Coming a little over one year after the last instalment, GRID Autosport continues the focus of multi-discipline racing gameplay that is the cornerstone of the series, but shifts focus away from pick-up-and-play arcade action and into a more hardcore track and car setup based arena. Does it deliver a pure racing experience usually reserved for the games that like to use “sim” in the advertising, or does it keep its accessible roots so that anyone can drive it? Don your Nomex suit, gloves and helmet (or not), and read on to find out.
To a degree, booting the game up to the menu felt like coming home – I hadn’t had a good experience with GRID 2 and wasn’t expecting to play another game in the series, but Codemasters have a unique way of presenting their games which draws you in and feels familiar, and you instantly know you’re in something that’s been built with the Ego engine. All the usual touches are there that add to the immersion: setting your own first and last name, language, country, and working out what nickname you want the in game voices to call you. I actually went for my own name this time round and there’s something satisfying about being welcomed back and encouraged by someone who at least sounds like they know you. What’s also a great touch is that the game lets you choose exactly how difficult a time you want to have with a considerable amount of customisation available. Want to have easy opponents but challenge yourself with no traction control, ABS or racing line? No problem. How about hard as nails AI but a car that nearly drives itself? It’s up to you. The good part is that there’s a baseline XP awarded regardless of how you decided to tackle the events, and changing the options either raises or lowers a percentage bonus XP depending on how easy/hard you want it. And believe me, you’ll want to get some of that bonus XP coming in as soon as you can. I need to stress this because I think it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a racing game – putting you in full control of how it works so that you can get the most out of the game.
Once you’re through the setup though it’s time to pick a racing discipline and get going. There are 5 to choose from, each coming with it’s own intro video so you know what you’re letting yourself in for, and all are pretty self explanatory – race as fast as you can and beat the competition. There’s Touring, Endurance, Open Wheel, Tuner and Street, each offering a different 4-wheeled experience and covering nearly everything you could want in a racing game (barring rallying, which they’ve got their own series for anyway). All is familiar up to this point, it’s when you load the “season” that things are a bit different. Every event you pick is classed as a “season” of racing, so picking the first Touring event is two races on circuits in touring cars that follow the format of a race weekend – Friday practice, Saturday qualifying, and two sprint races on Sunday. Pretty much all the disciplines follow this structure with some minor tweaks to the qualifying and number of races depending on what you’ve picked. Endurance is about driving for a set time limit, usually at night; Open Wheel is in fast, purpose built track machines; Tuner is for custom spec machine races and drifting; and Street is about driving fast through tight, twisting city streets and trying not to crash.
The course and cars are varied enough that you don’t tend to repeat the same combinations, and when you visit locations more than once there’s a good chance it’ll be a different layout to learn. This though is where I feel the shift from accessible arcade racer to borderline simulation kicks in. Each time you visit a track you’re going to have to spend some time in practice learning it and setting your car up, otherwise you’ll not stand a chance. Then, if you’ve got the option, qualify. Fail to do this and you’ll be fighting from the back of the pack trying not to get rammed off the road by the aggressive AI, or getting a puncture or too much damage because that will mean a restart. Of course, you can switch all the settings to easy and turn damage off, though you’ll be removing a large portion of the challenge and the XP boost. Following the practice and qualifying routine, the races become something you feel you’ve earned, but at times I wanted to just get into it without needing 20 minutes of orientation, especially if I only had half an hour to play. Be prepared to spend time with GRID Autosport, it’s not short or “quick fix” gaming.
Working your way through the disciplines and building XP opens up the GRID championships which you can get to at levels 3, 6 and 9. These consist of combining all the race types into one long event (around 10 unique races) and challenging you to come out on top. It sounds like a repetition of the work you’ve already done to open them up, but there are different track layouts and vehicles to sample, and the rewards are there in terms of more XP to keep climbing to the top of the rankings. One thing that’s clear with this game is that it’s not all about coming first, especially when you’re in the lower teams. Their targets are all about beating those with a similar performance, so not coming in first doesn’t mean you lose out, and you feel a little less pressure than maybe you would in other racers. Flashback also makes a return so if you make the odd mistake you can hit a button to rewind time and try again. Quite smartly with this, your opposition won’t necessarily do the same thing again so it’s not a get out of jail free card, it just means you can put your tyre back on if it’s been punctured or you’ve caved your engine in.
What about the handling? There’s not much I can say here other than it’s classic Codemasters with a bit more emphasis on setup, which is implemented simply to make it easy to do. The cars roar, brake, slide, grip and crash as well here as in any other game, and the damage modelling is impressive. One of my favourite moments so far has been heading down the Sepang main straight with the cars in front of me spewing bits of bodywork into my path. You can get the hang of the types of cars pretty quickly, it’s just learning the tracks and perfecting your lines that need the concentration and commitment. One thing you’re always aware of is that the car will handle exactly as you expect it to, as long as you’ve set it up right, and the slower more basic cars are much more forgiving than the high powered monsters.
So I’ve been pretty complimentary so far, sadly there have been a couple of things I’ve been avoiding. Firstly, the graphics. There’s nothing wrong with the way it looks as the screens on this page show (though these are the PC screens, not the PlayStation 3 version I’ve played). However, in motion I’ve never seen so much screen tear in a game. It pretty much always happens in the races, but practice and qualifying are fairly smooth (and even some of the online races too), and I had to turn off the camera shake option because it amplified the stuttering and tearing. There’s screen tear in a lot of games (anything with the Unreal engine on the PS3 for instance), but usually it’s limited to the very top of the screen, GRID Autosport has it affecting the top quarter and it’s really distracting. Secondly there are audio problems. I like the pit crew radio and its feed of information, particularly as you can hit a button to get an update when you’ve turned the HUD off (XP bonus!). It’s great when it works and gets the information right, annoying when it’s telling you someone else is winning despite you knowing you’re out in front, or you just get a static click and silence. I’ve experienced a lot of disappearing engine noise which can be triggered, for instance, by flashbacks or going through a tunnel, that lasts for the whole race weekend regardless of moving to a race or restarting. I like ambient noise, I just prefer to drown it out with a V8 roar when I’m hurtling through downtown Dubai. There’s also the YouTube upload option that doesn’t actually send the video to YouTube. I’d recorded some snippets of action to drop in here to show where the game shines, spent the time rendering the video, uploading, and they’ve disappeared into the ether. It’s not exactly a quick process either. At least this should be easily fixable, it sounds like some of the other Codemasters games are suffering the same fate at the moment after a quick trawl of the forums.
The online is a tough one to talk about because there’s no one playing at the moment seeing as the game hasn’t come out at the time of writing. It looks like there’s pretty much all the game modes available online as offline, and everything’s geared towards a party mode and keeping friends together, linking in nicely with the RaceNet system. There are also RaceNet challenges which were active whilst I’ve been playing, and these are specific vehicle and track combinations for you to test your skills against the rest of the world. It was fun being top of the leaderboard for all of 35 minutes on one of them, and being 7th in the world overall as I write this (that’ll disappear with half an hour of the game coming out!). This may be the part of the game that really stands out, and I’ll update this review in a couple of weeks after I’ve sunk my teeth into it.
Overall, should you buy GRID Autosport? There’s a lot going for it, especially as there’s a bit of a drought in racing games at the moment. I can’t recommend it on the graphics, the screen tearing is bad; the audio issues shouldn’t have got through QA; and YouTube uploading is not working for some unknown reason. However, I would recommend it if you’re looking for a solid racing game with a huge amount to do and plenty to work at. I’ve been enjoying it because when I look past the superficial parts that don’t sit right, at its heart it’s a pure racing game, and it’s made me work to improve my skills, something I’ve not had to do so consciously since the original Gran Turismo. I will finish with one final question though, why hasn’t it come to the next generation systems? It could clean up at this point in time with the delayed DriveClub and The Crew.
A review copy of GRID Autosport on PlayStation 3 was provided by the Codemasters PR team.