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Grid review - a slim, muscular and magnificent arcade racer

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A masterly racer that gets to the very essence of motorsport's magic.

The name does it no favours at all. Back when the first Grid launched, it had the Race Driver appendage, marking it out as a successor of sorts to Codemasters' long-running, much-loved series, itself with foundations in the even more beloved brace of TOCA games for the original PlayStation. This, though, was a more fantastical take on motorsport, with a few extra bulges under the bonnet and an American twang that only became even more pronounced with 2013's disappointing sequel - a sort of Michael Bay does motorsport affair that never really seemed sure of what exactly it wanted to be.

Quick-fire follow-up Grid Autosport made a decent if understandably modest attempt to return the series to its roots. And now, five years later we have this, the plainly monikered Grid. What, exactly, is it? A remake? A reboot? Or something else entirely? In fact, it's something much more straightforward, and much more satisfying than any of the murkiness around that name might suggest. This is, quite simply, a return to the kind of elbows-out arcade racing that's been almost entirely absent this generation, and it's delivered with a level of finesse and flair of a studio that's rediscovered its A-game and a little more besides. 2019's Grid is a fine, fine thing.

There are moments, when you're racing under Shanghai neon, where this Grid gives off serious Ridge Racer Type 4 vibes, and this particular arcade racer is good enough that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Namco's classic.

There are a few misgivings to overcome before you find yourself at that conclusion, though. Compared to its predecessor, this can feel like a slim thing. Maybe it's because the old bombast has been toned down for the front-end. After all the dazzle of the original Grid's virtual garage this new one is merely functional, and it doesn't offer up much either. To call it functional is generous, too - play through the lattice of events, split across various motorsport tiers, and to manage your team and recruit drivers you'll have to head all the way out to a screen that's, for some unfathomable reason, kept separate from the career menu.

Maybe it's because there's a relative dearth of events - some 13 locations are on offer here, as opposed to the original's 15 - with the problem exacerbated by the grind of the career mode. To get to the Grid World Series, where old enemies Ravenwest await, you'll have to work through four of the seven tiers, your progress often slowed as you grind out cash for a required car. It's not helped, either, by Grid's season pass where some of the extra content that would make this feel less barren is surely waiting.

There's a good amount of vintage machinery, including some classic tintops. Stock and tuner cars are in, but if you're just after a pure motorsport fix they can be easily ignored in your career progression.

But bare numbers don't tell half the story. When you're out on track, where it really matters, this Grid really sings. It doesn't have the eye-opening hook of the original - that rewind feature is present here, as you'd expect, but nowadays it's so commonplace it's easy to forget how game-changing it was back then - but there's a sense of purpose and expertise in the execution that's exhilarating. This is unashamedly an arcade racer, and like all the best arcade games it takes an experience so many of us pine for and distills it down to its very essence.

And like any self-respecting arcade racer, it looks absolutely gorgeous - so sumptuous, in fact, that in motion it's almost as pretty as a vintage Codemasters bullshot. Grid's original aesthetic has never aged, really, and this Grid executes it with conviction. Plant the throttle and the screen fills with so much tyre smoke and shakes with the sound of rattling engines that you can almost smell the action - that acrid, exhilarating aroma of castor and hot steel. The cars themselves look overstated and arrive pre-loved with bumps and scratches - run a lap in them and they'll be so filthy it looks like they've run 24 hours around a sodden Nordschleife. All this and, like any self-respecting arcade racer, on Xbox One X and PS4 Pro it runs at 60fps.

The AI does sometimes feel like a work in progress, putting up a good fight on some tracks while fading rapidly away on others. There's always multiplayer if you want even more convincing aggression from other players - which is functional here but enlivened by a neat lobby where you're free to smash around and make the most of the excellent damage model.

The action itself is distinct too, thanks to AI that not only puts up a fight - it often goes looking for one. The nemesis system is being touted as Grid's big new feature, and while it's not exactly game-changing it certainly provides a lot of fun. Rub against an AI driver one too many times and they'll be marked as after you, giving them an extra edge of aggression and perhaps inspiring them to lunge at you, brakes screeching and tyres smoking, as you approach the next corner. There's clean racing here if you want it - and convincing, entertaining racing too - but push against it and it'll push back. It's enough to give Grid - and its AI drivers - a real sense of personality.

There's plenty of personality elsewhere, too, and while Grid might not have the most extensive car or track list, everything that's here displays a certain amount of taste. The track list has returning favourites like the San Francisco street course, joined by bold and beautiful debutants such as urban runs around Havana and Shanghai, while lesser-known real-life courses such as Sydney Motorsport Park and Zhejiang join old faithfuls like Indy and Sepang. It's happy to take liberties, too, which works more often than not - Silverstone's old layout is restored (meaning that the glorious Bridge corner, now a pedestrian walkway to a sad gaggle of coffee huts, is back) while you can race around Brands backwards, which it turns out is brilliant.

After famously being excluded from Grid 2, cockpit cam is now not only present but also available in a couple of flavours.

The car list has also been collated with an enthusiast's taste, drawing upon prototypes, touring cars and a pleasing depth of GT machinery. And Grid's big revelation - and its greatest asset - is how they all feel, because the handling in this thing is sublime. Everything drives as you'd expect it to, only more so. A GT3 car is planted and thrillingly rapid, a DPi's performance and grip levels are things of pure science fiction while a Group 5 car drives like it's got a hit out on you. It's even fantastic on a wheel - take a GT40 around a sodden Silverstone and you'll need to work with tiptoes and aggressive arms.

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By its own proud admission, Grid isn't a sim - and if it's a sim you're after, might I suggest the exquisite F1 2019 or Dirt Rally 2.0 - but in its own way it's truer to the heart of motorsport than most other games with more serious sim credentials. There might be something absurd about seeing a field of GT3 cars smashing their way through narrow Chinese streets, until you remember that real racing is often even sillier still, and Grid excels at getting to the very essence of motorsport with economy, style and open arms to players of all abilities. So what exactly is this Grid? It's a refined arcade racer, and it's Codemasters doing what it does best - and doing it that little bit better, too.