Developing Race Driver: GRID on DS is the equivalent of tobogganing on a tea tray or playing a Mozart violin concerto on an old saw: audacious but not impossible. Many times before the DS has shown that racing simulations are not its strong point, so it's credit to the developer that it's produced something so extraordinarily robust and clever.
While the track editing suite is the games crowning glory (and more on that later) we will deal with the racing side of things first, as that's the engine that powers everything else.
Pitched somewhere between simulation and arcade racer, this update of last year's excellent Race Driver: Create & Race is a tour de force on hardware that simply struggles to do fast frame rates and swish 3D graphics. Yet there's so much wily subtlety and precision to the handling model that you often forget that you're playing on a humble DS.
Indeed, you can always tell when a racing game developer has taken shortcuts in terms of handling: you can cheat outrageously when it comes to cornering. But Race Driver: GRID demands that you respect the general laws of racing, including the skill of braking smoothly into a turn, then allowing momentum take over as you steadily increase the throttle out of the apex.
Mangle your entry into corners in this game and you will be severely punished – while it won't end in disaster, it can be galling to see your rivals fly past because they've taken a smoother racing line. But don't be put off by thinking this is some kind of hardcore Driving Standards Agency simulation as Race Driver: GRID achieves a beautiful balance between sim and pedal to the metal arcade racer. It asks that you drive skilfully but doesn't strip the fun away by punishing every tiny mistake.
But that's not all: the nuance of handling between each vehicle is incredible given the technology that underpins it. And sorry if we bang on about this but no other racing game on DS comes even close to GRID in terms of communicating the grip, road holding, speed and steering of vehicles as diverse as a Pagani Zonda and a Toyota Supra. Add to this the superbly conveyed skittishness of wet tyres during a downpour at Donington and you have a racing title that delivers bountifully on three counts: precision, control and subtlety.
Of course, this would be a bit of a Jenson Button if good control and handling were all it could offer, but when you consider the multiplayer options, a massive Career mode and the ability to create your own tracks in an editing suite, then Race Driver: GRID really delivers a world championship winning package.
Career mode takes you to three regions: Europe, USA and Japan. A more cynical developer would have given us pretty much the same old grey roads only with a few bits of trackside scenery to distinguish them. But GRID proves that it's far from lazy with some fantastically diverse tracks in each region – from the neon split-street racing of Shibuya to the rolling hills of Ireland, the scenery and track variation are exceptional.
There's also a range of challenges and race types to keep you entertained. These include sprints, time trials, braking tests, larger championships, chases and drift racing. It's particularly noticeable that there are no flat tyres accompanying this framework; every race type has its own unique flavour and we particularly enjoyed the drift events which offered an outlet for our flamboyant powersliding at the expense of raw speed.
Given what we've outlined already this game would be a no-brainer of a purchase. But then there are the editing tools to consider. Not just the ability to create fantastically rich and diverse tracks of your own but also customise billboards, hoardings and decals. This is more fun than asking David Coulthard, "Why the wide face?"
The editing tools are comprehensive but so easy to use a five-year-old could do it (yes, we tested it on a five-year-old). First, it's encouraging to find there are different track styles to choose from so you can give your circuit an urban street racing bent or go out to the grass and hills of the countryside. Second, there are over 60 track pieces to choose from, including chicane variations, tunnels, bus stop corners, cross bridges and dips. Third, everything can be further customised by adding billboards of your own design – yes, as rude or as silly as you desire.
It all amounts to variation on a near limitless scale so you can model race tracks on your local karting circuit or try replicate more elaborate designs from the world of Formula One. Add to this a very robust wi-fi multiplayer mode (with the opportunity to try out track designs by other players) and you have a game that can run and run, leaving even accomplished rivals like Need for Speed: ProStreet and Ferrari Challenge for dust.
So to return to our opening analogy, Race Driver: GRID, at least on paper, is a stupidly optimistic piece of work. Luckily for us these virtual cars have no use for paper. And in terms of translating ambitious game ideas to handheld silicon, this simply has no master.
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