Ever since early man discovered sticks and fire and the wheel and Nurburgring Nordschleife, we've been hitting pause and restarting the track to make up for some terrible error. Whether it's letting a wheel slip beyond the rumble strips into a sandpit of doom, or screwing up the apex on a crucial hairpin, we've all been there, and it's always annoying, and it's always on the final lap, and we always shout, and unfortunately we can't all run away into the hills and blame it on Dietrich. So thank goodness for Race Driver: GRID, which has something called Flashback that you can use to undo catastrophic errors. In the 80-percent-complete preview build we've been pootling around for the last few days, it's exactly the sort of lifesaver you'd expect.
Of course, being able to undo mistakes in an instant is a threat to any game's difficulty curve, but in GRID's case it seems to be used sensibly - just a few times per race, depending on the skill setting. In our build it was necessary to pause, visit the Instant Replay screen and press "X" at the point before the crash that we wanted to reassume control, but Codemasters says the final game will make it even simpler. And while it might sound like a generous, if not game-breaking introduction, presumably it won't work in competitive multiplayer, and in any case if you were going to redo an event until you got it right, why not cut out the repetition? Or more specifically the swearing and repetition.
Anyway, it's not as though GRID isn't offering a challenge. Not unlike the TOCA Race Driver games that preceded it - to an increasingly high standard - GRID is home to a vast single-player campaign spread across three continents and numerous racing disciplines, some of which we got to sample. In the US, we threw nippy Zondas and a hefty Mustang GT-R Concept around Washington and San Francisco Grand Prix courses, while Europe's Spanish Jarama GP circuit and Italian Circuito di Milano hosted our BMW 320i and Aston Martin DBR9, and Japan took us to Shibuya and a Yokohama Docks course that tackles Project Gotham Racing's Drift Challenges head on, asking you to build up drift combos in tight conditions, a bit like The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, a film we hoped never to admit having seen. Twice.
PGR4 was the V8 elephant in the room when we last played GRID, with Codemasters' offering situated at a similar point on the scale between arcade and sim, but early comparisons are favourable, particularly in the visual and track design areas. The graphics in the screenshots and trailers are not fibbing; GRID really does send you roaring down old Italian streets under the shadow of a cathedral before plunging you into cloistered darkness, sharp turns and an extremely long crescent left-hander flatout across the start/finish line, and it really has managed to steal all the bloom effect from all the other games ever, giving boiling hot summer tracks like San Francisco a scorched-earth look to match the roaring muscle cars you're trying to out-brake and manoeuvre. Playing PGR4 again last night, it looked older than its six months.
Back to GRID, and each of the six tracks we've played has its own personality: Jarama's densely arranged turns and hairpins, and narrowness (which eventually lost it the Spanish F1 GP), are dangerous fodder for Touring Cars, and the San Francisco track's start/finish along the side of the bay, followed by wide 90-degree turns, is treacherous enough before the route ascends bumpily into the city's famous hills and throws in a few disguised doglegs as you clank back down towards the sea. The latter course also best demonstrates the audio, and not just the grinding and whining of powerful engines, but all the crunching collisions between cars, and car and track: the sound of the Mustang GT-R Concept reconnecting with the road as it bounces down hills in San Francisco is gaming's best attempt yet at capturing that particular worrying clank.
GRID also goes beyond its main competitor - and many others - by modelling vehicle damage extensively, and allowing broken bits of car to remain on the track presenting a hazard. Totalling your car takes more than spinning into a tyre wall or misjudging the first corner, but damage does influence your car's behaviour - dragging you to the left, for instance - and if you're using the excellent in-car view, you'll pay for it in other ways: a wing mirror cracked into a spider-web of useless pieces, or even a smashed windscreen. There's also debris from other smashes, which often needs to be dodged, heightening the tension. The notes that came with our preview build point out that "Driving over debris on track surface may cause car to jump in air", and that this is a known issue and/or bug, but Codies says it will still have some effect on your car when the final release comes around.
We'll also have to wait until then to experience the Career mode fully, although we were able to preview its layout. Disciplines like muscle car racing, pre-tuned face-offs and drift challenges are spread across the three continents, and until you get your own set of competent wheels you work for racing teams on a freelance basis building up cash reserves and enhancing your reputation, which ultimately unlocks additional racing tiers in each area.
Each race you take on also has a reputation total attached to it, and you can increase the amount of reputation points you receive by increasing the difficulty level, turning off driving assists and perhaps opting for Pro Mode, which removes your ability to pause the game and restart the track you're on. A brave move in a game that, while it won't punish you like Gran Turismo, does a good job of holding you up if you spin your car or end up in a tyre-wall. You can also earn more money by completing bonus objectives, like beating a certain competitor or using fewer Flashbacks.
Of course, the concept of increasing the challenge to increase your potential reward calls to mind another prominent arcade racing series (no prizes for guessing), and that one also had Drift Challenges in it. GRID's put you head-to-head with another racer, asking you to navigate - in Yokohama Docks' case - tight networks of corners and improvised box and trailer chicanery. Building a combo involves performing a drift by braking, turning in heavily and then steering against it, and then initiating another one before a combo timer in the middle of the screen clicks down. You can also keep an eye on your angles thanks to a car icon at the bottom of the screen, while you apply familiar skills: over-braking, over-powering and e-braking to flirt with traction. We liked this before; we see nothing here to suggest we won't like it again, and we also see adjustments and tweaks that might be interesting to investigate.
Overall, GRID is fast (really, face-smashingly, F-Zero fast at times, actually), it looks and sounds as good if not better than the next-best thing (the smoke effects, in particular), and is varied enough to keep the spirit of TOCA Race Driver alive, even if Codemasters is keen to sex things up for the Americans. And helpfully for a game called GRID, the actual grid is very slick: as you arrive at the track via load-screens announcing your stats (this many podiums, that many laps), names and grid positions line up in punchy block capitals next to your car, as though they're sitting on the track spoiling for a fight.
If all the good things we've seen are backed up by sensible skill curves, well-tuned corners with a touch of PGR4's "racification" about them, and a healthy online element, this could be 2008's next great racer. See whether it is when the full thing comes out in the summer.
Race Driver: GRID is due out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this summer. A DS spin-off is also in development.