The combat racing genre has mostly been left in the past in favor for open-world racing; however, GRIP: Combat Racing serves as a spiritual successor to Rollcage. For those unaware, Rollcage flipped the racing world upside down (literally) back in 1999/2000. Known for its unique physics that allowed futuristic stylized vehicles to drive on walls and ceilings at an intense high-rate of speed. Starting as a “dream” project from two developers (Robert Baker and Chris Mallinson) that worked on the original game, GRIP: Combat Racing entered Steam Early Access title two years ago. After garnering quite a buzz and positive reception from the community, this combat racing game aims to take you back to the arcade racing days of the past with modern conveniences to smooth the overall experience.
What helps GRIP stand out from the rest of the racing games released today is the same thing that elevated Rollcage over its competition back in the day; verticality. Being able to drive seamlessly across ceilings and all sides of a tunnel is simply thrilling. No better sensation than winning a race by a fraction of a second, by using the ceiling to your advantage to launch yourself in front of a competitor, after pulling off a double front flip in the process. Rules of the road don’t apply here, especially with the weapons and power-ups you’ll be collecting to dish out some punishment on the competition. There are 22 tracks included in the game currently, set amongst some of the most varied alien worlds, ranging from desolate red-tinged rocky wastelands, to snow-filled mountain peaks, to futuristic and sprawling urban environments.
GRIP features all the standard game modes that you’d want in a combat racing game, including a tier-based campaign, split-screen local multiplayer, online multiplayer, competitive deathmatches, and even a mode inspired by the Trails franchise. The campaign itself is divided into ten different tiers, with each tier comprised of various events and tournaments. You’ll select your vehicle from the starting options, and further customize it with decals, uniquely designed tiers, rims, and body paint. As you race and hopefully win or place high up on the podium, you’ll earn experience which will level up your profile. New customization options unlocked as you progress, ensuring you always have something new to unlock.
The further you advance in the tiers, the more difficult the competition becomes. The first races are simplistic, easing you into the experience, with simple races against only a couple of AI controlled opponents, and only allowing for the speed boost power-up. Strangely enough, it is way more powerful and useful than the boost pads located on the tracks. Your car also comes equipped with a tiny boost, but it’s more useful in the air than trying to pass a rival in a race. Generally, races are quite close, thanks to the rubberbanding AI, that either work in your favor or against you at all times. Make a wrong turn or find yourself stuck and needing to reset your position, you most likely will not have too hard of a time catching up with the competition.
Similarly, you aren’t able to get comfortable in first place, as you’ll almost always have someone right behind you the whole way. While it is more thrilling when races are close, having the AI still outperform your vehicle on straightaways can be debilitating. The AI is not without faults, and instead of opting for the perfect racing line, they do make mistakes by crashing into walls, not landing from a jump accurately, all of which helps give them a “human” appearance.
Of course, racing is only part of the fun, as you’ll obtain various missiles, mines, mini-guns, and more to devastate the opposing racers. What’s better than locking on to the first place car, and knock them off the ceiling with a missile, seeing them fall onto the second place vehicle, with both of them losing control as you boost yourself to victory. You’ll need to stay vigilant as the AI attempts to take you out in a similar fashion. A backward facing shield can protect you from being blasted, but getting hit with a missile will still disrupt the HUD elements. The effect used is brilliant, representing getting your head being knocked around in the cockpit, losing self-awareness. Weapons also have a charged version of themselves, by consuming your secondary pickup. These are more useful during the combat challenges, but can still assist during races by causing wide-range destruction.
Most of the tracks have various branching paths, letting you leap over barricades to reach a new pathway, or launch yourself off a ramp to crash through glass windows and land in front of the competition. As you are bouncing around from surface to surface, I didn’t like the face there were still parts of the tracks that are off-limits or capable of trapping you. You can reset your position at any point, but you’ll lose a few seconds in doing so. Tracks generally try to corral you into the proper paths, with the additional paths off to the side (or above/below you), but there are a couple that seemingly tricks me every lap into thinking that a particular opening on the side is, in fact, a valid pathway. It was not. Instead, I fell into a pit and was promptly reset. It is, however, in your best interest to explore each track, as you never know which way may end up being not only faster but populated with boost pads or power-ups that will give you a leg up on the competition.
Considering you’ll be spending plenty of time upside down, driving across walls and ample time in the air, you’ll need to take into account landing or exiting a tunnel to ensure continued momentum. Never is worse than outpacing the competition, only to awkwardly land coming out a tube and slowing you down. I initially missed the tooltip and became increasingly frustrated at the lack of air control, until it clicked that you need to release the throttle while in the air to gain control of your vehicle. With the velocity that you are traveling, it isn’t perfect, but it indeed is possible to prepare yourself properly. It does take some getting used to, especially if you are like me and tend to not let up on the accelerator at any point during a race.
Besides racing, there are competitive arena style game modes, which is a rarity in racing games these days, including deathmatch, steal the stash (capture the flag), and time bomb (tag). For some reason, the capture the flag and bomb tag game type are locked at the start. There is a handful of different arena, adding verticality to ensure escape from being targeted, options for time limits, kill limits, number of combatants, engine power, and difficulty. It feels like a nostalgia trip, and it’s quite satisfying to take out your frustration on your opponents. Steal the stash and time bomb are also enjoyable, with time bomb being a favorite of mine. You have to avoid the player marked with the bomb, especially when the bomb explodes, as anyone caught in the blast radius is destroyed. The final game mode, carkour, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around. The setup seemed simple enough, test your driving skills by jumping across platforms to reach collectibles. As it stands, I never was able to successfully reach the third platform at the very beginning of the level. Heck, I had a difficult time reaching the second platform 80% of the time. The launch (or jump) button didn’t seem to work in this mode, dumbfounding myself on how it is supposed to work correctly. Of course, all of the racing and arena modes can be played locally, via split-screen or online.
On the visual front, I was impressed by the games use of lightning and varying environments. The vehicles themselves are futuristic in style and are very reminiscent of those from roll cage. The added customization options and infinite color combinations and decals are a nice touch, and you shouldn’t see two players looking precisely the same. Playing the game on an Xbox One X, the frame rate appeared to be silky smooth. The sound design in GRIP is utterly fantastic. The heavy rock inspired soundtrack from the London-based independent record label, Hospital Records, features a great selection of licensed drum & bass tracks.
GRIP: Combat Racing is a blast from the past, with intense racing and thrilling arena-based competition. The developers set out to make a modern Rollcage and have thoroughly succeeded. The inclusion of split-screen multiplayer, a rarity these days, is much appreciated, especially with the highly customizable online experience.Note: GRIP: Combat Racing was reviewed on Xbox One. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher/developer.