Codemasters, now under EA's umbrella, is determined to fix at least two of the three main problems Grid 2019 posed.
If petrolheads didn't get enough with the high-octane activity within the racing games genre we've witnessed in 2021, they will enjoy an equally-exciting beginning of 2022 with the several different releases already coming out in the first quarter of the year. And while long-term PlayStation enthusiasts and simracing lovers are looking forward to both Gran Turismo 7 (PS4, PS5) and Assetto Corsa Competizione (PS5, Xbox Series, with its latest overhaul update just released on PC), arcade fans are really looking forward to getting themselves behind the wheel of Grid Legends, the first racing game by Codemasters that will be published by EA (on February 25, to be precise).
Now, this game builds heavily on a Grid reboot (2019) that we found to be quite lacking in several areas, and the good news is that the British devs are clearly putting a ton of effort into fixing or improving those aspects. However, it also means that the whole concept is based on the same core systems and gameplay premises, which may prevent the game from reaching new heights.
On the former, the many improvements, and judging from both creative director Chris Smith's presentation and the time we've spent with the preview build, this will be a much meatier, varied, and socially-connected experience. Grid Legends will be full of fresh ideas in terms of content, activities, and ways to interact with both the AI and other players. Where Grid 2019's Career and multiplayer felt respectively short and shallow, Grid Legends will present players with an ambitious story mode (Driven to Glory, inspired by Netflix's Drive to Survive, which includes live action sequences and 8+ hours of gameplay), a longer and more varied Career mode, and a multiplayer aspect that permeates both the Career and the many different multiplayer events.
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The multiplayer aspect deserves a bit more detailing, as it's first and foremost a completely cross-platform experience, with 22 PC, Xbox, and PlayStation players being able to race and compete together from Day 1. Codemasters has developed a "Hop-in" feature so that real players can 'possess' their AI avatars mid-race, meaning they can join a session right away. Oh, and the Nemesis concept is also interesting, as both an AI rival or a real user can become yours if you piss them off.
In terms of the aforementioned variety, this could be felt with the early build already by playing the different events on offer, all created and curated by Codemasters with the in-game Race Creator tool players have access to, to perform different tasks or to complete specific challenges. These included standard races, multiclass rounds, drifting challenges, truck stadium events, or one of our favourites, electric formula races with Boost gates to recharge the car for lightning speeds. The new real and fictional locations and the 130+ cars also add to the mix (we liked the brand-new Moscow and Strada Alpina), making for an extended range of scenarios.
Graphics were also criticised with the previous entry, and while there's some clear improvement from the get-go with what is, again, a preview build, it seems like there's still some good room for even more polished visuals before and beyond release. The performance is quite good (we played on a beastly RTX 3080-powered OMEN 30L), and the new lighting engine paints a more modern result on screen, more so now that there's additional weather variants, but at the same time some textures, car models and effects look pretty basic, especially for a closed world game. For example, it can get really blurry when looking through the windshield, there's a lack of sense of speed in some cameras, and the twitchy movement of the cars in chase camera doesn't help.
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This movement matter takes us to the point of the handling. Forget everything about the TOCA DNA or the semi-sim philosophy Codemasters had for asphalt games in the past. This is looking to be Dirt 5 but on tarmac, which means we're talking about a 101% arcade game, with very basic physics and handling. This isn't always bad, and we've loved our Need for Speeds and Ridge Racers in the past, but there's something to how the cars behave here that didn't click with us as of yet. Might be the new yo-yo effect of the chase cam, the slight on-rails feeling when correcting the car's position when driving straight, or the weird way to interpret turns and forces. You sometimes want your rear to slip, but it won't, and then all of a sudden you get hit on the side or on the rear by a rival car and you end up facing backwards in a very awkward way, like when someone elbows you aside.
It did improve, though, compared to Grid 2019, and even if this build wasn't optimised for wheel and pedals yet (as controller is the main control method here), we had some fun with the electric formulas and with the drifting events. Not so much, though, with the trucks, as they so far feel like a floaty mess: hoverboardy but at the same time stubborn to steer.
You can take a further look at how Grid Legends drives and looks by watching our accompanying gameplay videos, which were captured on Ultra High settings. We kept playing for a while, earning points here and there (even for every gear shifted in manual, for some reason) while listening to some annoying music, but we had some moments of fun and we're really looking forward to seeing what Driven to Glory is all about. If you're into arcade racing and enjoy Codemasters' peculiar way of handling, er, handling, rest assured that you'll have tons of ways to enjoy "the biggest Grid yet" from February 25 onwards.