What Made Race Driver: Grid Great? The Illusion Of A Living, Breathing Motorsport World
There was something magical the first time I fired up Race Driver: Grid on the good old PS3. It’s a game I fondly remember of that console generation’s lifecycle.
The 2008 game is another change of direction and a new name for the previously TOCA and then Race Driver series, which then becomes Grid. From touring cars to a full-blown story mode with cutscenes (for a racing game!), the series has gone places.
But the arguably best place it landed was the first, original Grid. It is so great even with two sequels (and a reboot), Grid still stands as the best of the lot. At least for me. Let me explain why.
Race Driver: Grid capture the illusion of a living, breathing, hyper-realistic motorsport world. Grid World.
Welcome To Grid World
You start off Grid with humble beginnings. The homey garage is your main menu for the whole game, where you spend your time off the track.
It’s a relaxing space, thanks to the soothing tunes of Nathan Boddy’s Vintage Warmer colouring your interactions of obnoxiously big, floating texts that is the menu. At the time, the floating menu elements were bold and revolutionary, a UX design Codemasters would employ across its other racers before the flat, minimalist design trend dominated the 2010s.
It’s also one of the first games to let you assign a name, where the voiceovers will audibly announce. Or nicknames. The list was pretty limited to common English names and cool-sounding nicknames, but the neat trick lives on in games like the Forza Horizon series.
Race Driver: Grid makes it clear from the start how Grid World, this world of motorsport racing, is. It’s divided into three clear regions- The USA, Europe, and Japan. This is before the Grid series group events into racing disciplines rather than regions.
A street race in the USA has crowds cheering from the bleachers on the side of each corner. But go drifting in Japan and you get a very excited Japanese man on commentary duty, shouting through the blaring speakers, as you expect. And go to Europe, you’ll be banging wheels in touring cars or engage in open-wheel racing in an F3 car- both signature disciplines of the region in real life.
You can go through a selection of events from the three regions at any order, and will unlock more as you accrue more reputation by winning or participating in races in a particular region.
It seems rather Gran Turismo-ish that you keep on racing different events, jumping from one discipline to another. And it kind of is. The comparisons don’t end there, however. You’ll also need to buy racing cars, either brand new or cheaper second-hand rides via eBay. Yeah, remember eBay? Such times.
You begin your career as a driver for hire, working with various teams and help them score good results. It’s marginal pay, and you barely get any rep points to make your name in the three regions. But it’s a great way to sample the many race styles in the game. Keep it up and you’ll rise in the ranks and rack up money in the bank. With enough money and reputation, the narrator says, you can form your own team, be your own boss and chase your own glory to the top of the world rankings.
That is how a season of Race Driver: Grid goes. Enter an event you’re eligible, compete, repeat. Slowly you unravel the layers of the Grid World, climbing higher in the career ladder to reach the Grid Series. It’s a loop you’ll repeat for multiple in-game seasons. And each season ends with the most prestigious race of them all. The big one.
It’s the 24 Hours Of Le Mans.
The Glorious Le Mans
For motorsport fans, the endurance race is held up on a pedestal. It’s the prestigious event that makes up motorsport’s version of the triple crown. It’s the subject of the recent hit film Ford V Ferrari (Le Mans ’66), where intense drama can happen on track.
(Yes, that plot twist at the end is based on real events.)
But Grid makes a good job to make someone unaware of the heritage to treat the season finale event like the game’s equivalent of major boss fight. The game makes it a proper occasion. An event worth your attention. You need to do well here. Big rewards for big results. If you’re good enough, that is.
If that’s not clear enough a video pop-up will play retelling you what Le Mans is at the end of each season.
And for those not familiar with Le Mans, this would be the introduction of class-based racing, where cars of different regulation compete in the same race. You’ll start off with a GT2 class car, the lowest rung of the Le Mans ladder. That said, these machines are much more powerful than most of the cars you raced in the first season, and on an unfamiliar track- the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Technically, you’ll race for the whole of 10 real-life minutes instead of a full 24-hour run (which roughly equates to two-and-a-half laps), but the final few minutes will always be exhilarating.
Like most realistic racers, Grid lets the engine colour your soundtrack and to this day, those blaring engine roars are some of the best in the business. But as the minute count of the race gets ever closer to zero, music seeps in. And it slowly introduces one more instrument after another, revealing a full-blown orchestra ensemble.
The end is near, the music strums hard letting you know this. The crescendo continues to build up as the clock ticks down. Bring the car home. Hold that position down until the last second.
The orchestra builds up mightily at in the final seconds.. only to end in silence. Take a deep breath.
And the usual end-of-race stinger brilliantly slides in not long after, with your pit crew chief commenting on your results. Should that be a win, it’s a celebration of triumph at the end of a story, expertly done in just using audio cues.
The main structure of Race Driver: Grid is essentially you enter a bunch of race series over and over. And that can get boring really quick. What Codemasters did here is framing that career ladder with context, context you can get behind and be invested in, even without any familiarity of motorsports.
A good game always dangle an achievable carrot in front of you, while teasing a bit of what’s to come- which Grid’s career ladder progression effectively does.
You don’t just win a bunch of races for the sake of it. First you want to unlock all the higher tiers of races by doing well in each three regions. And now you have another one: win Le Mans. First by joining some exiting team, but you want to work your way to earn enough money to get at least a GT2 class. So you can win with your own colours, your own team, for more reputation gain. And then win it some more in the faster classes later on.
But there’s another layer of how the racing world of Race Driver: Grid feels alive.
Nathan McKane And The Band Of The Ravenwest
It’s not just you who are vying to make a name in the world of motorsports. There are other drivers too. Keep racing in the same continent and you will start to recognise some of the familiar names who you’re banging wheels with.
Not only that, you have a worldwide leaderboard of all the racers on the Grid motorsport world on who’s objectively the best driver in the world. Imagine Need For Speed Most Wanted’s Blacklist, but it’s 500 drivers long and you get to see the list shuffling as the many seasons unfold. The AI drivers climb up and down these ranks. So as yourself, the difference is that you are on a trajectory ever upwards.
From here you can see where you stand on the list. And once forming a team, you can see where your team stands in the rankings as well. One clear leader rests on top of the throne.
Ravenwest is essentially the Grid World’s Razor Callahan- the #1 driver on the blacklist. Or the real-life Mercedes F1 team in the turbo-hybrid era. Utterly dominant.
You see the grey with black stripe cars as seen in the game’s cover, you know these are the best of the best. The most talented drivers, with the best cars on the grid. And they’ll dominate the championship, unless you do something about it- if you can.
The teams that race in the same championship are not static- they are usually different if you attempt the championship again. And that means there’s a chance for Ravenwest to grace their presence on the… grid.
If Ravenwest is competing, your pit crew chief makes sure to remind you in the pre-amble. He’ll remind you if they are leading the race. When Ravenwest takes the chequered flag first, he’ll lament it on radio- just like F1 fans that are bored of the Mercedes dominance of the current era. Oh, they won again, of course they do. They’re Ravenwest.
The comparisons to the utterly dominating F1 team of the generation doesn’t end there. I played through the game in the second-hardest difficulty (Savage) and I dread the moment I see Ravenwest appears. They’re like the Majima Everywhere system- a boss fight that can randomly happen without prior warning.
In one championship involved racing Japanese Le Mans prototype cars, for the life of me I can’t catch up with the pair of Nathan McKane and Rick Scott. They’re consistently 2 seconds ahead, and I’m stuck in no man’s land of third place. With the rest of the AI pack is another 2 seconds behind. These Ravenwest boys are absolute aliens in some races.
The only way to win is to resort to dirty tactics- ram them off the track like it’s a Forza Motorsport 7 online lobby. I was that desperate.
Now you have another goal to pursue: not only to climb the ranks and finish all the championships in first. And also win Le Mans. But you also want to topple the status quo, draped in grey and black.
Not Bad For A Number 2 Driver
You don’t do that alone, however. At this stage, you would already formed your creatively named team, create your own livery scheme and sign in some sponsors. But you also need a teammate.
Remember that world rankings? From that long list actual AI drivers you encounter in races, you can recruit one as your wingman. Anyone, so long as you have enough rep and money.
I personally have a soft spot for AI teammates in general. And Race Driver: Grid has one of the best implementations of it in a racing game to date. Each recruitable AI teammate has specific discipline they excel at and also specific stats. There are more aggressive drivers that’ll push and shove for the lead. There more well-mannered ones suitable for the number 2 driver role.
Your teammate isn’t just another car sharing your livery. Aside from your engineer giving voice lines, unrealistically your teammate also shares radio contact with you. Hear them groan after making a mistake. See them cheer for the team as you and him score a 1-2 finish. They’ll let you know if they’re just behind or ahead of you. And apologise should the two of you make contact (even when it’s entirely your fault). It feels intimate that way. And it in way, made me bond with the AI teammate- mostly because they don’t talk back and always supportive of you.
And kudos to Codies for having multiple voice actors with different accents. It’s not comprehensive, and the voice lines are honestly rather limited. It’s a shame they didn’t double down on this feature in future games, it’s that one thing that the developers go above way and beyond to sell us this world of a living motorsport. But it’s understandable so- it’s expensive to have way too many voice lines that players most likely don’t want.
But your teammates have a relative talent cap. You can see both of you climbing up the ranks, but there will be one point in a season where you better off part ways and get a better driver- a driver that won’t spin out too much and still be competitive to achieve those sponsor objectives, leading to more money.
That former teammate is still racing after that, in a new team. And each time I cross paths again with a former teammate it was a nice moment. Even if they ended up placing at the back of the pack, or a victim of rather aggressive driving.
Grid World, this ideal motorsport world you spend a career mode in, is also charming in some ways. It paints a more vibrant picture than reality.
It’s an idealistic reality where various motorsport events can bring thousands of spectators around almost every bend of the track every race day. A reality where no one would ever die despite not having catch fences for street tracks, in case cars are flying from an accident ( they won’t, because video games).
No, nobody will get hurt, but you can hear the crowd go “oooh” after a nasty crash each time. Rubbing is racing, as the saying goes, especially when safety is not a factor cars can grind, shunt, and punt each other freely in any given race. No penalties for unsafe driving.
There are no penalties for corner-cutting either, outside of the penalty of the car losing every ounce of grip it has. And cars in Grid are unnaturally frail, with a slight tap or a little bump can cause major damage and send you pirouetting with ease and grace.
Unrealistically, drivers will pull a S?innala more often than r/formuladank’s Binotto can ever get Legreg on the phone. More often than not your pit crew chief will go “Woah! Looks like someone’s spun out! It’s [insert driver name here]!”
S?innala Simulator pic.twitter.com/mT0fNKrSC9
— Amirul Ashraf (@meckronos) June 10, 2020
Despite it having a few licensed cars, tracks, events and real drivers, Grid is not authentic real, but that’s what makes it still stand apart to this day. It’s an ideal take on the world of motorsport. It’s not trying to represent the real deal circa 2008. It flourishes and embellishes the details so it’s more exciting. And sexier. And outright more appealing the regular old sim racer can be to the general audience.
The game’s physics is described as “simcade”, though more arcade than a simulator. And this distinct flavour we got, as a result, makes for a more fun and approachable racing game.
Not only that, the amount of accessibility in terms of difficulty introduced by Grid colours the landscape of racing games we see today- from adjustable difficulty settings (with adjusted reward payout) to the flashback feature prominently in series like Forza.
Grid sold the idea that race cars and being a race driver is cool, and made it available for racing fans and non-racing fans alike.
Has It Been Bettered?
Arguably, this illusion of the living, breathing, motorsport world sets the original Grid apart from other racing games of its time. And one of the most important ingredients to its critical success.
This is evident when you see the sequel, Grid 2. The established illusion from Grid World is lost. It was replaced by a story about where you, after being recruited by some random millionaire, beat other race teams to convince them to join this World Racing Series said millionaire is organising. So you can race there and beat those race teams, again.
That’s not fun, that’s excessive ego-stroking for no good reason.
Looking at it objectively however, Grid 2 made plenty of great improvements. But you don’t get the original Grid’s greatest strengths- the world-building. Grid 2’s take on the motorsport world feels off the mark. Alongside other factors, this caused Grid 2 to be notorious for not meeting the original’s high bar. Still a decent game when judged on its own though, don’t get me wrong.
Grid Autosport, the entry after that, grounded the series to more traditional racing where you race in a team rather than focusing on social media or gimmick races or ridiculous-in-a-not-fun-way story. But it’s missing a lot from the original still. You only race for other teams, and no more of your teammate’s radio, which is more realistic, but it lacks any flair of the original Grid as a result. A reserved take, but a step in the right direction.
The rebooted Grid (2019) has an interesting twist on adding a nemesis system, doubling down on the series’ lax views on aggressive driving. But it still lack that special magic that made the original Grid great. Reasons I’m saving for another day.
A combination of the main menu, soundtrack and gameplay structure, all with the added context of various main goals, presents Race Driver: Grid this illusion of a living, breathing, hyper-realistic motorsport world. You come in, you gradually learn what’s up for grabs, and slowly climb your way up the career ladder, looking at the various happenings in your peripheral while you at it. It’s a game where the smallest of details help embellish this racing game into something more than it should.
Gran Turismo was a revolution when it presented a world and a motorsport structure for the first time to the masses. And I’d argue Race Driver: Grid manages to capture that essence again. But presented with a laser-focused motorsport lense, plus its own flair and trimmings.
Race Driver: Grid makes you understand that for race drivers, it’s not just about going around the in a circle a few times and be the fastest.
There’s more on the line. There’s more at play. And the game welcomes you, whether you are familiar with motorsport or not, if you are ever played a racing game or not, with wide arms as it presents to you why race drivers, race.
And that’s what made Race Driver: Grid great.