When thinking about racing games, the mind usually strays quite quickly to massive names such as Need For Speed which celebrates wildly popular releases on an annual basis and even saw a big-budget movie adaptation. However, some fantastic but reletively unknown racers got buried in the annals of time that are now seen as gems in the eyes of those lucky enough to have been part of their dedicated cult followings. Split/Second and Mashed: Fully Loaded are among those that we will unfortunately never see again. Another all-but-forgotten classic from yesteryear was RollCage for PlayStation and PC.
Originally released in 1999, Rollcage differed from other racers on the market due to the build of its cars. Small cabs supported by large wheels allowed Rollcage to provide an exciting experience where vehicles could drive up walls and along ceilings with minimal effort. This key feature made it stand out from the crowd and created an entirely new form of racing. The GRIP: Combat Racing sported a sequel the following year, but ultimately the series was short-lived.
Now, the better part of two decades after Rollcage’s final installment, the people of Caged Element and Wired Productions have taken the groundwork that Rollcage laid down in the late 1990s to build an entirely new racer in this classic format. A spiritual successor to pay homage to the retro-gaming gem in the form of an adrenaline-pumping all-out sensory overload known simply as GRIP: Combat Racing.
The in-game story of GRIP: Combat Racing is told through text and depicts an illegal league that had been born from traditional street racing. The intense competition led to a TV station called GRIP taking notice and broadcasting the dangerous events live, much to the delight of their fans. However, the government condemned the sport and sent in a military presence to stop it. This lead to an increase in viewership as people became enthralled by the drama. In an attempt to evade the authorities, the league began to shift off-world which allowed the drivers to continue competing in their deadly races.
Like Rollcage before it, GRIP: Combat Racing features vehicles with thin cabs and larger than life wheel which allows them to flip upside-down and continue driving at full tilt. This simple element which fans of radio-controlled cars would be accustomed to becomes the very life-blood of the gameplay. Each vehicle sports a similar body shape allowing them to traverse virtually any surface as it were a flat grounded stretch of road.
To drive up a wall without fear of falling off, the cars must be both fast and light. This is evident from the very first race as your vehicle can easily accelerate to extreme speeds. Within seconds you’ll find yourself cruising along at a cool 500 kph. The cars feel weightless as they smoothly transfer from a curved road to the wall and ultimately onto the ceiling directly above. The transition is seamless, but this form of gravity-defying gameplay mixed with the vehicles’ sensitive steering means that it does take a little while to get the swing of. As long as you’re traveling at a high enough speed, your car should grip the surface as if it were any other. Release the throttle for a short time, however, and you’ll find yourself coming loose and thundering earthwards.
Once you nail the core fundamentals, you’ll find yourself casually switching surfaces in the blink of an eye to access the turbo pads which are dotted strategically around the tracks. These give you an instant boost of speed allowing you to push your vehicle to its limits. To further the feeling of speed to near eyeball-spearing proportions, each car has a built-in turbo booster that can be accessed by pushing the triangle button. The cleverly integrated regeneration system sees the booster refill at different paces depending on where you currently stand on the leaderboards. The closer you are to first place, the longer it will take your turbo meter to recharge. If you’re unlucky enough to be trailing behind the herd, you can rest assured that you have a quickly regenerating turbo stock to fall back upon.
Of course, the game couldn’t bear the words “Combat Racing” in its title without the integration of weaponry to whip your opponents off the track with. Between weapons and power-ups, there’s no shortage of ways to underhandedly gain the advantage here. Power-ups and weapons are pretty much broken down into defensive or strategic and offensive measures respectively. They are represented throughout each track as small pickups which are automatically loaded into your car once you drive over them. Like the turbo pads, you’ll find these sprouting from almost any surface along the length of a course.
Some of the pickups are relatively standard affairs for any game of this ilk; the Raptor, for example, is a rapid-fire chaingun that causes opponents to spin out of control while the Scorpion is a classic homing missile. You can defend against these attacks by erecting a Painkiller shield from the rear of your car or by simply outrunning rivals with a little help from the Firestorm speed boost pickup.
The real stars of the show when it comes to combat though are some of the weapons added to the roster later in the game. The Assassin is a classic leader bomb akin to the infamous blue shell from the Mario Kart series, but thanks to a continually scrolling feed at the bottom of the screen, you can tell the exact moment that it connects with its target. Even more devious is the Spearhead; a weapon that fires a trio of explosive darts into the back of a rival car with the force of a shotgun blast. These delayed explosives give their target just enough time to panic before denoting and tossing them off course.
The later stages of the game add another layer to the combat’s depth by introducing the ability to charge weapons. Each pickup is displayed in one of two slots at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. Charging one allows you to sacrifice whatever pickup is in the opposite slot to strengthen your weapon of choice which can then be stored for later use. This gives you access to some heavy firepower as each weapon gains additional attributes to put its target further out of the running.
When all of these elements come together, the result is a pulse-pounding adrenaline-fueled frenzied fight to the finish that often borders on all-out vehicular warfare. Zipping from the ceiling to the floor and watching the world twist around you is a consistently exhilarating experience. Keeping pace with these incredibly fast vehicles calls for forward thinking at all time; overtaking them calls for clever strategic movements while traveling at speeds that are unparalleled in most other racers. The built-in turbo booster ensures that each car has a sporting chance to make a glorious comeback and in turn, this keeps the action tight and intense at all times as you maneuver through swarms of incoming rockets.
Grip: Combat Racing’s landscapes take you from lush green planets to barren icy wastelands. Some of the standout tracks force you to travel upside down along skyways for the majority of the race, encouraging you to keep increasing the speed to avoid falling off the road entirely. One of the joys of this title is that when it’s played correctly you no longer like you’re driving on a roof or a wall; instead everything begins to feel natural. Zipping to tight tunnels, hollowed logs, or clinging to the molten rock can be enough to make your head spin when you first step foot into the game, but it all begins to feel fantastically smooth over time.
However, there are moments when it loses focus and things can then get quite messy. Taking a hit from a missile can veer your car wildly off course or throw it into a spin. Regaining control can prove to be more difficult than it’s worth. You often find yourself battling to reposition your car as it unintentionally climbs walls and flips over, ultimately leaving you in a worse position than you would have been in if you just reset the car entirely. Even while utilizing the game’s air-control feature which allows you to twist and rotate an airborne vehicle, this can still be a significant issue. Unfortunately, it potentially makes races quite frustrating at times as the slightest miscalculation can mean the difference between first place and last.
With some planets to observe at blistering speeds as you tear along the track, there is quite an amount to keep players coming back to GRIP: Combat Racing. Each of the game’s 22 tracks has various routes to explore which awards those brave enough to take on their challenging layouts and punishes those who get lost. Along with this, there are some different race formats to indulge in throughout the game. Standard racing allows you to tear through alien worlds while engaging in combat to ensure that you’re the first vehicle to cross the finish line, while the Ultimate Race mode awards you points for landing shots on your opponents, time spent in mid-air, and your final race position. There is also a Speed Demon mode which exchanges weapons for speed boasts, and an arena-style Deathmatch mode which pits you against other cars in a battle to see who can inflict the most damage within a given time frame.
All of these modes are available in the single-player campaign and for quick play exhibition matches. They can also be accessed in local multiplayer which sports up to four gamers at once, or online with up to 10 players.
GRIP: Combat Racing is a fantastic love letter to a game that has been long since forgotten by most players. Although it’s not a true sequel, it would feel right at home as the third installment of the Rollcage franchise. Everything from the blazing speed to the level of concentration needed to process each turn will make you grip your controller tightly as you plunge into the outrageously fast vehicular combat. It’s a non-stop thrill ride of tense turns, gravity-defying stunts, and ruthless rivalry; all while hurtling down tracks at breakneck speeds. It never lets up. Instead, the raw aggression of the game increases as you progress creating an incredible experience that’s not for the faint of heart.