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Grid Legends’ racing league should exist in real life

Thrilling, on-the-edge racing across multiple vehicles; why has no one thought of this?

Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Grid Legends’ premise is so appealing to a racing fan, I find myself wondering why there’s nothing analogous to it in real life. In the world of Codemasters’ latest driving title, there’s a multidisciplinary racing series with events, rivalries, and public interest — its own over-the-top TV channel, even — on par with Formula One and North America’s NASCAR. A racing team’s year-to-year survival in the Grid World Series is even more tenuous than it is in F1. Winning a championship can make a driver’s career, but a bigger accomplishment is simply staying competitive for four or five seasons.

I gleaned all of this from Grid Legends’ narrative mode, “Driven to Glory.” The story may not be particularly groundbreaking, but its believable, matter-of-fact presentation of supporting details is catnip to a sports video game fan, thanks to a mixed-reality set, some enjoyable acting, and a lot of well chosen props. The genre is at its best when a game openly indulges the idea that all these created players and fictitious teams actually exist in an alternate continuum. Driven to Glory’s 36 chapters are the story of the season preceding Grid Legends’ larger, and more open-ended career mode. I recommend that every player finish this story, if only for its depth and much-needed player motivation, in an action-racing series that otherwise doesn’t have an obvious reason for a sequel, two years after its predecessor.

That isn’t to suggest that Grid Legends’ racing action is boring or thinly presented. It’s thrilling and very accessible, in that I always felt pressured to drive at my car’s limits, but never felt like I was out of control. Every race had at least one high-speed sequence where I marveled at my ability to break into the open, unscathed.

classic shelby cobras driving in a pack formation around a corner; the frame is tilted and the background blurred by motion Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts

But with Codemasters’ last arcade racer (Dirt 5) barely a year old, and the F1 series fresh off a documentary-style narrative mode, Grid Legends’ best parts have already been addressed by earlier, outstanding games. What separates this game is the introduction that Driven to Glory provides, which does a splendid job spotlighting the kind of racing you’ll find in Grid Legends and nowhere else.

For me, that was:

Stock car racing. Grid Legends nailed, in the first lap of my first event on an oval, the two most essential gameplay details of stock car racing: chassis balance and drafting. It helps that Grid Legends is using a fictional vehicle, and the setup is fixed for aerodynamics and the tire’s contact with the road. But God, was it nice to actually pick up a stock-car racing game and not understeer into every corner or oversteer down to the apron. Grid Legends takes the challenge away from the hair-splitting management of holding my racing line and puts emphasis back on staying within a pack and choosing the right moment to slingshot past the leader.

Driven to Glory introduces players to three-lap stock car events at the fictional Crescent Valley and real-life Indianapolis Motor Speedway ovals. The ease of handling the game’s Oval Stock and Retro Stock classes made me more than eager to try longer, 20-lap events in other modes. The easy presentation of stock car racing in Grid Legends makes me understand how needlessly complicated it has been in other games over the past decade.

Electric car racing. I didn’t expect this to be as much of a hit as it is. Grid Legends’ electric events place a premium on aggressive cornering and capitalizing on other drivers’ mistakes, since, in terms of engine power, the cars behave the same. This makes the supple handling of the Lotus Evija and the (fictional) Beltra Icon Mark 3 stand out. E-vehicles can also fill up a three-charge boost meter by hitting two gates placed well outside the standard racing line. AI drivers use the boost, too, so the CPU’s decision-making — and capacity for mistakes — is really on display in the electric events. But the most notable difference in racing electric vehicles is the sound. Codemasters has always paid scrupulous attention to getting engine notes right; well, with electric cars, you can hear individual spectator chatter as you’re crossing the starting line.

fictional electric racing cars with a futuristic, angled chassis and neon colors Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts

Touring car courses. Real-world Brands Hatch (home of the British Touring Car Championship and GT Championship) returns in Grid Legends, and is complemented by the fictional Alpina Strada, with four and six layouts each. If race tracks are the real stars of the show, then these two are the stars of the stars. Alpina Strada features gorgeous straights followed by treacherous switchbacks and square turns, and is most deceptive and dangerous in rain or at night (or both). Brands Hatch stands out for the challenge posed by the elevation changes in its best overtaking segments. Other courses stand out, too — real life Red Bull Ring and Suzuka, or the impressively steep Mount Panorama, which has legitimate hill-climb appeal. Grid Legends’ street circuits are fun, but its bespoke race course roster is well designed and well chosen to highlight the most enjoyable parts of driving high performance touring cars.

All this said, though Grid Legends’ racing difficulty feels carefully balanced for Driven to Glory, where events are at their shortest distance, it’s a little underweight in Career. Here, users can multiply the racing distance, turning three-lap events into six, nine, 12, or 15 laps, for example. At Legend difficulty, the top AI setting, I could lengthen the gearing by one notch on a Porsche 911 RSR, or the Koenigsegg Jesko, and be comfortably in front of the field after nine laps, opening up a huge gap to second place by the 12th lap.

Electric vehicles were more competitive and bunched up, but still, the cumulative, lap-after-lap use of speed gates had me locking down my race objective (usually fifth or third place) in the same span. Pack racing in stock cars can end with some close finishes and last-instant reversals — but that’s more likely because I got bumped out of my drafting position, not because I was unable to get to where I needed to be in the field.

This is partly because, for all the AI’s pace and control, it seems that each road course (as opposed to an oval) has at least one wide corner where the AI hews rigidly to the racing line, allowing me to run outside and overtake three, four, sometimes five cars in huge gulps. Passing around the outside, which in real life always gets a note of surprise from commentators, is far too easy in Grid Legends.

Stock cars with retro, 1980s-style chassis drive in a bunch down a straight, underneath a tire catch fence
Stock car racing is the surprise hit of Grid Legends. Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the fictional Crescent Valley Speedway (pictured) are among 22 circuits with a total of 137 layouts.
Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts

The AI will also make inexplicable mistakes and have technical faults, which usually clear one or more cars out of the way. The good news is that these appear to be dice-roll occurrences as opposed to pre-race scripted events; I’ve used flashback to undo a collision with a spun-out AI car and seen it undo the AI’s error altogether. But AI wipeouts are still a little too frequent, to the point where I could almost plan on taking advantage of them. Also, the Grid series’ “Nemesis” feature, which is supposed to turn a rival driver into a dangerous threat, is rather simplistically triggered (a big collision, and little else) and the AI’s aggression is downright ineffectual at lower difficulty settings.

Finally, while Grid Legends has limited setup options (affecting gear length, suspension stiffness, and brake bias), there’s not much need to change them, since every race is run on solid pavement, and most circuits are the same overall length. No track really prioritized acceleration (shorter gears) over top speed (longer), for example, and only a few street layouts had surface changes that needed a slight softening of my suspension. While there’s something to be said for the pick-up-and-playability of Grid Legends, the setups’ lack of necessity can make an otherwise diverse vehicle fleet feel indistinct over a stretch of three or four events.

Still, my complaints aren’t much more than minor dents and scratches on another beautiful ride from video gaming’s foremost racing studio. Grid Legends’ developers put a ton of effort into Driven to Glory, and then wisely made that a preamble to a much larger, much longer playing experience elsewhere, rather than focusing players’ attention entirely on a single-use story mode. It’s a strong, tarmac-based counterpart to the Dirt series, and satisfies a wider range of competitive urges than the dedicated F1 simulation that launches every year. And the consistently exciting racing, as both spectator and competitor, that Grid Legends delivers should have every racing fan wondering why something like this can’t be found in real life, too.

Grid Legends launched Feb. 25 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a download code provided by Electronic Arts. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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