Typically, racing games fall into one of two camps: simulation or arcade. While some strive for realism, others toss it out of the window of a flying Cadillac before crashing into a flaming lamp post. Race Driver: GRID, however, sits somewhere between the two; it simulates the career of an up-and-coming racing driver while still revelling in speed and destruction. Amazingly, it pulls off the combination perfectly.
Arcade racers encourage speed and high risk manoeuvres by penalising crashes leniently - in Burnout Paradise, for example, if the player drives off the side of a cliff they merely lose a few seconds. While this makes for an exciting game it sits at odds with realism because, as most people know, car crashes are to be avoided. Race Driver: GRID's Flashback system allows the player to rewind time after a bad crash in a very similar fashion to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and its sequels. Not only does it give the player license to drive aggressively, it allows similar ferocity from opponent AI; all without forsaking realism.
And this racer is as real as it gets: vehicle damage is incredibly detailed, right down to the slightest paintwork chip; bumpers, exhausts and wheels from crashes remain on the track to send you spinning out if you hit them hard enough; and AI drivers misjudge turns and crash into barriers too, rather than rigidly following the racing line.
The graphics are stunning; cars are beautifully modelled and the tracks are breathtaking. The accurately captured locations include San Francisco, Shibuya and Milan, and feature fully destructible tyre walls and barriers. Particularly worthy of mention is the Milan course, which weaves through the city's main shopping district and past the cathedral, its 135 spires piercing the overcast sky. The entire game displays a dedication to the tiny details that leaves you thinking: why aren't all racing titles like this? And that's not restricted to what happens on the track, it's also present in GRID World - the excellent single player career mode.
You start out as an unknown driver with a garage and a beaten old Ford Mustang in need of repair. To raise the necessary funds, you can accept offers to drive for established teams across the game's three territories - America, Europe and Japan. Once you have enough cash, you can set up your own racing team and enter race events. Managing your team becomes a balancing act between earning enough money through independent driver offers and gaining important reputation points through race events.
Reputation points are what determine your place in the Driver Rankings and your status, be it amateur or pro. However, winning races in America, for example, will only improve your reputation in that territory, so it's important to pay just as must attention to Japanese and European competitions. As your reputation improves, you will be able to recruit a partner to aid your racing team, whatever you decide to call it, in climbing the Team Rankings and earning sponsorship deals to pay for faster cars.
The range of vehicles and racing styles is diverse; you begin with the Pro Muscle discipline, which includes American classics such as the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Viper, and progress through Touring Cars, Open Wheel, Drift GP, Formula 3 and many more. Each has its own distinct style and rules - in Drift GP for example, drivers take it in turns to earn points by drifting around corners, gaining bonus points for stringing together combos.
With such an engrossing single player campaign, there's scarcely room to mention the excellent online mode, which boasts an effective raking system and lag-free racing for up to 12 players; the useful commentary that updates you with positions of rivals and even refers to you using your real forename or the nickname of your choice; or the realistic engine sounds that feature tiny rattles or groans if the car has been damaged.
Race Driver: GRID is a marriage of arcade and simulation, and rather than come up with a halfway house, Codemasters has produced the best of both worlds. Everything about the game reeks of quality and the Flashback feature is the best innovation the genre has seen in years. GRID World mode is the cherry on the cake: a campaign structure that gives the player just the right amount of team management control and a simple interface, ensuring it's never long before you're getting down to the business of winning races.
The developer has identified what racing fans are crying out for and supplied it in droves, and the result is as good as it gets.