Going back to some of our favourite games sometimes yields a nice, cool shot of nostalgia. Other times, it reminds us just how far we have come as an industry over even just the last 20 years.
When Rollcage released in 1999 its unique physics made it stand out from the crowd of other racing titles. Drive fast enough and you can defy the laws of gravity by speeding up walls and upside-down snake-like tunnels. GRIP: Combat Racing is a spiritual successor to Rollcage that attempts to revive that original thrill.
In some ways, GRIP does an excellent job of recreating everything that made Rollcage a standout. In other ways, at least on the PS4 version I played, it reminded me how far we have come in the racing genre and why we rarely look back.
GRIP offers a nice array of over 20 tracks covering a wide variety of landscapes ranging from futuristic cities to snow-covered mountains, and desolate wastelands. Tracks spiral and wind as players fly through at break-neck speeds. When executed well, it feels far more like being jettisoned down a warp tunnel as you spiral over and under the terrain and passageways, blasting your opponents with rockets and other weapons along the way.
However, as fun as GRIP can be, it suffers from some rather unintuitive track design. Especially in the beginning before you learn the tracks, you will likely find yourself slipping and sliding into an unexpected barrier or falling off the stage. While there are signs designating directions, some of the stages are just open enough to be confusing, especially when driving at high rates of speed. Multiple times I missed an indicator and found myself travelling down what I thought might be a path only for the game to reset me back on the track, thus costing me several seconds. Sure, this will dissipate with time and familiarization, but it makes getting into the game a bit of a frustration for first-time players. It also instantly kills the otherwise smooth action.
GRIP has only a small array of cars, but each handled fairly well. Controls were smooth and the cars maintained a solid hold on the track along turns for the most part. The only time I had my frustration with the controls is when airborne.
You will, whether from being blasted by an opponent, slipping off the side of the road, or making an unfortunate collision with a barrier, at some point find yourself helplessly tossed into the air where you will notice you lose any real control over your vehicle. Sure, this might be more realistic, but not being able to adjust your direction means you will either just have to watch while you barely miss the side of the track, or end up back on the track facing the wrong direction.
In a combat racing game where being flung about is a major part of the experience, having no control over your direction when airborne seems like a rather unfortunate oversight. Not to mention GRIP’s difficulty levels fluctuate quite a bit and so while falling off the track might not cost you too much in one race, landing the wrong direction just one time might move you from first to fifth almost instantly in another.
The tracks, though varied, lack the lustre and sheen one might have expected from a 2018 racing title. Textures can often look muddy and aside from the neon signs demarcating turns and barriers, the tracks and surrounding areas feel sparse and surprisingly dreary. That is not to say GRIP needs the cartoonishly bright colours of Mario Kart or the ultra-realism of Forza. But, the game’s visual design often looks too much like a throwback and less like a modern-day homage.
Speaking of Mario Kart, three out of four of GRIP’s race modes operate basically like Nintendo’s top racer with a twist or two, including choosing whether winning means reaching the finish line first, or whoever has the fastest trigger finger. You pick up weapons as you drive that you can use to blast your opponents out of your way, along with using green panels on the ground to increase your speed. There is also an arena battle mode that pits you against your friends or online opponents within a limited area.
Though uneven difficulty and unintuitive track design can cause difficulty for players just getting into the game, part of GRIP’s call-back to it’s older inspiration is a solid focus on the individual player’s ability to compete against themselves. The individual campaign mode is appropriately story-free, leaving you to quickly run through three multi-tiered tournaments. The “Carkour” mode allows players to practice their tricks, turns and other aerial acrobatics.
Of course, online leaderboards for race modes add that extra level of motivation. But, I found whether playing with a friend locally or strangers online, GRIP was just as fun and just as challenging.
Though GRIP isn’t as polished as it might have been, and new players will find themselves faced with a steep learning curve, it’s gravity-defying action is both a nice slice of nostalgia and something a little different than your standard racer. It is also always satisfying to watch the car in front of you explode in a bright and brilliant billow of fire, or hammering your opponent with a wave of tiny rockets.
GRIP: Combat Racing is now available on Steam, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.