Racing is a genre in which a game's multiplayer component is often as important as, or even more important than, its single-player campaign. It's rare that a racing title's AI is designed so that a computer-controlled car can keep up with your skill and provide a suitable challenge, without feeling like it's cheating, which is why many die-hard racing fans will tell you they prefer driving against other humans. Of course, there are drawbacks to racing other people, too, like racers who actively try to annoy other players or don't play fair.
Grid 2's developers at Codemasters are attempting to address both AI and human racers, and are hoping that their work — along with deeper integration with RaceNet, the studio's online hub — will make the game's multiplayer mode appealing and engrossing for as wide a variety of players as possible. At a recent press event, members of the Grid 2 team described the objectives they wanted to achieve in multiplayer before we tried rounds of a few different types of races.
"We're looking to extend the Grid 2 experience beyond the console into desktop and mobile," began Lee Roberts, senior designer on RaceNet. The website allows players of Codemasters racing titles to track their progress in the game through desktop and mobile browsers, and the studio is also planning to release a mobile app for it.
RaceNet's integration with Grid 2 is designed to foster a sense of community and friendly competition, and to bring the game's user base together online — Roberts referred to it as "the beating heart of many of the modes in Grid 2's multiplayer." First on the list is Global Challenge, an asynchronous multiplayer mode in which you'll partake in weekly sets of competitions to set the fastest times and the highest scores. The events will change every week, switching up the types of races (drift, checkpoint and more), the tracks and the cars.
Rewards for the Global Challenge consist of experience points for leveling up and cash. As you gain XP and level up, you unlock cars and car customizations in the form of vehicle upgrades and liveries (decals and designs on the car). Once you've unlocked something, you can buy it with in-game money.
RaceNet also includes a competitive matching service called Rivals, which is as straightforward as it sounds: It will pit you against a foe of similar XP level and play style, and give you a new one each week. You can also set your own rivals if you want to compete with people you know, or just find rivals based on criteria like win-loss record and region. Besting your rival will earn you extra XP and cash, which you can spend on liveries to make your vehicle stand out online.
All the while you'll also be racking up RaceNet followers, a point system that measures your "fame" within Grid 2. You gain followers by doing well online, and you can win over other players' followers by beating their race times and scores. Another way to earn followers is by unlocking Grid 2's in-game achievements. And finally, in a feature that's meant to build up the game's community, you'll have the ability to upload race highlights directly to YouTube by connecting your RaceNet account to your YouTube profile; uploading videos, which will also show up on RaceNet, will give you a follower boost.
Codemasters intends Grid 2's RaceNet integration to be seamless and optional; as much as the developers want to grow the RaceNet community, they also want to maintain the focus on the racing action itself.
RaceNet is "the beating heart" of Grid 2's multiplayer
Lead level designer Graham Bromley explained the measures Codemasters took to reduce and prevent unwanted player behavior. In an effort to reduce and prevent issues like cheating and griefing, the studio designed the multiplayer mode in a way that keeps users happy by matching them with similar players, and keeps different groups of players isolated from each other.
"If you're a player who likes to trade paint [i.e., bump other cars], you can play on a server with like-minded players," said Bromley. "If you're a player who likes a cleaner style of racing, you'll be able to compete in a server where you'll be much less likely to come across someone who wants to use you as a brake." Grid 2 measures and tracks player collision ratings in order to determine how to match users this way.
Codemasters also implemented an anti-cheat mechanic that cuts down on cutting corners. If Grid 2 detects that you've veered off the track and that you have an advantage in that situation — maybe you're cutting a corner, or driving across a stretch of road that isn't part of the track proper — it will apply a performance penalty to your car until you get back on the course.
"You'll always have been quicker to stay on track," Bromley explained.
After the developers' presentation, we jumped into three different eight-player races (Grid 2 supports up to 12 online, and offers split-screen local play). We first played the Circuit de la Seine, a checkpoint race through the streets of Paris. The course featured the tight turns that are typical of an urban race, and our relatively ordinary cars were well suited to the task of blowing by Parisian landmarks like the Eiffel Tower.
Next we headed to the toughest track of the day, the Algarve International Circuit in Portugal. This race featured supercars like an Audi R8, and the high-powered vehicles were difficult to wrangle, especially since we had to adjust to a completely different style of racing at the same time. The track requires finesse, discipline and thinking in advance, since it's easy to fall behind by flying off the asphalt.
The final event was a LiveRoute race in Dubai. Grid 2's LiveRoute system alters the track on the fly: The path changes during the race so no two laps are the same, which forces you to be a quick-thinking, reactive driver. By their nature, these events take away the mini-map, and we quickly realized how much of a crutch it had been.
Our time with Grid 2 demonstrated the tremendous variety of experiences the game contains. Until we can get a handle on the supercars, we'll probably stick to the more conventional vehicles, and the events that don't take place on an actual race track. Of course, you'll be able to put any car on any track in the game's custom events, but if you want a more structured challenge, various playlist types are available, each with its own set of events. And Grid 2's multiplayer component is entirely separate from its single-player campaign, so you can choose your overarching area of focus before diving into specific modes.
Grid 2 launches May 28 on Windows PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Check out our campaign preview from February for information on the game's World Series of Racing.