While the ‘golden age’ of the Nintendo 64 and the original PlayStation gave us the template for intense racing sims and arcade speedsters, it also blessed us with a slew of high-speed titles with a penchant for combat. For every Gran Turismo and Ridge Racer there was a Mario Kart 64, a WipEout and a Speed Freaks ready to throw blue shells and fire missiles with wanton abandon.
It’s a genre that’s struggled to maintain a proper revival outside of Mario Kart series - see the commercial failure of the superb Blur and Split-Second for proof of that - but that hasn’t stopped Canadian developer Caged Element from making its own bid to reunite face-melting speeds and explosive battles for a new era with GRIP. Years removed from a successful crowdfunding campaign, can this plucky little racer take enough inspiration from the past while offering something genuinely new on Switch?
While it’s been developed by a completely different team, GRIP is very much a spiritual successor to another seminal combat racer from that era - the brilliant (and almost 20-years-old) Rollcage - and it’s proud of that fact, too. From a slew of tracks that twist and turn to vehicles that can ride on the ceiling and the walls as gravity itself is constantly dismissed, it’s a love letter to a game that remains a classic in its own right.
And a few turns into your first race, it’s clear Cage Element has managed to capture the intensity and moment-to-moment tussles of its ancestor. There are both passive and aggressive power-ups to collect, ranging from your traditional boost to a shield that briefly protects your posterior from missiles, boost pads to give you a little extra 'oomph' in the speedometer department and weapons which allow you to engage in physical duels as you smash other drivers out of the way around a tight corner.
The physics are very sensitive, with each of the game's 14 vehicles offering a distinct weighting that makes those paint-trading moments even more intense; one wrong move can easily send you spinning away in the wrong direction. A number of tracks also have lanes suspended in the air, much like classic WipEout tracks, but with such high speeds, it’s really easy to just overshoot your timing and go flying off the edge. Thankfully, a majority of the tracks boast a more open-plan design, and it’s here GRIP is at its most enjoyable.
One track will see you racing on a dusty planet littered with mining equipment, where one set of racers might fly through a tunnel and take off from a ramp at the end while another couple of petrol heads take a half-pipe that seamlessly guides them onto the ceiling then back off again, straight back into the pack. The next track will see you traversing huge tunnels dotted with ramps and boost pads that have participants clattering down its interior like a high-speed kaleidoscope. It’s an adrenaline fest, but you’ll need to get to grips (no pun intended) with GRIP’s own often unruly controls before it really clicks. It’s so easy to miss-time a jump and send yourself tumbling back to an earlier part of the track, thus ruining your chances at a podium finish.
Thankfully, there’s an impressive wealth of modes and race types to choose from, which can be tackled both locally (including support for split-screen) and online. There are your standard lap races such as Classic, Ultimate (where you’ll win by scoring more points for damaging other players), Elimination and Speed Demon (where all weapons are removed so you can just focus on high-speed acrobatics and passing the finish line first). You can even test your acrobatic skills in 'Carkour', a mode similar to Dirt 3’s gymkhana stages but crossed with the tricks and high-speed moves of the classic Tony Hawk games. It’s bizarre, but tons of fun.
GRIP also has an arena-style Deathmatch mode, with players dropped into a large map where the aim of the game is to collect power-ups and cause as much damage to your fellow drivers as possible. It’s got a real Destruction Derby vibe about it, and with all manner of ramps, half-pipes and elevated areas to drive around, there’s always another vehicle to lock onto with your missiles or Gatling gun. You can also unlock 'Steal the Stash' and 'Time Bomb' modes, with the former offering a 'Capture the Flag'-style setup while the latter is all about evading a player who will periodically detonate their vehicle.
The Nintendo Switch port is on par with the other console versions in terms of content, so you can access all its modes, level-up your vehicles and set up bespoke match types with friends. It runs relatively smoothly in both handheld and docked modes, with a frame rate that mostly holds firm and visual downgrades that’s aren't as bad as you might expect; we're talking jagged assets here and there and some noticeable blurring on car details when inspected up close, but you don't notice all that much when the action hots up.
Since the online servers for GRIP weren’t available at the time of writing, we’ll be adding to this review next week once we’ve had a chance to test the netcode itself and see how well the game performs outside of local and solo play.
While its controls can often be a little too unforgiving - especially when travelling at such high speeds - once you’ve got the hang of each vehicle's unique yet temperamental handling, GRIP: Combat Racing really opens up. Serving as a faithful nod to the original Rollcage, the wide range of modes and unlockable parts could make it the next Rocket League - if it manages to gather a similar cult following. If you’re in the market for a larger than life racer that isn’t Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, this could well be your next racing obsession.