“I feel pretty ambivalent about it all now”, says developer Rob Baker of the 1999 PlayStation classic Rollcage. “I’m never sure whether I should feel sadness that nothing since has quite ignited me in the way that game did. Or, whether I should feel bloody lucky that I worked on a game such as this at all.”
Nearly two decades on, Baker’s latest project is GRIP: Combat Racing — a successor to 1999’s Rollcage and 2000’s Rollcage: Stage II in everything but name. He and Caged Element co-founder Chris Mallinson set about recapturing the high-speed intensity of those original games, their versatile vehicles, inventive track design, and the pumping drum and bass soundtrack. Released today (and included as part of the Xbox Game Pass programme) GRIP successfully revitalises the concept and stands apart in the racing genre.
The big appeal of GRIP — which could otherwise be described as a fairly typical WipEout-style racer — is how its vehicles react to the environment. All of the game’s RC cars boast the ability to grip to the walls and ceiling at high speeds, allowing for highly-creative track layouts and various methods of getting from Point A to Point B. Rollcage rightfully drew the plaudits for including this feature back in the day but GRIP, as you might expect, makes even better use of it, and makes this core idea even more essential to its environments.
Some courses, for example, place large barriers directly in the middle of the track, forcing you to climb the walls or leap to the ceiling. Weapon pickups are often dotted around the ceilings and walls of tunnels, too, requiring a risk-reward approach. It’s not uncommon to find yourself hurtled into a sequence of camera changes as you shift from floor to ceiling and vice versa. They may feel finicky to navigate at first but, when you start to understand the kinks of the game's handling and pull them off regularly, they make for some of the most exhilarating moments in racing.
The only downside to this style of racer is how unforgiving the grip gimmick can be for new players. Get the timing or placement just slightly wrong across any of these sequences, and you'll come skidding to an unpleasant halt, often facing in the opposite direction. Depending on your perspective this is either terrible or a big part of the appeal: you start to learn each track inside out, particularly with an eye looking forward to online play, and master all these upside-down chicanes and sideways shortcuts. There are plenty of the latter dotted around each course, and I found the time trial mode a great way to drive around slowly and pick them out.
A big part of GRIP's appeal is the sheer sense of speed that these races can build up to. The vehicles can register over 700 mph on the clock, and their destructive capabilities lend to a flurry of explosive and visually impressive carnage throughout every race. Alas this isn't accompanied by a perfect framerate, with my base PS4 unit dipping below 60 fps on occasion, but 95% of the time the game runs at a fluid and highly-satisfying pace. There’s also a launch update that will apparently improve frame rates, though I haven't been able to test it.
The vehicle handling itself is old school: think of the first Wipeout. Due to the amount of power packed into each ride, even the slightest of flicks to the analogue stick can send you veering off-course. There’s a learning curve that will probably be more familiar to older players, but it's also been fine-tuned to a meticulous degree, particularly in the varied amount of control the player now has when flying through the air. The cars feel both manoeuvrable and intuitive, yet erratic enough at full speed that you're never wholly comfortable.
Things are made slightly easier by the existence of a catch-up system, which works to balance the playing field. There are enough stop-start moments in GRIP that it’s easy to reach for the pause button when you take a spill but, by utilising this mechanic, there’s rarely any reason to become a better racer. It also emphasises one of the game's downsides: I personally find it a bit grating in single-player when, even in the easiest of races, the rubberbanding is frustratingly real. Fortunately this can be turned off in most modes.
The fast and furious nature of GRIP lends itself to a hard-hitting soundtrack, featuring tunes from DnB label Hospital Records. They’re a necessary complement to the adrenaline-fuelled action on the course, thumping away in the background to great effect. Again, it’s a callback to how Rollcage used to do it, utilising the likes of Fatboy Slim and E-Z Rollers in providing a backdrop. The artists aren’t as high-profile here, but the tunes are just as good.
You’ll find a lot of familiar game modes if you’ve played those games, too. The highlight is Carkour, which basically serves as a Super Monkey Ball style set of obstacle courses, requiring you to perform delicate manoeuvres to reach the finish line. It’s much harder than it sounds, and while the list of challenges isn’t exhaustive, there are still many hours’ worth of enjoyment to be had.
The campaign isn’t quite as memorable — it’s lengthy, but predominantly made up of tournaments that aren't really stitched together with any story or narrative elements.There are lots of race types to get involved with, however, including the likes of elimination and combat-focused races, as well as custom tournaments and destructive arena-based modes. There’s also split-screen and online multiplayer, which is great, along with the ability to customise race options (mirror mode, anyone?) to suit your needs.
Can GRIP do enough to find an audience amidst the busy November period? It’s an unusual and polished racer with striking visuals and a unique gimmick, the kind of game that you'd hope might attract some attention. But it’s also entering the market at a relatively high price point, and it remains to be seen whether it can thrive beyond that niche, old-school audience.
For those like me who fell in love with Rollcage back in the late 90’s, GRIP: Combat Racing is like a game that's been made just for us. It’s even more fast and furious than you'll remember, and an obvious labour of love for those involved, capitalising on what made those PlayStation titles so fun in the first place. Here’s hoping Grip finds a modern audience because, in terms of racing games, there's still nothing else on the grid quite like this.