Codemasters' move toward storytelling is fine, as long as they get the racing right

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It's been a busy month for the British racing studio Codemasters. F1 2021 hit in mid-July to much acclaim and then at EA Play earlier this week they unveiled GRID Legends.

While on the face of it these two games are wildly different racers, they do share a common driving force - A narrative story. In F1 2021 this comes in the form of Braking Point, a stand-alone mode that Codemasters had in the works for a long time. For GRID Legends the story appears to be even more focal for the game.

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But is Codemasters at risk of losing sight of why people buy their games?

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Telling stories on the track

Part of any good racing game is letting the players craft narratives themselves on the track. Be it taking the worst team on the grid to the top of Formula 1 or going from Moto3 to the MotoGP champion, there is always a journey that lets you create villains and obstacles on the track, rather than in cut scenes.

This is why F1 2019 worked well. It introduced you to two fictional rivals, F2 teammate and friend Lukas Weber and the smuggest man alive Devon Butler, and then dropped them into Career Mode with you to continue crafting rivalries on the circuit.

F1 2021 Braking Point Devon Butler
BARK AND BITE: Braking Point provides the story, but F1 retains its user-driven narrative too
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For F1 2021 that creativity is entirely contained in Braking Point, and none of the characters bleed over into the on-track action elsewhere. The racing is still so good that you can create your own rivalries within your Career Mode or My Team save just as before though.

Be my nemesis

On-track storytelling was the name of the game for GRID when it landed in late 2019. Using an innovative AI called the Nemesis System, GRID attempted to have AI with a memory. If you got too physical and aggressive with your moves on one particular driver they would begin to reciprocate in kind.

This sort of AI was something a lot of games would benefit from using, as the relentless perfection of an AI's cornering or their ultra-high survival instinct makes offline racing far different from taking on other actual drivers. It added a level of detail to GRID races that you didn't see elsewhere, but that sense of rivalry and competition struggled to carry over from race to race.

Ncuti Gatwa grid legends
EYES ON THE PRIZE: The unnamed character in the trailer is presumably the avatar gamers will embody in GRID Legends
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You rarely competed against the same AI competitors again and again, and the lack of any true championship structure made it hard for journeys and grand narratives to grow naturally. Overall, the game lacked a linking force that kept you coming back for more. Instead of feeling like a group of races that you just had to get through.

GRID Legends needs to fix to that, but the launch trailer focused right in on characters and story. On beating Nathan McKane and Ravenwest once more, but this time from the racing boots of an underdog who clashes with the antagonist in the pitlane and on the track. That's a familiar tale that could quickly become formulaic if not handled correctly.

Making movies

Growing a niche section of gaming like racing is tricky, especially in a more "generic" title that doesn't have the backing of a real-world competition to draw in an audience.

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Adding visually impressive narratives that take you away from the track is a good way to tempt in new players, but extensive cutscenes and overly dramatised racing are also a good way to neglect your core audience who just want to go racing.

F1 2021 Haas Williams
FIGHT IT OUT ON TRACK: A test of skill and bravery should be at the heart of racing games

In the end, players want control. Control of the car, of the character, of their actions, and their choices. It's why games like Red Dead Redemption, Assassin's Creed, and The Witcher are so popular. A cut scene is fine, but if the story is just linear and the players' choices and actions within the game have no consequence on the direction of the story, developers might as well make a movie, not a game.

Codemasters' move to storytelling is an interesting direction to take the genre of racing games, but these titles will all live and die on the racing, not the story. If the on-track action doesn't live up to expectations then racers will go elsewhere.