GRIP: Combat Racing (PC)

**Review copy provided by publisher**

GRIP: Combat Racing is the spiritual successor to Rollcage, a racing game for the PlayStation One that targeted the WipeOut fanbase, although never quite achieved the same level of success. I loved Rollcage. The explosions, futuristic vehicles, and pounding Fatboy Slim soundtrack were exactly what I was after at the age of sixteen and I spent countless hours playing it with three friends who each had their own copy. We were obsessed. I’ve returned to Rollcage a few times over the years and still remember the shortcuts even if my memory is not quite so accurate when it comes to the visuals. I’m giving you this history lesson because, like it or not, my experience with Rollcage will color this review. It’s unavoidable. Yes, this is what bias in video game reviews looks like, ladies and gentlemen. For other examples, see pretty much any review of a Zelda game.

I desperately wanted to enjoy GRIP as much as I enjoyed Rollcage, but alas, I didn’t. Partly this could be down to a change in my tastes over the last twenty years, however the main reason is that, in trying to be bigger and better, GRIP misses out on what made Rollcage so fun back in the late nineties.

GRIP‘s core mechanic is its two-sided vehicles which come with a heavy dose of downforce. You can drive up walls and even on the ceiling. If you fall off, you can carry on racing regardless of which way up you land. This simple but effective gimmick lets you drive 360 degrees around tunnels and pull off cool transitions such as switching between the ground and the ceiling after using ramps. Speed boosts are dotted around the course, although they don’t do a lot. You can pick up more powerful boosts from the item drops, which also spawn weapons such as homing missiles and guns, defensive items like shields, and even specific throwbacks to Rollcage like the ability to slow down time and zoom past your opponents.

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GRIP‘s campaign offers plenty of variety, mainly consisting of two regular race types and two battle modes. The races are standard first across the finish line affairs, with one being limited to speed boosts as the only power-up while the other includes weapons. Both race types suffer from an infuriating amount of rubber-banding. On the lower difficulty levels, the rubber-banding works generously both ways, with cars always able to catch up with you, but practically pulling over and letting you pass once they have taken the lead. It looks comical. Most races end up coming down to the last lap, so for better or worse, your performance in the first two or three laps doesn’t count for much.

On the higher difficulties, the rubber-banding is still generous for your opponents, but less helpful for you. I tested it a few times and found that no matter how many boosts I got and how perfectly I drove, I couldn’t catch up with racers who had pulled into a lead whereas they could easily catch up to me. I would be in first place boosting down a straight as fast as I could go and yet somehow the distance between us would close rapidly. This is especially noticeable in the one-on-one duels against your rival that end each tournament. You have to race pretty much perfectly for around five minutes whereas your opponent can make plenty of mistakes without punishment.

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The battle competitions were more fun than I expected, however they desperately need some balancing. Your goal is to rack up as many points as possible by damaging your opponents in either a standard set of laps or in a battle arena. The lap based mode is a lot of fun with a couple of huge drawbacks. Seeing the damage numbers pop off cars as you shoot them is excellent, but the obvious problem with this is that you need to be behind the cars to do damage. The best way to win is, therefore, to let other racers pass you and then shoot them. There is a points reward based on your finishing position, but it doesn’t seem to be that important to the overall standings.

The arena mode is almost embarrassingly easy. You get loads of points for destroying the barrels that litter the arena, however no one has told the AI bots this information. I won the battle arenas comfortably just by driving around shooting barrels with damage done to vehicles little more than a bonus.

Both battle modes could stand to be a little more generous when it comes to awarding points. You get a few points here and there for doing big jumps, but it would be great to get rewarded for tricks and flips as well. It leads to odd situations where, for example, driving straight off the track gets you points for airtime, but flipping off a ramp and landing perfectly on a wall doesn’t get you anything.

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All of the race types have issues, be it rubber-banding or just inappropriate point distribution, however the campaign switches things up constantly so it’s hard to ever get that annoyed or bored with any one mode. As a result, the campaign flows perfectly and nails that “just one more race” vibe. You’re always getting XP, even if you lose, and driver levels advance relatively quickly. Vehicle unlocks are a little slow, mind you, with it seemingly taking around an hour on average to get a new vehicle. To make up for this, you’re constantly rewarded with new decals and tires although I can’t pretend that the tires are all that exciting. They don’t modify the vehicle stats in any way and it’s not like you can see them clearly at 500km an hour.

I’d have liked more courses. It’s hard to put a specific figure on the number of tracks because they get recycled with minor changes and there are day and night modes, but I’d say there’s around six of note, and that includes one which is just an oval. Look, despite what some people from the southern United States will tell you, driving in circles for lap after lap just isn’t fun.

GRIP is absolutely exhilarating when it leans on its main strength: the flippable vehicles. Some courses have long tunnels packed with obstacles which see you spinning around so much you lose track of which way is up. Other have small ramps which spin your car so that you’ll do a trick in the air or land perfectly to hit a wall side-on and continue driving without losing momentum. You can build up an insane amount of speed as the screen blurs around your vehicle and you hold on for dear life, knowing the slightest twitch could send you careening off course.

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The bad news is that GRIP doesn’t have enough moments like this. It’s frustrating because the areas GRIP fails in are the same ones that Rollcage mastered all those years ago. To be clear, GRIP does not have to be another Rollcage. Developer Caged Element is free to iterate and improve on a game that is nearly twenty years old at this point. In fact, this should be encouraged. However, the changes here weren’t for the better.

GRIP‘s two major problems are the open nature of the tracks and the use of shortcuts, or lack thereof. Rollcage‘s tracks were more like those of a typical kart racer such as Crash Team Racing or Mario Kart. You veered onto the grass a bit, but you weren’t likely to go flying off a cliff all that often. There were typically forcefields at the edges to keep you in bounds. This was an excellent fit for Rollcage and its vehicles because bouncing back onto the course would nearly always let you continue racing. GRIP doesn’t do this. Tracks have huge open areas and it’s easy to get knocked slightly off course and end up flying into the mountains. The developer must have known this was an issue because it implemented a quick reset button, however I have to wonder whether invisible walls at the boundary wouldn’t have been a better idea. Open areas also fail to take advantage of the whole being able to drive on walls thing which is largely the point of the game.

In Rollcage, shortcuts were risk-reward affairs. You’d usually have to do something tricky like go off the track for a bit or try to make it through a narrow opening. The reward for pulling this off would be gaining time over your opponent. GRIP doesn’t have shortcuts. It has alternative routes. At best, some routes offer an extra speed boost or item pick up but that’s about it. Mastering tricky shortcuts are my fondest memories of Rollcage and they simply don’t exist in GRIP.

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GRIP has a carkour mode—yes, that’s what it’s called—where you can drive through various short scenarios such as loops or jumps. It sounds good in theory, but it’s terrible in practice. Hopefully, a level editor will be added one day because I’m sure the community could come up with some great courses along the lines of those in Trackmania Turbo. The ones on offer here seem flat out broken in places. It’s hard enough to make basic jumps from one piece of track to another, let alone do anything complicated. There’s one where all the arrows tell you to drive forward however that just leads to your death. I managed to complete the mission by reversing under the no entry sign and landing in the right spot. Perhaps this was a joke mission. I’ve no idea, but it wasn’t fun.

Another area GRIP falls down in compared to Rollcage is the soundtrack. This is perhaps inevitable. With a smaller budget, the developer was never going to recreate the brilliance of Rollcage‘s Fatboy Slim inspired soundtrack. GRIP‘s music is functionally the same kind of thing just without the magic.

I mentioned that my best memories of Rollcage were playing with friends and that’s going to be the case with GRIP as well. Multiplayer makes up for a lot of GRIP‘s problems. There’s no need to worry about rubber-banding with human opponents, although it is still an option for any bots that make up the numbers, and from my experience, real players seem to be picking the tracks with narrow courses that work to GRIP‘s strengths. Credit to Caged Element for also including four-player split-screen as well, at least on PC and I believe PS4 and Xbox One, with the Switch limited to two-player split-screen. Speaking of the Switch, if you’re considering picking that version up, I recommend you check out some gameplay footage first because it looks rough and like a different game in places. I’m fairly sure it isn’t even stable at 30 fps let alone 60 fps.

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There’s also a price difference between the versions, with the Steam edition coming in at $30 and console versions at $40. GRIP does its best to hide the lack of courses by regularly switching up the nature of the competitions and making slight changes to the tracks. However, when you look past this, there isn’t a lot of content here, especially if you’re talking about a $40 price point. I played Fast RMX earlier this year for the Switch. It has about 30 courses, not including the mirror mode, and runs at a smooth 60fps at a price of just $20. If you have a Switch, you should consider putting your money there instead.

GRIP has moments of brilliance, but not enough for me to recommend a purchase unless you’re a fan of Rollcage and are interested in what is essentially an incredibly late Rollcage 3. The addition of either some more courses or a level editor would be a huge improvement although I don’t know if that is in the works. GRIP isn’t everything I hoped it would be, however there is a solid base and plenty to suggest that Rollcage‘s formula still has something to offer in 2018.


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