It’s a beautiful summer day in London, and I’m currently sitting outside a pub with a cool glass of orange juice over ice, watching some retro game videos on Youtube. The particular year I’m looking at is 1999, which was a truly great time to be a PS1 gamer. Gran Turismo 2, Soul Reaver, Silent Hill, Driver, Dino Crisis, Syphon Filter, Resident Evil Nemesis, Crash Team Racing. It was a time when publishers and developers seemed open to trying anything, adding new twists on established genres to find the next gaming thrill. Rollcage was such a game. Developed by a British company called Attention to Detail and published by Psygnosis (then owned by Sony), Rollcage looked to continue the high octane combat racing that Wipeout had started. The ridiculous speeds, colourful explosions and an amazing soundtrack (an original set created by Fat Boy Slim) were all present and correct but the gameplay was where it cleared its own trail.
Blasting around armoured buggies, specially designed with body shells lower than the tops of the massive tires meaning that if you crash and flip on to your roof, you can just keep on driving. This mechanic is was amplified Rollcage’s sensation of speed, you drive up walls, on to the ceiling then fall back to the floor and never once have to take your foot off the accelerator. The title was well received and spawned its own sequel the following year, Rollcage: Stage II which was bigger, better and faster as expected. But then….nothing. Sony still own the rights to the Rollcage IP 18 years later but have never commissioned another title in the series, preferring to keep pumping out Wipeout remasters on every system they launch instead.
Jump forward 18 years and we’re back outside the pub in 2018 and I’m about to go get a hands-on playtest with a game called GRIP by new development team Caged Element. What has my massive preamble/love letter to Rollcage got to do with GRIP? Well for starters, the studio formed because Chris Mallinson, a huge fan of the game, while on the search for any news of another installment, reached out to former Attention to Detail programmer, and now co-founder of Caged Element, Robert Baker. Robert was still heavily involved with the games online community (when a game releases on PC, it never really dies) and their mutual love of all things Rollcage lead to the creation of the studio. It’s primary aim being to make the sequel we never got but using all the fancy tech the current generation of hardware provides. They also put together an impressive team including David Perryman (who worked with Robert on the original games), Graham Bromley & Tony Cooper (both level designers from Codemasters who worked on GRID & DIRT) and Simen Stroek (an environmental artist whose previous games include Horizon: Zero Dawn for Guerrilla Games) among others.
They recently dropped a load of details on the game, which we reported on here, so I was very excited to get my hands on the game. I was greeted by Alasdair Hibberd, product manager at Wired Productions who are publishing the game, and told he would be leading us through the preview. It’s a multiplatform game so for those who’d like to know, I played mainly on a PS4 Pro but I did get a chance to have a go at the undocked Switched version too, but I’ll get back to that later.
We started with playing arcade mode in split-screen multiplayer. The first thing that hits you is just how fast and smooth things are running, even with two players zipping around blowing stuff up. The action is frantic as you race around the intricately themed tracks, using the wall climbing (and ceiling cling) to find alternate routes on the course. Things flying past your eye line as you desperate struggle to make out what’s ahead before you go careening into an obstacle been your reflexes just weren’t quick enough (or as in my case, become distracted by another car getting blown to hell alongside me before I smashed headfirst into a massive pipe work barrier). The sensation of speed when you are already maxing your accelerator, only to then tap your boost button, is insane. Successfully threading your way past opponents and obstructions while maintaining that speed is very satisfying indeed and you feel like a driving god (“how did I not crash? I am the fecking king!”).
The freedom of movement granted by the anti-gravity racing gives the game a very unique feel to what is currently only the market and can lead to some very tense situations as your competitions can come at you from almost anywhere. Thinking you’ve got in the bag only for someone to drop down from the roof above you and snatch your victory is not unheard of here. But don’t let all this talk of walls and pipes lead you to think each track is just some claustrophobic tube, far from it. There’s a large variety of environments to race through, from wide deserts tracks in rocky valleys to narrow high rise structures, with ramp jumps, among mountainous peaks. You’ll be sliding to your doom of icy cliff edges or clinging on to massive vines over a research facility. Some of the courses also feature destructible elements, and while I didn’t get to see this in practice myself, the description given is more a dynamic, player caused effect (like collapsing a satellite tower down on to a hairpin turn) rather than the scripted track altering events seen in something like Split Second. Personally, I feel this adds to the drama of the destruction as it’s not guaranteed to happen so it will be a genuine surprise when it does. There are 22 tracks at the time of release with more planned as free DLC in the future should the title be successful.
The power-ups I got to try out where traditional combat fair, with your homing missiles, machine guns, rear shields but there are loads I didn’t get to try out like the EMP (though I did get hit by one) and the games own “Blue Shell”, a first place seeking missile which I’m sure will lead to many an expletive yelled during late night play sessions. Continuing the Mario Kart love, each of the available cars fall into similar categories and the plumber’s ever popular racer; the all rounders (Mario), the heavies (Bowser), the superfast light weights (Toad) and then the accelerator kings (Yoshi). It may seem an odd analogy for a futuristic combat driving game but once the vehicles were explained to me like that, it makes choosing a car to fit my play style a whole lot easier (everyone has Mario Kart “main” by now, right?). The vehicles can be customised with paint jobs and decals and while it’s nowhere near the insane levels of that seen in the Forza franchise, it’s more than sufficient for you to put your own stamp on it and make it your own.
The next mode we tried out was Carkour. This is just the developers seeing what kind of crazy stuff that can come up with making use of the games physics engine. Carkour is a selection of increasingly difficult tracks where the initial idea is to finish as quickly as possible and challenge folks to beat your time. But, as became very apparent during our playthrough of some of the later tracks, finishing fast becomes a distant second place to finishing at all. The courses are more like a puzzle to be solved that what you’d normally expect in a time trial. When you see the overview of what your facing, your first thought will be “well, how the hell am I supposed to get over there?!”. Accelerating & speed boosting at the precise moment, while finding the perfect angle on the ramp to get you over the bottomless chasm to land on a distant platform, before jumping between slanted walls and making one last run through a loop de loop while praying you have enough momentum to take you over the final jump to the finishing line. The sense of accomplishment with this mode is as immense as it can be frustrating. However, it has that “one more try” feel that is key to making you totally lose all track of time. This is the mode I see myself going to most during my daily commute.
Thinking of the Switch version let me quickly break down what I thought of GRIP on Nintendo’s “undocked” wonder console. Firstly, same screen multiplayer is still possible, which is awesome, but unlike the Xbox and PlayStation games which can manage four players, the Switch will only allow two. That’s understandable due to the power difference and to be honest, when using it as a portable system, that screen cut into four would be way too small to see what’s going on. Secondly, while the other systems are running at 60fps (the team is even trying to get it to 4k 60fps on the X), the Switch is capped at 30fps. Now while this may annoy the racing purist among you, allow me to say that even while playing an early copy of the Nintendo version, which they admitted still has a lot of optimisation to be done, the game still looked great and most importantly still conveyed the sensation of blistering speed that the PS4 Pro version did… so don’t write it off over it not being 60fps.
The last mode I want to talk about is The Arena. This is exactly what you’d expected with a name like that, it’s GRIP’s deathmatch. The level we played in had a domed ceiling, not sure if all the Arenas do but I’d guess so, which creates a very liberating feeling of freedom. You’re never penned in, if someone is gunning at you from behind, get to a ramp and take to the skies. Of the modes I played, this was my least favourite as it almost felt too manic. With the speed of the cars and the wall climbing etc, I felt less like I was aiming for a target and more just randomly shooting at anything that moved. However, we only had a quick go so maybe, with more time, I’ll get a better feeling for the mechanics.
Coming out from the playtest I was grinning like a kid at Christmas. GRIP is shaping up to be the Rollcage sequel the fans have been calling for and so much more. The game is just so much fun and I can’t wait to get my mate’s round for a few beers and some epic long 4 player split screen gaming (seriously can more games have that, please?). It may be the first game I double dip on as I also want the portability of the Switch version too. It’s definitely a game to keep an eye on. Roll on November 6th.