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A yellow grand touring racer, seen from a low angle behind the rear passenger’s side tire.

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Grid Legends tries to look fast, but gets in its own way

A jerky third-person camera robs drivers of the satisfaction of skillfully racing at high speed

Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts

Codemasters’ touring-car Grid franchise has lurched back and forth between simulation and arcade gameplay emphasis practically since the series began in 2008. Next year’s Grid Legends leans into arcade features for the second consecutive edition, carrying over a lot of what racing fans may have missed in a rebooted Grid hustled out the door at the end of 2019.

Yet still it lurches. Not in how Grid Legends’ vehicles handle, but in the third-person camera trailing them. The back and forth, whether shifting from second to third gear, or feathering the brakes in the mildest chicane, is a visual effect meant to impart a feeling of speed. Grid Legends abuses that effect, which both adulterates the feeling of high speed and robs me of the satisfaction of handling it. That’s probably not the thing race fans want to read about a title coming in two months. It’s not the thing I wanted to write after six hours with a preview build, either.

Sure, I can neutralize the camera’s exaggerations by taking a cockpit view, but that presents a different degree of difficulty when racing with a gamepad. It still doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard to sustain smooth driving with the camera angle that most arcade racers will use. Braking points, the distance to a car leading you, the apex of a turn and when to exit it, all of that is more difficult to take with precision when my Ferrari and my Renault alike jackrabbit through every gear change, and clamp down hard on with every brake. My racing line helpfully calls out a braking zone, but the camera effect distorted my sense of how much to slow the car. I could die halfway through a turn as easily as I could overshoot a squared-off left and plow into a tire barrier.

This is especially frustrating considering Grid Legends makes no bones about being a pack racer, sort of like the pavement version of last year’s Dirt 5. Hard contact is inevitable, if not encouraged. It’s the triggering mechanism for the game’s Nemesis system, which returns from Grid 2019. It’s still not very nuanced; smack an AI racer and they get mad. In Grid Legends, they’ll stay mad for a few races. I never saw the Nemesis tag light up when I ran someone off the track, when I dive-bombed the a corner and forced a driver wide, or committed any other non-contact racing transgression.

As for the events, a lot carries over from the last Grid, mostly in terms of race courses and locations — Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Brands Hatch Circuit, and Havana and San Francisco’s multiple street tracks are just a few of the incumbents. A huge loop, the Le Mans-style Strada Alpina, is the newest attraction and the biggest winner among the bunch.

Leavening the competition are new vehicles classes, like all-electric racers, and stadium trucks, as well as speed boost gates for the former, and ramps and jumps for the latter. Boost gates (drivers must pass through two in a long corner to claim the perk) are placed well outside the racing line, making it a legitimate gamble to go for the extra horsepower, even if you’re leading. The jumps will keep every driver honest; real physics are in play with both takeoff and landing, and rarely are both ends cleanly executed. I appreciated the inherent risk the jumps presented, even if the reward for taking one wasn’t apparent.

Multi-classification races (Grid Legends will have 48 different car classes) sound like an interesting spin, but the novelty of racing different vehicles was somewhat blunted by how Grid Legends handled setting up the field. In the events I raced, all the vehicles of a particular type were grouped together, with the slowest class (think racing semis) getting a head start. I was in an open-wheel racer, meaning I was racing at the back of the pack. In a three-lap race, I only saw a different car midway through the third lap, and against Hard AI, in the fastest grouping, I never finished above 12th. (In fairness, there is a toggle to multiply the distance of career events.)

Something else about setting up the field: Two years ago in Grid, players had the option of hot-lap qualifying — a single lap to determine starting order if you weren’t happy with the randomized spot the game gave you. Again, I was in a preview build, but I didn’t see any qualifying option in Grid Legends’ events, whether career mode or user-made. In a series of races, there are options to set the field according to their finishes in the preceding event (whether in order, or reversed). But for the most part, human drivers face the rather limiting arcade-racing standard of starting in the lower third of the field. If you want to win, you have to race against a less challenging AI, and if you want a challenge, then podium finishes will be rare.

I hope Codemasters puts in some kind of qualifying option by the time Grid Legends launches, almost as much as I hope they can tone down the third-person camera to something more like 2019’s Grid, which has the stop/go acceleration effect, but it’s not as pronounced. In the game’s visual options, there are a number of settings for the camera’s shaking, but nothing for the zooming in and out that I find so off-putting.

The preview build we were shown didn’t have any of what will likely be Grid Legends biggest selling point: a narrative mode (written by Brad Kane, one of Ghost of Tsushima’s writers). Called “Driven to Glory,” the story will make use of Grid Legends’ 130-car fleet, and a track roster that Codemasters says is the biggest ever, in a sports drama that the studio says is inspired by Netflix hits like Formula 1: Drive to Survive.

Codemasters pitched “Braking Point,” the narrative mode for F1 2021, in exactly the same way, and while its story was well written and well acted, it had no replay incentive and didn’t extend into the rest of the game. In Grid Legends, progression will carry over from “Driven to Glory” into the career mode. It’s a wise move that I wish “Braking Point” had tried with F1 2021’s career.

But without changes that prioritize actually racing over looking like you’re racing, I have questions about how much I’ll feel like I belong in “Driven to Glory’s” best-in-the-world drivers’ fraternity, and the all-comers challenge of the fictional Grid World Series. Sure, I squalled and sideswiped and bump-drafted my way to several wins, but my racecraft looked inattentive and amateurish, rather than daring and skilled.

Grid Legends launches Feb. 25 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC (via Origin and Steam), Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.