Grid Legends, launching in February, will be Codemasters’ second crack at a Netflix-style narrative mode, capitalizing on the mainstream interest in F1: Drive to Survive, whose fourth season should premiere soon. Last year, the racing game specialists delivered “Braking Point,” a story campaign for F1 2021 that, although it lacked much replay value, was genuinely engaging and hit the kind of story beats that make Drive to Survive successful.
The challenge before Grid Legends’ “Driven to Glory” is to pull off the same thing with a fictitious racing league where the viewer has no context or expectations outside the game. Drive to Survive is a story of rivalries, after all, and fans understand the baggage that the teams and the drivers bring to every race. The Grid World Series, an intriguing, multi-class worldwide tour, gets the fly-on-the-wall documentary treatment similar to Drive to Survive, but this format works best when the viewer is familiar with the subjects going in.
That’s not to say the story is boring; it’s just difficult to tease out what’s really eating the ensemble cast of characters in Driven to Glory. The mode is a typical superstar-on-the-rise tale, with the player as the center of attention. Driven to Glory spans 36 races, most of which begin with a two- or three-minute full-motion cinematic shot in mixed reality, the method The Mandalorian made famous. Ncuti Gatwa (Netflix’s Sex Education) is the biggest star, as the breezy antagonist Valentin Manzi, who races for up-and-coming rival team Voltz. The player is the second driver on team Seneca, a striving privateer outfit headed by Marcus Ado (Miles Yekinni). Your teammate is Yume Tanaka, who is moderately cooperative but mostly aloof to you, the new kid on the block. And lurking out there is the Ravenwest team, the class of the field, seeking their sixth Grid World Series championship.
The story held my attention, but its enjoyment doesn’t supersede the racing action. As to that, let me revise an earlier criticism I made of Grid Legends in a preview back in November. The jerkiness and the lurching as the third-person camera emphasizes each gear change seems to have been modulated. Or, I don’t know, I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed two months ago and once I saw the shifting effect, couldn’t unsee it. But the build I was given smoothed things out nicely, and I felt like I was hitting my braking points and apexes more naturally.
This is good, because Driven to Glory deserves to be played on a more challenging difficulty, especially if you’re a more experienced driver. It isn’t worth following the story if you’re blowing away every event on easy. After my first two races, I put Driven to Glory on expert difficulty, one rung below the toughest difficulty, with traction control and stability assistance off. I finished the next 10 events hitting my goal right on the nose in the first try. That means if I was asked to finish fifth, I hit that target; if I needed to beat Yume, I did with a white-knuckle overtake in the last sector.
The AI balance was also better in Driven to Glory than it was in the standard career events I raced in November. Moreover, on the tougher difficulties, it made me pay more attention to how I was setting up the car according to the streamlined tuning options Grid Legends gives you. Longer gears are needed for the Renault Laguna touring car to take advantage of the huge straights that bookend Australia’s Mount Panorama circuit, for example. And in Dubai, a street circuit where the track is wider, I stiffened the suspension to prioritize overtaking in the corners, since I wouldn’t be taking many kerbs or bumps.
Driven to Glory looks like it will offer about 10 hours of gameplay, and when that’s finished, progression is carried into the longer, multi-season career mode, with no narrative cinematics. I’m not sure if this means Manzi and Yume will be part of the field in the main career, but I hope so. I did pick up a sense of style, strength, and weakness in these and other AI drivers, although some of the on-track mistakes they made did seem a little scripted.
The Nemesis system touted back in November also seemed a little more meaningful when applied to drivers featured in the narrative. Basically, a Nemesis-triggered driver is going to race you a lot harder and dirtier, probably because you hit them or ran them into a wall. In one chapter of Driven to Glory, Manzi starts off in Nemesis mode, and you need to keep well clear of him. On his first opportunity to overtake me, Manzi shoved me into a tire barrier instead, even if it cost him a couple places to do so. I appreciated being worth that much spite.
On the whole Grid Legends is looking a lot stronger than what I tinkered with at the end of 2021. Driven to Glory, which depends a lot on expository dialogue, probably won’t captivate you the way F1: Drive to Survive does. But Codemasters still deserves credit for producing a live-action show, with the props and set design that necessarily requires. More importantly, I felt more in control of Grid Legends’ high performance cars, racing in events designed for pack racing, where slamming into other drivers on every turn would feel cheap and inauthentic. Grid Legends feels like it has a respectable challenge, and tools to meet it now.
Grid Legends launches Feb. 25, on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC (via Origin and Steam), Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.