Saturday, August 12, 2000

GRID | PS3 | 9.0

Realistic non-F1 or NASCAR racing for the PS3 currently consists of two titles, GT 5 Prologue and Grid. This is a brief review to address the pros and cons of both programs:

Graphics: GT 5P is a very limited version of the full program which will be out later this year or even in 2009. As such, we need to bear in mind we are comparing a limited scope product to a finished one. That said, graphic elements in each program are still a wash, which I guess is testimony to GT 5P considering its graphics will probably improve a bit before the final version. The cars in GT 5P have more polygons and so the models look better, but Grid features a full-fledged damage system so the lower poly count and smaller number of cars in Grid are fully deformable, hence damage and collisions are quite dramatic in Grid. As of yet, GT 5Ps cars are not at all deformable so to some extent we are comparing two different types of graphics. Background track visuals are roughly the same in both games, so what we have is nicer undamaged models versus fully deformable models.

Sound: GT 5P wins hands-down. Engines sound nicer and more realistic, and the in-music is diverse and licensed. Grid truly fumbled the ball here with similar sounding rather weak engines and generic butt rock bgm that has not a single memorable riff. Admittedly one doesn't buy a racing game for the music, but the licensed tracks add some aesthetic appeal to GT 5P.

Scope and Size: GT 5P offers 75 cars, many of which are pretty tedious to drive. Grid offers 45 cars, most of which are lots of fun to drive. However, the fly in the ointment is that GT 5P has more varied and realistic handling among its cars. The 911, the Viper, and the Lancetti all handle remarkably similar in Grid, which really should not be happening. GT 5P by comparison offers a more diverse driving experience. GT 5P however only has 6 tracks while Grid has 15, so Grid offers a bit more to see. However, as mentioned, GT 5P is a work in progress, so we can expect to see many more cars and tracks by the time the finished version appears. Same deal applies to game play - Grid offers many different race modes and championship types, while GT 5P has a limited set of events, 40 or so, so the game can be tapped out very quickly. (Assuming you can get past some of the annoyingly difficult races, more on this later). Grid at present has a lot more to do and experience, so at present it will keep the average gamer occupied and interested longer. When the final version of GT 5P appears, we may see a different picture.

Simulation Aspects: Damage is the issue. GT 5Ps car handling is far superior in terms of realism, but when you see the cars bouncing off each other and walls at 150 mph undamaged, the realistic handling seems to take a backseat in consideration of simulation accuracy. The damage system in Grid is superior simply because it exists. However, the lads at Codemasters have retreated a bit from the more realistic damage system in their TOCA games, and your Grid vehicle can take quite a bit of damage before any in-game performance is affected, and the parameters for cataclysmic termination of the race have been raised considerably, so your car can be a veritable wreck on wheels and still win a race. The earlier TOCA games had far more realistic (i.e. harsh) damage modeling, and your vehicle was easy to either wreck altogether or to see it's performance degrade to the point where it could not compete against other racers after a few hard collisions. I guess the Codemaster gang had too many complaints about the high number of restarts needed to finish the average event, so the cars in Grid (as in Dirt) are more Hollywood style in their robust durability.

The current system in Grid is far superior to Forza inasmuch at least there is the possibility of complete elimination from the race for particularly severe collisions. Forza has the silliness of 170 mph head-on crashes that scar your car's skin and then make it pull to the left, a rather unlikely outcome that is only slightly superior to the Gran Turismo invulnerability. Grid is a good compromise in terms of damage modeling, and the added tension of the risk of crashing and the extra graphics pizzazz as you see bumpers fly off and windows shatter make Grid more entertaining and realistic. However, if you hope to see the handling differences between a Skyline and a WRX, Grid is not going to be of any use, so simulation fans have to make a hard choice here, between semi-realistic damage and simplified generic arcade style handling in Grid, or no damage at all and meticulous handing details in GT 5P.

Finally, the GT 5P developers promise there will be a damage system and deformable graphics added to the final build and perhaps even added to the 5P version as downloadable content as soon as this August. I personally am skeptical as to how this will be implemented, as I resemble the Forza-esque "damage" system from GT 2, and have my doubts that the GT 5P programmers are going to be able to give us several hundred deformable graphically detailed and realistically handling cars by the time of the final build, but we will wait and see. Polyphony has gone the extra mile in the past, so a fait accompli in this case would not be impossible.

Gameplay: Grid gets the nod here. The races in Grid are more thrilling due both to the damage system, the superior AI of the other drivers, and the campaign style racing career that is part of the game. Many of the individual races in GT 5P are fun, but the AI of other drivers is still robot-like, and they almost never screw up, never seem to interact with the player or other drivers, and respond little if at all to the player's movement on the track. They will at least avoid you if you park stationary in the middle of the racing line (unlike GT 4 where they would crash into you like cruise missiles repeatedly during the course of each lap) but that is about it. The other drivers in Grid are smarter, more "human" (failable), and at higher difficulty levels will be both aggressive and also willing to retaliate if you clip them. This programming plus the damage makes Grid races more white-knuckle affairs, full of drama and tension. The invulnerable cars racing against robot clones in GT 5P in comparison make that game seem more like you against your own best rather than you against other drivers, and therefore less intense and involving. It is a source for joy and entertainment in Grid to see a rival spin out due to a judgment error or crash into another driver in overtaking gone bad, and this is pretty much absent in GT 5P.

The annoying campaign structure (or lack thereof) of GT 5P should also be mentioned, as your progress in the game can be quite effectively stalled if you cannot finish one of the 10 events in each tier. The Ferrari "pass them all" event in the A level races in particular can literally bring your enjoyment of the game to a halt as you struggle again and again to meet the unpleasantly tough challenge of trying to pass 13 other cars in only one lap on a tough narrow and twisting course. Grid deals better with failure and there is always something else to do to progress in the game if you screw up a particular event. The diversity of Grid events is also appealing, with top speed challenges, touge races, even demolition derbies. The one mis-step in Grid's events are the idiotic drift races, where you compete on a closed course against an opponent whose score is unknown to you and who you never even see on the track. This is not only unfair, but also a bit dull. But you can mainly ignore drift races for most of the game and still have a lot of fun with it.

The lack of a fully developed campaign in GT 5P may well be due to the incremental nature of the game. The final GT 5 will presumably have the same wide range of events that GT 4 did. We may also see improved other driver AI and a damage system added to the final build, but at present, Grid is far more entertaining. The addition of the excellent "flashback" feature in Grid makes a strong package better, and this is a truly revolutionary feature that is very welcome in racing games.

Interface: Grid has many limits in its interface and structure. There is no learning mode, no racing line "cheat", no tutorials. The instant replays are very limited and you cannot change which car the camera focuses on, or save the replay. Stat tracking is limited to some basic numbers that pop up only in the loading screens. GT 5P lacks many of these features too, but the replay system is far better, the racing line feature is invaluable for the less skilled, and the finished build will presumably have the same full feature set of GT 4. Grid could have used a bit more polish here, though to be fair the more arcade like handling makes education of new players a bit less imperative. Still, a tutorial on drifting technique for instance could have made Grid more accessible and friendly to new players. The personalized commentary by name in Grid is cute at first, but the voices say the same thing at the same time over and over again, and you soon find yourself wishing these guys who know your name would just shut up for a bit.

Overall: A tough call - the damage system in Grid is a bit deceptive in its leniency, and the game markets itself as more of a simulation than it is. The 45 cars are already exceeded by GT 5P and the final GT 5 will probably have close to 10 times as many cars in it. However, as in GT 4, many of the hundreds of cars will be uninteresting to most players. The limited number of tracks in Grid is more troubling, but the various types of racing make the most of the small number of tracks. The interface in Grid is also a bit rough, and Forza still sets the standard in this area, with Gran Turismo running a close second

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