Grid 2 preview: Storytelling returns to the racing genre
The plot quickens.
Any Formula One fan will tell you that not all of the entertainment the sport offers comes from the on-track action. The soap opera that plays out in the paddock provides vital context for these Sunday drives, offering pantomime heroes to root for and villains to despise. Of course Codemasters knows better than anyone that no matter how authentic you strive to be, you'll never get an officially licensed Formula One game that simulates pit lane slap-fights or Kimi Raikkonen passing out in a strip club.
Fortunately, the studio has other titles where it can reintroduce the human element into the genre. Grid 2's already demonstrated it can take care of the drama that occurs out on the asphalt, but it came as a bit of a surprise that Codemasters is tentatively poking the bleached bones of 'narrative in racing games' once again. After all, Grid's roots are in TOCA Race Driver, whose telenovela-grade storyline has the dubious honour of introducing the trope of the inexplicably evil, well-spoken Englishman to the driving genre. Spoiler alert: Of course he killed your father.
Nevertheless, after a hiatus in Race Driver: Grid, story is back in a big way in Grid 2. The difference is it's an altogether more mature and intriguing prospect. In a plot that perhaps inadvertently mirrors the sport's current crisis of relevance, you'll follow a dual story arc over the course of several seasons. Via the medium of race results, you're responsible for the fortunes not just of the player driver but also of a fledgling international racing series that attempts to unify all disciplines of motorsport into a single telly-friendly format.
Dubbed the WSR, or the World Series of Racing, it's the brainchild of fictional fat-cat Patrick Callaghan, an American entrepreneur with a vision similar to that of Dana White, head of the rampantly successful mixed-martial arts brand UFC. Callaghan identifies you as a raw talent at the start of the game and you become the championship's talisman, MVP and global representative all rolled into one.
It's then your job to tour the local racing clubs of Europe, America and Asia beating them on home turf to convince them that the WSR offers worthwhile competition. Each club has its own identifiable style, prestige racing driver and preferred race-type, and you'll be expected to at least sample them all.
The example given is Eliminación, a Spanish club that does battle in European tuner cars on the streets of Barcelona, which are sumptuously detailed and, at dusk, beautifully lit. As you might have guessed from the name, the squad's preference is the Elimination race type, where the last-placed participant is disqualified every thirty seconds. Relatively conventional, but Codemasters is promising a wealth of different styles and rule-sets to dabble in.
And while the story arc remains rigid, you can still prioritise the type of racing you enjoy, whether that's flinging yourself towards the horizon in a California road race, negotiating downtown Chicago's 90-degree corners or clipping apexes at Brands Hatch. The team's cagey about the inclusion of divisive drift events, but the catch-all remit of the championship, the presence of events in Asia and nervous sideways glances of the development team suggest it'll make an appearance.
It's worth noting that while Codemasters isn't emphasising traditional motorsport at the moment, it's been quietly announced that the hallowed paving of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's oval and 2012-spec Indycars will feature, though they're just one strand of an incomprehensible knot of pre-order exclusives.
In order to make the development of the WSR more gratifying, you'll witness the world changing around you as the championship gains traction. A race during season two will have a smattering of spectators and a distinctly underground vibe. By season four all the pageantry of primetime American sports has moved in, with crowds lining the circuit, firework displays and fewer surfaces that are free of sponsor stickers.
Similarly, as a driver your garage will go from a cluttered suburban car-port to the kind of hermetically sealed 'innovation centre' into which McLaren boss Ron Dennis probably zips himself every night. Like the previous Grid game you'll be able to build your own brand, choose your team colours and sign sponsorship deals as your fame increases. It'll be light touch stuff, no doubt, but that was enough to create satisfying coherence between events in the original.
If all this sounds more systems than storyline, fret not. There's still a lot that Codemasters isn't revealing yet, including just how many seasons the career mode will last. Plus, if I were to place a crisp fiver on the table, I'd wager there'll be an eventual clash of egos between the ambitious, business-like Callaghan and the driver who is in danger of becoming bigger and more bankable than the championship itself.
Lending the whole thing an air of authenticity is the inclusion of 'coverage' from ESPN Sports Center, where real motorsport pundits will discusser the bigger story beats from the ESPN studio. They're unlikely to comment on every little on-track tangle, but they lend the entire thing an air of plausibility that pre-rendered marionettes simply aren't capable of yet.
As a motorsport fan lamenting dwindling television coverage of your recession wracked sport, when you see the slick ESPN presentation roll into Grid's still-unique brand of noisy, dramatic racing, you can't help but idly fantasise that the studio might genuinely be on to something with this World Series of Racing business. At the very least, participating in a growing championship is a novel ride we're already keen to experience for ourselves and while Codemasters rarely chases official motorsport licenses any more, there's a plausibility to it that's missing from most fictional race series.
The developer seems to have identified that if you're going to introduce a story to a game, it has to include the endless bickering and infighting that surrounds such an expensive and ego-driven sport. While real institutions would never allow their dirty laundry to air, perhaps creating a fictional series that caricatures the best and worst of the political drama might even be a better option.
The question of how long we'll have to wait to find out has been answered, incidentally. The game arrives on May 28th, stretching the definition of the previously announced Summer launch window. It will debut on current generation hardware and PC, but don't be at all surprised if a deluxe version bundled with DLC makes an appearance around the launch of the new consoles. After all, it's probably what a visionary businessman like Patrick Callaghan would do.