The temperature outside is beginning its slow creep upward toward something tolerable, Formula 1 teams have all unveiled their cars for the upcoming campaign, and the new season of Drive To Survive — plus that new MotoGP docuseries — are merely weeks away. Racing’s nearly back, and it feels great.
Racing games are back too, as it happens. Ahead of Gran Turismo 7's launch next week comes Grid Legends’ today. And while the latest chapter in Codemasters’ circuit racing series has received less attention than Sony’s spring tentpole, you shouldn’t sleep on Grid. Because nothing else captures the spectacle of motorsport quite like it.
Full disclosure: Electronic Arts provided Jalopnik with a code for Grid Legends on PlayStation 5. It was tested with a DualSense controller.
The story for this installment is the story. It’s called Driven To Glory, which pretty much tells you exactly what to expect. Unlike F1's Braking Point mode however, Driven To Glory plays out with real actors — like Sex Education’s Ncuti Gatwa — on computer-generated sets. This seems like a minor detail but actually makes a significant difference in ramping up the immersion. Also unlike Braking Point, Driven To Glory isn’t stingy with its cutscenes. They bookend most races, which are split up into 36 chapters. It took me about six hours to finish it all, though it certainly could take longer on higher difficulty settings.
Sure, the narrative is cheesy and melodramatic — characters can’t help but make eye contact directly with the camera in their talking head-style interviews, which makes everything feel a little WWE. The generic orchestral score is over the top, too. But you can never underestimate the power of a strong villain, and Grid’s longtime driver-to-beat Nathan McKane of Team Ravenwest, played in Legends by Callum McGowan, is exactly the sort of archetypal dick that inspires you to keep playing. Not to mention use your car as a weapon anytime he’s within striking distance.
While there’s little about the Driven To Glory plot that I feel like I’ll recall months from now, it does feel like the perfect narrative companion to the Grid gameplay experience, which has always been one of chaos and bustle. You feel it most on the city circuits, where this game is truly at its best. The throngs of crowds lining the streets of Shanghai, Chicago and Barcelona; the dust kicked up as cars cascade into Turn 1 at Dubai; the warm glow of the lights strung over the track from building to building in Havana. The fireworks, the confetti, the balloons. God, the balloons. The artist responsible for designing the balloon archways in this game deserves a raise.
All that flash constructs a thriving race-day atmosphere that, up until now, I hadn’t realized has been missing from games for a long time. The later Project Gotham Racing titles used to nail this; so too did Need For Speed: Pro Street, albeit in less of the Michael Bay sense Grid is affecting and more in the grassroots motorsport tradition. Forza Horizon wants players to believe it’s car Coachella, but the world map is too large to sustain that feeling of commotion most of the time. Grid Legends feels tight, dense and hectic. It’s a good feeling.
The game performs well too, even if it has its share of graphical strengths and weaknesses. On the move, when the sheer quantity of trackside objects are sweeping by under a layer of delicious per-pixel motion blur, it all clicks beautifully. In single frames, warts like jagged shadows and flat textures crop up and are hard to look past. Grid keeps a rock-solid 60 frames per second on PS5 at native 4K resolution, and there’s even a 120Hz mode hiding in the settings, to be enabled in a later update, that will drop the pixel count down to 1440p in exchange for an even smoother experience. You’ll need a newer TV with HDMI 2.1 capabilities to take advantage, but it’s nevertheless encouraging to see PC-type graphics adjustability making its way to the console space.
The handling is on point for an arcade action racer like this, which is to say the game gives you the confidence to drive like an idiot and will occasionally punish you when you step over the line, if all the assists are turned off. I enjoy driving the ’90s British touring cars and aero-heavy Time Attack cars, and Grid’s fake version of Formula E incorporates attack zones, offering boost pickups when you venture off the racing line in certain sections of the track. Drift is back in this installment too, and it’s addictive as ever.
That’s my positive, overriding takeaway from Grid Legends: sure, some vehicles, like those damned trophy trucks and the hypercars, are sort of miserable to drive, particularly on the game’s tighter city courses. But there’s so much variety here that you’re never stuck in any one category for too long. You’ll find something you enjoy getting behind the wheel of very quickly.
The artificial intelligence doesn’t put up much of a fight until the two highest difficulty levels. But once you cross that threshold, they’re ruthless. Coupled with the game’s Nemesis system, where rival drivers remember if you’ve wronged them on track, there’s often a lot of wheel-banging and shrapnel falling onto the asphalt. Angry competitors won’t hesitate to block you on a wide stretch of road, or full on shove you when side-by-side on the back straight at Mount Panorama.
When you’ve had enough of the AI, there’s Grid’s very generous multiplayer suite, which offers complete cross-play for players on all platforms — PC or console, current gen or last. You can also drop into any lobby’s race mid-session, provided there’s a bot on track whose car you can commandeer. Other racing devs should take note of that neat feature and copy it. Check out my multiplayer preview from a few weeks back for more on that side of the game.
Between Driven To Glory, the vast selection of disciplines and tracks, the ease of multiplayer access and the career mode — there are even more events with a traditional buy cars-and-upgrade-them structure that the game nudges you toward after you finish the story — there’s a lot to do in Grid Legends. Even the achievements offer delightful nods to the gamut of racing game history. It’s really the game that 2019's Grid probably should have been.
There are still a number of small kinks that should be worked out soon in post-release updates. Things like odd graphical glitches in the instrument clusters of some cars’ interiors, or menu cursors that move too quickly, making it hard to select the option you want. These should be easy enough to iron out though, and you can rest assured they’re not game-breaking by any measure.
Sure, lots of eyes will be on GT7 in the coming weeks, but Grid Legends shouldn’t be ignored. These are vastly different racing games catering to completely different crowds — not just sim versus arcade, but jazz and style versus cinematic drama and aggression. There’s nothing like either right now, and they’ll both be worth experiencing. EA Play and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate customers are entitled to a 10-hour trial of Grid Legends as of right now; if you happen to subscribe to either, I recommend you take it for a spin. And destroy Nathan McKane while you’re at it.