There’s a certain elegance to the racing genre that’s not always visible to outsiders; that goes beyond the flashy cars and roaring engines. Perfectly timed overtaking manoeuvres and sticking to the optimum racing line sound a little dull, but in practice they exhibit the heights of precision, and dare I say it, grace on the racetrack. Codemasters are veterans of the racing genre and know a thing or two about bringing asphalt and tire smoke to life on screen, and the latest instalment to the Grid franchise almost represents a call-back to their roots. Taking heed of feedback/complaints from the more street-racing focused Grid 2, Autosport lives up to its name by delivering a swathe of racing disciplines from technical open-wheel events to tire-squealing drift battles. It’s a “jack-of-all-trades” approach that allows you to focus on your favourite disciplines (to a point) or to become a master of all – if you’re willing to devote the time.
Grid: Autosport features a career mode that’s split up into seasons, where you get to pick from one of the five racing disciplines: Touring, Endurance, Open Wheel, Tuner, and Street. The events can be taken in any order, or completely ignored; as experience progression is tied to each discipline. The downside to this is a requirement to level all disciplines up to prerequisite levels to unlock the special Grid Championships, which takes a lot of time to achieve. Each season you’re given offers by different racing teams that essentially boil down to who’s giving out the most XP or how customisable the car will be (pro tip: always go for more XP). The cars are all roughly on the same level, and there’s no choice of car; so races are determined on skill, rather than cheesing through with overpowered monsters.
In the long run, what team you go with has no impact on your overall career as you essentially hop from team-to-team, season-to-season. In the end, the career mode comes across as shallow and more like a series of unrelated events, rather than an actual racing career. In each race, there’s a rival to beat, but because what happens in one season has very little impact on the next, it comes across as arbitrary. There’s a real missed opportunity here to have a fully fleshed out driver progression system with long term team offers, trade negotiations, real rivals, and lifetime achievements, but alas, we can’t have everything. What Autosport does do absolutely right is how XP is earned; based on the difficulty modifiers players can set. Turning off driving aids, increasing AI difficulty and using cockpit view only, all add XP modifiers to heighten the risk/reward stakes in progressing through the disciplines.
Walking a fine line between simulation and arcade, the racing in GRID Autosport is fluid, weighty, and incredibly fun for both novices and virtual gearheads alike. With Codemasters’ pedigree in the genre, it comes as no surprise that the driving is a visceral and well-tuned experience. Cars have a weight about them, and each different type of vehicle has its own unique feel. Open wheel formula cars feel flighty and fragile while American muscle car monsters are loud, brash, and feel on the edge of losing control at any given moment. Finding the rhythm of a track and its racing line is one of the true joys of Autosport as you temper the car’s shifting weight around corners and keeping control of acceleration; all the while trying to shave milliseconds off lap times and overtaking aggressive AI. Reactive AI makes racing a white-knuckle affair as opponents will jostle for position, make aggressive moves and even (refreshingly) break from the racing line. This all provides for a racing experience that demands patience and precision that can feel unforgiving, rather like Dark Souls, and much like From Software’s hack-and-slasher, it rarely feels unfair.
The five racing disciplines race differently and feel unique enough to deserve their own category:
Touring represents the nitty-gritty, door-scraping, pack racing side of the sport, as well as channelling Codemasters’ original TOCA series. Muscling through the pack and making slight gains on mistakes or better corner is the name of the game here.
Open Wheel is in a similar format but requires extra care in avoiding contact making the best use of the machines’ nimbleness. Taking off traction and stability control shows how truly flighty these vehicles are. These two were my favourite disciplines, but there’s enough choice here that you can find your own niche (except for the lack of a rally mode, unfortunately).
Endurance is the odd duck here as races are run against a time-limit and tyre wear. Pushing too hard, too early, means the latter part of the race becomes more difficult as tyre traction reduces. Unfortunately, this mode lacks pit stops, so it’s not particularly tactical, plus your opponents don’t seem to care one way or another. If 8-minute (or more) races aren’t your thing then this mode will be the most tedious of the career races, and a pain when trying to level everything up.
Tuner racing is about speed, spinning tires and going fast as possible. Races are a little mundane, but there’s more than a little enjoyment to be had keeping beastly machines under control. Drift events are a nice break from all the traditional racing that takes a while to master, but is fun all the way. Street racing is a leftover from Grid 2 that’s all about narrow tracks, tight corners and close-quarters racing. It makes for a change of scenery, but it doesn’t feel different enough from the other modes to really stand out.
As I’m terrible at car analogies, I won’t start comparing Autosport’s sleek, simple, yet functional, design to some German supercar, lest I be at the wrath of Top Gear fans everywhere. The design does accentuate one thing, though: it’s all about the racing. Polyphonic Digital (Gran Tourismo series) could take a page or 10 out of Codemasters’ menu design book – it’s almost too basic. This philosophy flows throughout the game, with the soundtrack being made of roaring engines and crunching bodywork of the race rather than actual music. The detail is saved for the cars and the tracks, and undoubtedly, the mechanics going on under the hood, so to speak. PC owners get the benefit of 60fps over consoles locked at 30fps, plus there’s a free high resolution texture DLC available for PC for those blessed with a 4k resolution capable rig (this was tested on a 1920×1800 monitor, and it was hard to tell the difference). The cars are sleek, and real-world car manufacturers are well represented such as Holden, Ford and Bugatti. When looking literally under the hood (thanks to decent damage modelling), some ugliness appears with rudimentary engine modelling and a blurry, underwhelming cockpit view that doesn’t do the game justice. Cars are roughed up in a believable manner with bits of bodywork hanging off, but once they fall off they float on the track and slide away in an unconvincing way.
The tracks are detail rich and have a sense of depth to them, with an apparent care given to making the background as scenic as the foreground. The crowd and trees are rendered as 3D models and feel like a natural fit, plus little details like balloons being released in the background gives the experience a sense of occasion. Street races are visually exciting, especially the Washington DC course overflowing with pennants with the White House as a background. Without music, the game relies on the sounds of the track to immerse the player. Each class of car sounds unique, and have the right amount of punch to give a sense of power through the speakers. As exhausts crackle and tyres squeal, the crowd will punch through in the quiet moments, or the music from the grandstand will momentarily invade the cockpit as you speed by to make the track feel alive. During races, your race manager will make radio updates or can be asked for specific information (vehicle damage, lead times for example) in a pleasant, but most likely irritating in the long run (due to repetitive lines), English accent.
There are a few fundamental shortcomings in Autosport that keep it from being a truly incredible racer. As already mentioned, the career mode is a bit half-baked and underwhelming. It’s all well and good to make racing the priority, but why not include the politics and management of an actual motorsport career to give the experience some complexity? The many-tiered experience system work well but can be a pain when trying to level up the disciplines you’re not as interested in. For those invested only in the racing. However, this may not be such an issue. Car tuning options are uncomplicated and easy to understand, and can be crucial to giving an edge when racing against an even field. In career mode, the cars are automatically provided when selecting a team, so there’s very little input required by the player, keeping things simple for better or worse.
Online multiplayer has its own experience system and currency to provide depth and longevity to the mode. While reviewing GRID: Autosport, I tried many times to join multiplayer races, but only managed to connect once. Autosport uses their own Racenet platform which uses automatic matchmaking, so it was hard to determine if it was a case of a small player-base or poor matchmaking, however, parties can still be created from friend lists. There’s also a separate section that regularly updates with challenges for players to compete on leaderboards, to earn money and experience. Money can be used to purchase used and new cars (for quite hefty sums), which then, in turn, can be used in multiplayer and also earn more experience than the “loan” cars usually used. If a strong racing community develops, Autosport may find its legs in the long term, as well as on the competitive scene.
It’s not hard to imagine Jeremy Clarkson taking Grid: Autosport for a test drive, making a few off colour remarks about its lineage, and poking every one of its flaws with barbed wit. However, this would be half the segment. Clarkson would let it loose and say underneath its simplistic design and functional aesthetics is the heart and soul, no, essence of racing. Although the career mode is flawed, the racing rules once the engines start. It’s a testament to the powerful engine running in the background, and the wealth of experience Codemasters bring to the genre. Capturing the essence of racing saved Autosport and the GRID series from mediocrity, and is likely to please any racing enthusiast.
Note: This article was based on the PC version of the game, and provided to us by Bandai Namco Games Australia for review.