it quickly became clear that Grid 2's focus was to appeal to everyone possible; they're targeting novice, more arcadey racer fans in addition to the mid-range and hardcore sim racers. Grid 2 doesn't want to exclude players by enforcing the mechanical effects of their damage model or requiring car knowledge, but hopes to retain appeal to simulation fans. On this topic, Gowing told us:
"We've been very careful to always put the player at the center of the action. It's all about the on-track action and drama; some racing games are about intricately modeling things to the nth degree -- they're very simulation heavy, some are about car collecting, but ours really is all about being in a pack and racing in moment-to-moment action.
[...] We really want people to be able to pick up the pad and—within a couple of laps—feel like a hero. With the TrueFeel handling system, we feel like we've achieved that: You can get in there and be power-sliding around corners with tire smoke coming off within a couple of laps. With the work we've done on each individual vehicle—their characteristics and subtleties—there's still all the depth there that the more hardcore players would be looking for. Every vehicle in the game handles differently, so players can identify which car best suits their driving style and really become 'one with the car.' We feel we've catered to all types of players -- it's easy to pick up and difficult to master."
As we continued through the roundtable, Grid 2's distinct focus on accessibility and the "something for everyone" approach started to bleed through. Rather than a more audience-specific release—like most premiere racing titles—the game feels a bit more mainstream and open-ended.
"Grid 2 Isn't Dumbed-Down" - Accessibility vs. Simulation
This emphasis on accessibility, lack of cockpit view, focus on social features, and absence of basic tweaking has been cause for concern by vocal members of the Codemasters forums, though. And as with all games, it's generally the vocal minority that speaks up, but that's no reason to ignore the often legitimate (if overblown) concerns.
That's why it's important to understand exactly what Grid 2 wants to be: It's not trying to be GT, nor does it want to be Trackmania. Codemasters was adamant that the game wouldn't be dumbed-down in anyway, but they're equally-adamant that casual players can enjoy it. To voice an opinion momentarily -- after the conference call, I almost felt as if Grid 2 is going the direction of Need for Speed. Now, it won't have police chases or other NFS keystones, but the heavier car customization tools and zoomed-out racing certainly feels that way.
I pressed on this point, asking whether any in-depth tweaking/tuning options or assist controls would be available to the petrolheads and motorsport fans, to which Gowing said:
"All the assists are wrapped-up into the TrueFeel handling system, so there's no toggling of stability control and things like that. With tuning and tweaking -- on the multiplayer side of the game we have mechanical upgrading of vehicles, so you'll be able to upgrade your handling, engine, drivetrain; if a vehicle isn't performing quite as you want in the corners, you can spend a bit of your online currency and improve the handling. It's a very easy-to-use system as well.
Over time, there's been other games that are quite technically-oriented. You almost need a mechanics degree to make heads or tails of it. We've come up with an easy-to-use system where you can highlight an upgrade package, it'll tell you what it's going to do, which components are being added, what the performance difference will be. You can apply it and improve the car within its native tier or bump it up to the next tier, so if you wanted to upgrade a classic mustang to compete with a modern mustang, you can do that.
We've been hard at work balancing these upgrades against one another, so we've reviewed a lot of good players in poor cars and bad players in good cars. We've found that whilst upgrading a car can give advantage to weaker players, it really is still down to who's the best driver. The system's so balanced, and there won't be any problem of, say, getting a 4KA and upgrading it to outrun a Bugatti Veyron."
The very first sentence of the above block highlights the most important indicator of Grid 2's emphasis on mechanical feel: Codemasters' TrueFeel system has eliminated artificial assists to reduce the gap between the player and their vehicles, mechanically-speaking. This improves real-world portrayal of track racing and encourages skill-based gameplay, rather than abusing auto-assists that have historically simplified racing games. Still, the answer was shouting "streamlined" and "simplistic" at me. I asked whether hardcore / mid-range sim players would still have a place in the new Grid; another journalist followed-up with questions about a shift to focus on accessibility:
"The guys who have the hydraulic racing seats and multiscreen stuff, they're all still catered for. The on-track racing is really where we can draw them in. We've got everything they could possibly want from a racing game, whether they're into the motorsport vehicles and locations or whether they're more road-orientated. Yes, the upgrade system is streamlined, but there is still kind of a balancing act to be done out there. There's still a balancing act to explain what components are being added and what the difference is to the performance there.
[...] [Focus on development] has shifted slightly over time - after we did the first Grid, we identified pretty quickly that we should make a sequel. [...] Accessibility is something that's grown bigger over the course of making those plans... we certainly don't want to alienate newer players, we wanted to get people into the game/franchise and get out there enjoying what it is we do. It would be fair to say that we've made the game a touch more accessible over time, yeah."
Gowing cited a lack of adequate technology in the Grid 1 era as responsible for the delay we've endured, and noted that Codemasters wanted to ensure they could implement as much control tech (like TrueFeel) as possible.
Part of Grid 2's plan to offer a wider featureset (other than simply track racing) has been the implementation of its vehicle customization and RaceNet features. We previously described RaceNet and Liveroutes in this article (worth looking into), but this is the first time we're talking about customization and vehicle tiers.
Grid 2 Vehicle Tiers & Customization
Much like real-world motorsports and the previous Grid's 24-Heur du Mans, Grid 2 has divided its cars into multiple tiers of competition (T1-T4). The tiering hierarchy allows a wider spectrum of balanced cars, so classic American muscle and modern supercars can both be present within a balanced, realistic environment. On top of the enablement of a distributed power differential, tiers also provide a curved progression that becomes increasingly difficult as players advance to higher-powered cars; a rear-wheel drive, 720BHP Pagani Huayra will offer a greater challenge to control than a classic Mustang, for instance.
Each vehicle has a checklist of 300 differing parameters taken into account, balanced within the TrueFeel technology (explained here) to amplify the unique playstyles. As explained by Gowing, Codemasters worked closely with official test drivers for car manufacturers, who were able to provide specific feedback about car performance, pitfalls, and advantages. In theory, this focus means each car will front a different road or track personality -- players with an aggressive, powersliding playstyle will be attracted to different cars than those who take the more calculated approach of an F1 driver.
As for customization, we've been told that the liveries system features 50-60 patterns within the game's design editor, each with four different paint layers; each layer allows different types and colors of paint (pearlescent, matte, metallic, etc.). Gowing mentioned very briefly that "you can collect any number of colors and adjust the shade for each one," so from what it sounds like, colors may be unlocked or purchased in the same fashion as vehicles.
Codemasters noted that those lacking artistic ambitions will still be able to whip together a nice, unique car, while those with more design ability will be given the tools to put it to use.
Singleplayer & Multiplayer Concerns Addressed
It feels like we've been barraged with news of Grid 2's advanced multiplayer functions for a few weeks now, including its brand new RaceNet matchmaking framework (described here). Concerns for the singleplayer experience were voiced on the call, receiving a somewhat reassuring response from Codemasters:
"For people who don't like racing online, we've got this narrative-driven singleplayer where you're the rising star of a global racing series.
[...] Because the singleplayer side of the game is geared around world-series racing, we wanted to make sure we had a spread [of locations] from across the globe. We identified North America, Europe, andAsiaas the three areas we most wanted to represent in this kind of racing series.
Then we sat down and looked at all the major cities and territories, picked out what has the most iconic buildings and which cities had good layouts that we could make use of. For example, inBarcelonawe've got all the great architecture there, and then moving out to Asia we have more mountain type stuff [...] Then in NA we identifiedIndianapolisandChicagoas important.
Players will find that as they progress through the game, the dressing of each race improves and improves. Right at the start it's a very grassroots motorsport level - pockets of people hanging around, not very much going on, held at sunset. Then as they get all the way to the end of the game, we have a full-on primetime [event] at night with fireworks, massive crowds, and grandstands full of people, so you really feel the way the game is growing with you as you progress through it."
Singleplayer is largely centered around the fanfare of gaining fame, somewhat coinciding with RaceNet's similar fame/leaderboard themes. This isn't new for Grid, though it does sound like we'll have more evocative settings that reflect the rise to recognition, hopefully providing at least a partially-gripping narrative for solo players.
Opinions About Direction: Is Grid Really Unique?
There are a lot of racing games. A whole lot.
It's easy to see Grid 2 as "another racing game," and -- frankly -- it may well be one of those. Racing games need something very distinct to set them apart: GT has some of the most advanced car tweaking settings we've seen, the (old) Need for Speed has had police chases for two decades, DiRT is drifting and rally-driven, and Grid had big, licensed race tracks and globally-recognized motorsport events.
Grid 2 retains much of this, but also mixes in more city races (using LiveRoutes, which sort of feels like the Fast & Furious 2 GPS) and loses some of the big-name race tracks. More resources have gone into the environment than previously, but that hasn't taken away from the cars at all; cutting cockpit view freed up memory for the environment and vehicles (which is only relevant because the current consoles are throttling the rest of the civilized world), so we have noticeable visual improvements all around.
The thing is, throughout the entire process of covering Grid 2's developments, I've had this nagging feeling that something isn't right; I suppose axing cockpit view was a huge hit to my excitement, but I've attempted to remain objective about things and push that bias aside. According to Codemasters, cockpit view was used by "only 5% of players" in Grid 1. If that's the case, however they tracked those metrics, I suppose it's an acceptable cut from a budget perspective (both system and monetary resources). When asked about potential modding API or user-generated content potential, we were told that mods were unlikely, so a user-created cockpit view would be non-trivial.
I'm hopeful that the "TrueFeel" system really does make cars as addictive to drive as it sounds, but I've never found the hood cam or bumper cam views to be useful (just disorienting, really), and third-person view completely lacks immersion. Putting a car between myself and the seat, while somewhat logical on the surface, just doesn't feel like I'm driving it. A lot of the actual personality of cars feels lost when you're just floating behind the vehicle, watching it maneuver from key input. For that reason, coupled with the more "accessible" scope of the game, I'm inclined to say that Grid 2 will play a lot more casually than the first game. I don't mean that in a negative way, I just don't see fans of tuning-based and immersion-driven racing games getting as personally invested.
We'll see what happens.
The game releases on May 28th. We're slated to produce a full review and video review for Grid 2, so certainly stay tuned on that. Again, I'm hopeful that all the outlined concerns have been addressed and that the shift toward accessibility isn't presented as a shift toward casual play, but we won't know for about two weeks.
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.