GRIP: Combat Racing Review
Fast and Infuriating
After an extended period on Steam Early Access, the high-speed cars-shooting-other-cars vehicular racing combat game GRIP: Combat Racing has officially released on all platforms. One part TrackMania, one part Mario Kart, and a dash of Mad Max, this is a game that requires players to navigate complex, physics-bending tracks at face-melting speeds while attempting to both race, avoid and explode other participants. There is no denying that GRIP offers up some exciting racing and vehicular action, but it walks a fine line between excitement and frustration and doesn’t always get the balancing act quite right, and is also currently hampered by some significant technical issues.
Though GRIP manages to feel pretty unique in general, at the core of this is the handling system and how things change when you start to accelerate. At low speeds, the steering is highly sensitive, but it becomes less sensitive as you start to go faster. With increased speed, you are no longer limited to driving on horizontal surfaces; you can drive along vertical walls, and even go completely upside down on overhanging ceilings. The cars are designed so that they can switch surfaces, so you can drive on the ceiling, drop to the road beneath without flipping and continue on your way. If you find yourself careening through the air, which is bound to happen, you can let go the accelerator to gain some amount of air control where you can try and flip your car into an orientation such that you might be able to continue when you land.
One thing that cannot be overstated is just how fast you get going in GRIP. The speedometer on the screen will indicate speeds of hundreds of kilometers per hour as a normal cruising speed, but the numerical representations become almost meaningless after a point; it’s sufficient to say that you are usually going ridiculously fast. Though it might seem a bit finicky at first, you will need to get used to the unusual handling system and insanely high speeds because the game throws a lot at you. The tracks are definitely the highlight of GRIP, with insane routes that twist and turn and split apart and come back together, requiring some serious concentration and dexterity if you don’t want to crash and lose all your speed at regular intervals, especially on the more challenging tracks.
The developers must realise that the sheer speed might be overwhelming initially, and have included an option to let players select less powerful engines that are helpful when starting out. Your speed can be enhanced by going over boost-pads, as well as by using certain pickups. These are scattered around levels, and function similarly to powerups in other kart racing games, disappearing after a car picks one up but respawning after a short time. Some are defensive and will grant a speed boost or temporary shield, while the rest are offensive and let you do damage to other racers, which is where the “combat racing” suffix to the game title comes in.
Your vehicle can carry any two weapons/powerups at once, with offensive weapons coming in a number of varieties, but always targeting those who are in front of you. Machine-guns and lock-on rockets are joined by some more exotic weapons such as one that shoots a sort of homing-laser and another that fires three explosives harpoons straight ahead that latch on to enemy vehicles and detonate after a short time. The idea with most weapons is that if used effectively, they will cause your opponents to lose control and crash, letting you get ahead (or gain points depending on the game mode) .
Though straightforward to use, there is a bit of a learning curve as each weapon behaves differently and should be used in different situations; the lock-on rockets, for instance, work best in big open straight stretches, otherwise the rocket might hit some part of the terrain and explode prematurely. If you try and fire the rocket while driving up a steep hill or when going around a sharp vertical bend, it will be fired directly into the track in front of you. If you get two of the same pickup, you can ‘power up’ your weapons by sacrificing one of them make the other more potent. In some games modes, your car will take damage and eventually blow up. When your car is damaged, the UI will start to flicker and flash with an effect that is generally pretty obnoxious and distracting.
The prevalence of this combat is generally determined by mode being played. In its default setting, the standard ‘classic race’ mode sees up to 10 racers trying to complete a given number of laps and finish in first place, with access to all powerups and weapons made available. The Speed Demon mode turns all pickups into speed-boost variants, while Ultimate Races see players competing for the most points which are obtained by damaging opponents or getting air. Elimination is similar to the classic race mode but sees the slowest player getting eliminated every thirty seconds. There is even an Arena deathmatch if you want to forgo the whole ‘racing’ part of the game and just drive around in a big area grabbing pickups and trying to blow up other cars. Each mode is highly customisable, letting you change the available powerups, number of opponents and laps as well as the speed of cars, among other things. Outside of the campaign, you can set up custom singleplayer races, which include a set of “Carkour” maps, challenge levels where you simply need to finish while collecting some tokens along the way.
Though the mechanics at the core of GRIP are pretty solid, there are some issues in the context surrounding the races. The campaign mode is a good place to start, as it sees you going through a series of tiers starting with slower races on easier tracks with few powerups and progressing to tougher tracks against faster AI with a larger arsenal. Each tier of the campaign has a series of tournaments, and once you get past the first couple of tiers, you will need to compete in a head-to-head duel against your rival for each tier to progress to the next one. You will also need to place increasingly well in each tournament in order to progress. This system works well enough early on, but as the difficulty increases, so does the frustration.
The AI tend to over-perform when it comes to races where placing well is important, and under-perform when it comes to combat. As a result, I found it extremely difficult to progress through the campaign once I reached the fourth or fifth tier, which is less than half way through. Since there is no rewind mechanic, you need to drive with near perfection in order to place well against the AI who seem to rubber-band to your position when you are going fast but leave you in the dust when you run into trouble. Driving with near perfection on some of the more challenging tracks, especially with other racers firing weapons at you and crashing into you, can feel like an impossible task and lead to repeated restarts for each event if you want to keep progressing through the campaign.
Splitscreen and Online multiplayer are also available, and are also not without issues. The Splitscreen mode works well for individual events, letting you race with or without AI and fully customise the conditions. Unfortunately, splitscreen tournaments currently seem to be broken; after completing the first event in what should be a multi-event tournament, pressing continue returns you to the main menu instead of starting the next event.
Still, if you want to compete against other players, which is where GRIP is at its best, splitscreen is currently your only real option, as Online multiplayer is in even worse shape. The quick-match option to get into games with other players online currently does not function well. After setting your search preferences, the game seems to search for only a few seconds to find a game to place you in, before proclaiming it couldn’t find any and asking you to create your own. Despite numerous attempts, after I created a game, no one else ever joined. On a handful of occasions I was placed into matches with other racers, but I only ever saw up to four players in a single match instead of the supported 10. Even these few online races were plagued by long synchronisation times before the races began, and significant lag and rubber banding for not only the other human racers but also the AI. This is a real shame because the online multiplayer should have been the star of the show here, and instead it seems almost completely non-functional.
Regardless of how you play GRIP, you will gain experience and work through the progression system. It is best compared to Rocket League, with cosmetic items ranging from different paint and tires to new car models. You can unlock different slots for cars, letting you create different customisation presets that you can easily switch between. The actual cosmetics aren’t terribly exciting, but the inclusion of a progression system that doesn’t overly favor those who play longer is welcome; in GRIP, skill is king.
The visuals are powered by the Unreal engine, and definitely aren’t a strength. There are four different environments the tracks are set in, ranging from the surface of a planet that resembles Mars, to a snowy region, to a wild futuristic urban city, to a more tropical sandy area. There is a muddy look to the visuals and artistically the regions are all pretty basic, with a couple of interesting ones such as a track that takes you through the belly of a volcano. The game runs at a steady frame rate on the base PS4, though I had some issues with the menus being unresponsive, to the point I had to restart the game a few times. The audio fares somewhat better than the visual presentation, with an appropriate whine to the car engines, satisfying audio effects for the powerups and weapons, and a thumping electronic soundtrack that generally fits the action well.
GRIP offers up a pretty unique blend of high-speed racing on really wild tracks with vehicular combat thrown in for good measure. It is really unfortunate that the PS4 version suffers from technical issues that make what should be its centerpiece mode, competitive online multiplayer, essentially non-functional. Though there is a good amount of singleplayer options, the frustrating difficulty curve in the campaign and lack of structure in the offline custom races make it difficult to recommend the game in its current state, unless you are looking to play a lot of splitscreen multiplayer.