Platforms: PlayStation 3; Xbox 360; PC; PlayStation 3 version reviewed.
The perennial underdog of the driving game world, Codemasters' TOCA series won and kept a hardcore fanbase, but never quite achieved the global recognition that the likes of Gran Turismo or Project Gotham Racing have enjoyed. This is a shame. The last effort, TOCA Race Driver 3, had its visual issues but offered one of the most authentic and exciting racing experiences on the last generation of consoles. Race Driver: GRID may have left the TOCA name behind, but it's still full of the same qualities and - importantly - the same attitude that drove its antecedents. I just hope it leaves the 'underdog' reputation behind, because GRID deserves to be big. It's not just comparable to the likes of Gran Turismo 5: Prologue, Forza 2 and Project Gotham Racing 4 - it's actually a better game in some respects.
As with last year's Colin McRae: DIRT, Codemasters has given GRID a slickness and a suspiciously US-friendly polish, but here there's no sense that the development team has abandoned the elements that used to make the TOCA series special. GRID still scores where TOCA always scored: the racing. The tracks are packed with up to 20 racers, and each one of them is driven by an AI that won't just sit on the racing line and wave cheerfully as you overtake. No, these sons of guns will try to block you, bash into you, and even knock you out of the way while trying to pull off some fearsome overtaking manoeuvres of their own. The competition is fierce, and even in the early stages on the easiest difficulty levels, you won't be able to guarantee a win without some good driving or a little extra help (more of that later). What's more, GRID's realistic approach to car damage really does make you think twice about simply bullying your way through the pack or taking every corner with reckless abandon. The old bumper cars routine, still clearly visible in GT5: Prologue, won't cut any ice here.
The result of this isn't to make you feel cowed or useless on the track - it's to give the racing a sense of risk, reward and danger that even the awesome PGR4 can't match. The key is GRID's most ingenious trick: a little feature called Flashback. Without it, all the carnage and aggression on the track would make the game unbearably frustrating. With it, the difficulty level is just about right. Here's how it works. Take a bad corner on the final lap, spin off the track, write off your car or get blasted into a barrier by an over-zealous rival, and a simple press of a button puts you in an instant-replay mode. And when I say instant, I mean just a few seconds' pause at most. Use the controls to zip forwards and backwards through a brief stretch of footage, find a good spot, whack the Flashback button, and within a moment you'll be back on the track, doing whatever you need to in order to avoid whatever disastrous combination of events wrecked your race.