With gasoline prices at $4 a gallon and rising, the leisurely Sunday drive is turning back into a luxury. But there is an alternative: the automotive video game. And the only fuel you need is the electricity that powers your TV and your game console.
This year already has delivered a smorgasbord of racing games, including the hyperrealistic “Gran Turismo 5 Prologue,” the frenetic “Burnout Paradise” and the lighthearted “Mario Kart Wii.” And of course there's “Grand Theft Auto IV,” with driving segments that are far superior to those in the series' previous chapters.
For about a decade, Sony's “Gran Turismo” has been the standard by which other car games are judged. It has had some close competition – “Forza Motorsport,” “Project Gotham Racing,” “Midnight Club” – but there's a new contender that could finally take the checkered flag away from “GT.”
Codemasters, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99
Britain's Codemasters studio gained a cult audience with its “TOCA Race Driver,” and it's has applied the lessons learned from that series (as well as last year's off-road racer “Dirt”) to this addictive new title. “Grid” is an adept blend of arcade-style racing and hardcore simulation, and it's the most fun I've had behind a virtual steering wheel this year.
The titular grid is a matrix of events, combining different racing disciplines in a variety of U.S., European and Japanese locations, real and imagined. Courses include winding mountain roads, famous tracks like Le Mans and Nurburgring, and urban environments like Washington and Detroit. You can drive stock cars, muscle cars, touring cars and open-wheel cars; you can compete in a demolition derby or a drifting competition.
The controls feel natural, although your computer-controlled opponents can be vicious, slamming you into walls with no regrets. But “Grid” does cut you some slack: After a smash-up you can rewind and resume from a point before things went wrong. Even with these “flashbacks,” the races are still very challenging, and you'll feel like you earned every victory.
EA Sports, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; PlayStation 2, $39.99
Look, I get that America loves NASCAR. I understand the appeal of the feuds between its various characters. I'll even watch the end of a race – if I'm waiting for “King of the Hill” to come on. But “NASCAR 09” looks like a tea party compared with the bone-rattling, steel-crunching excitement of “Grid.”
The real-life sport presents one huge obstacle: It's just driving in circles. And any time it threatens to get interesting – with a crash, say, or someone spinning out – a caution flag gets raised, slowing the action to a crawl. Are NASCAR drivers really such wimps? I'm calling you out, Kurt Busch!
“NASCAR 09” does have a nice selection of “Sprint Driver Challenges” that test particular skills, such as drafting, avoiding wrecks or maintaining a certain speed. But the meat of the game is those endless, predictable races, with graphics and audio that pale in comparison with “Gran Turismo” or “Forza.” If you watch the sport on TV, you may find it entertaining; but if you hate Jeff Gordon, you'll hate this, because he's all over it.
Ubisoft, Wii, $39.99
This open-world adventure holds the promise of a mirror version of “Grand Theft Auto,” in which you're stopping mayhem instead of creating it. Alas, the futuristic metropolis of San Alto is nowhere near as expansive or detailed as Liberty City, and the variety of things you can do is much more limited. In this comparison, evil triumphs easily over good.
You have three types of vehicles (fire trucks, ambulances and police cars) and essentially three types of missions (putting out fires, rescuing victims and chasing criminals). All the tasks within each category feel the same, however, and the attempt to add a plot, told through comic-book still frames, falls flat.
The driving itself isn't much better. The steering, acceleration and braking are imprecise, and the vehicles all feel like they're floating. Overall, “Emergency Heroes” feels like a rush job that doesn't do justice to its inspirations.