The PlayStation 1 era was host to a duology of Wipeout competitors called Rollcage, whose distinctive feature was equipping its vehicles with wheels so large they extended both above and below the frame, allowing for theoretically seamless transitions between floor, ceiling, and wall driving. The games are reasonably well-regarded – enough to earn a spiritual successor in GRIP: Combat Racing, but not enough to make that successor worth playing in 2018. Like seemingly every other crowdfunded pseudo-sequel, GRIP has barely a trace of modernization, making it nearly identical to its inspiration while simultaneously removing the free pass of nostalgia. There’s still some entertainment to be had with it, but only because any Mach 1 racing game would have to actively try to be boring.
Races here are a real white-knuckle experience, for better or worse. When the going is smooth and you come out of a tense stretch of track unscathed, it’s undeniably satisfying. The more likely outcome, however, is that you’ll make a mistake, and at 500+ km/h, the result of any mistake is completely unpredictable. There’s a reason that spinning out in something like Mario Kart is a premade animation accompanied by temporary loss of control. GRIP, like many modern games, just hands responsibility for such reactions off to its physics engine. The result is that any given collision has an equal chance of imperceptibly slowing you down, turning you 180 degrees, or launching you into oblivion. As temporarily enjoyable as it is to play a casual match where all players are constantly careening through the sky, anyone playing to win has an uphill battle ahead of them.
Strangely, the developers at Caged Element seem to have recognized that this problem exists without identifying why. There seems to be a slight auto-adjustment feature that tries but mostly fails to keep you facing forward. There’s an option to have the camera point you in the right direction after crashing, but it’s more disorienting than anything. You even have mid-air rotational control to help you land on your tires, but it’s so sluggish and inadequate that it becomes nearly useless. I suspect that many of these perceived issues were intentional decisions meant to apply a certain character to the controls, which, while successful, is also a case of skewed priorities.
Specifically, the vehicles all feel like the enormous, bulky pieces of dangerous machinery that they are. Their jumping capability — officially known as “launching” — requires a decent charge to get off the ground, most of the weapons require a sustained lock-on and a wide berth to work effectively, and the engines roar like monsters. While all thematically appropriate, little of this is in service to the player’s fun. I’d actually recommend dampening the sound effects in the settings menu – that way, the drum and bass soundtrack will only sound mostly interchangeable instead of entirely. Furthermore, launching barely justifies its presence on the design document, and while regular weapons work nicely, the process of “charging” them by holding the button and absorbing an extra power-up is too involved for a game that moves at this speed.
GRIP doesn’t add much to the existing supersonic racing genre – it’s mostly a standard collection of local and online race and battle modes. When it does put an idea into place, it’s anyone’s guess how it will pan out. The more agreeable attempts include some nifty power-ups like the one that emits an aura that pushes other cars away from yours for a few seconds, and Elimination mode, where the last-place racer is destroyed every 30 seconds until only one remain. On the other hand is Carkour, an anemically executed obstacle course mode, a “Rivals” mechanic that’s just an unnecessary justification for 1-on-1 races, and the ability to damage background scenery, apparently for its own sake.
The quality of the track construction is more predictable but equally mixed. From a pure design perspective, all of the environments are wonderfully crazy, composed of twisting paths that weave through each other and take full advantage of the racers’ capabilities. I also have no aesthetic issues; the game looks consistently amazing in motion. When it comes to playability however, there’s not nearly enough visual distinction between path and obstacle for a game as open-ended and blisteringly fast as this. In addition to the previously discussed physics difficulties, the tracks are also hampered with an abundance of obstacles that rest perpendicular to the direction of movement, causing players who hit them to stop dead, which is totally antithetical to the game’s high-octane image.
GRIP: Combat Racing exists on a scale between exhilaration and frustration. When played for a few hours with friends, it slides closer to exhilaration, as its ludicrous vehicle velocity provides lots of wacky carnage and breathtaking action. Trying to take on the drip-fed campaign or partake in any serious online play will drop it all the way over to frustration, as perfection becomes nearly required to compete past the most basic level. Nothing here is unsalvageable; a more smoothly constructed version of this game would be great fun. Fortunately for us, there are already several games out there that fit that description.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with by Wired Productions.
GRIP: Combat Racing demands constant discipline from its audience while exhibiting little itself.