GRID 2: where do racing games go from here?

As Codemasters' GRID 2 arrives, Seb wonders where the racing game can go next. Is there still room for innovation as well as refinement?

In a sense, it’s not hard to see why it’s taken Codemasters almost five years to put out a sequel to Race Driver: GRID. One of the most widely-acclaimed – and biggest-selling – games of the developer’s long and distinguished output of racing simulations, GRID remains popular to this day, with Xbox 360 owners still able to play online via its servers (despite the PC and PS3 equivalents having closed down in 2011). While the clamour for a sequel has since been inevitable, there’s also the question of whether or not producing one risks damaging the franchise’s reputation by not living up to the original. This is not the case with Grid 2, though.

The loyalty that racing game fans tend to have to a particular series – or even installment – emphasizes one of the biggest problems their developers face: just how do you move the genre forwards in this day and age? And perhaps more pertinently, how do you do so while keeping as many people as possible happy? After all, there are plenty of genre fans who’d argue that nothing since the original Gran Turismo has matched it, while others would suggest that in fact no developer has ever yet hit the mark to their own exacting standards.

Having achieved the difficult feat of establishing a niche in a field where standing out among the pack is so difficult – as Bizarre Creations, themselves long-time racing genre stalwarts, found out when Blur debuted to disappointing sales and ultimately led to the closure of the studio – Codemasters now find themselves under the age old-pressure of keeping this new fanbase happy while not simply churning out the same game a second time. 

The original GRID had already proved a significant step away from the company’s previous games – although technically a continuation of the TOCA: Race Driver series (and indeed, before that, the TOCA: Touring Cars games that originally date back to the late 90s), the game drew as much inspiration from popular street-racing based games as it did the touring car and formula-based racing of its predecessors. Where it succeeded was in successfully falling between two stools: the intense realism and car-collecting aimed for by Gran Turismo and Forza, and the quick arcadey thrills of the likes of Need For Speed and Burnout.

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How a racing franchise takes the next step forward, however, very much depends on which particular stratum of the genre it falls into. The twin titans of GT and Forza focus very much on increasing the quality of graphics, the range of available cars, and tweaking rather than overhauling the handling and realism – a consequence of the fact that many of those series’ fans would argue that each already reached a peak of quality somewhat early in their existences. Operating as less of a hardcore simulation, however, the GRID series is open to a little more in the way of experimentation than its peers generally are.

Indeed, it was one particularly left-field piece of innovation that attracted some of the original GRID’s strongest plaudits: the ‘flashback’ feature, which allows players a limited number (depending on difficulty) of do-overs in a given a race. No longer does one momentary lapse of concentration completely ruin a player’s lengthy session – and the feature proved so popular it’s already been deployed in Codemasters’ F1 series, as well as inspiring similar modes in other companies’ games. It was an attempt to improve the gameplay experience beyond simply tweaking handling physics or adding more places in which to drive – and it’s this kind of lateral thinking that could yet provide further leaps forward for the racing genre. 

For many racing fans, it was actually an earlier TOCA game that explored a new way of presenting the “race day experience” that Codemasters have talked up in GRID 2 previews. When the Race Driver series began, it introduced a story-based element of a sort rarely seen in the genre. Games modelled after Gran Turismo already include what could be described as an RPG-style progression – as buying and upgrading cars allows you to progress through different classes of racing – but Race Driver actually had you playing a scripted character working his way through the professional ranks of racing teams and championships. It was admittedly a quite simplistic and linear storyline, but a storyline all the same in a genre that generally doesn’t have room for them.

This role-playing element was toned down with each successive Race Driver instalment, until the GRID series began and cast the player as team owner/driver rather than simply hired wheelman. The simple fact remains that the most popular kind of racing game at the moment is one that combines circuit racing, street racing and vehicle trading and customisation. It’s little surprise, therefore, that evolution of this genre – rather than all-out revolution – is presently the main aim of racing game developers. Nevertheless, there’s surely still room for inventive expansion and improvement of that basic model, beyond simply beefing up graphics each time new processing technology becomes available.

The most obvious potential for development would seem to be in online play. At the moment, the majority of racing games tend to keep online racing (whether against friends or strangers) distinct from their career modes – but the potential for an MMO-style affair, in which the standard buy-sell-customise-race model actually includes taking on human players as well as CPU racers, is surely vast. So far, only the intriguing but flawed Test Drive Unlimited games, along with a handful of free-play games like Trackmania and Need For Speed World, have really explored this possibility – but it would be big news if a proper franchise game with the graphics and simulation quality of the likes of Gran Turismo or GRID took a step in this direction as well. 

Given that control systems for racing games have largely remained the same for a good couple of decades, there could yet be room for improvement or innovation on that front as well – especially as Microsoft and Sony push to give motion control increasing prominence. It’s unlikely that hardcore racing fans would want to start turning their controllers from side to side in the manner of a steering wheel – no matter how popular Mario Kart Wii may be with the casual punter – but there would seem to be potential for controllers like Kinect to immerse racers more fully in the game’s world, perhaps by responding to head movement to allow quick control of in-game cameras.

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The question remains, however, whether the racing game needs to evolve dramatically at present. With the immense popularity the genre still shows, publishers and developers can hardly be blamed for an “if it ain’t broke” approach. Nevertheless, after largely going around in circles (or, perhaps, circuits) since the initial sea change of the first Gran Turismo, it would be nice to see one of the major series break out on its own track a little more. 

GRID 2 hit stores on May 28th.

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