The first time you load up GRID Autosport it puts you in the driver’s seat of a high-powered touring car. If this wasn’t scary enough, Codemasters have moved some of the buttons around. The first 30 seconds were, for me, a combination of swerving, swearing and rapidly changing camera angles. By the time I found the new interior view I was sideswiped by a more composed competitor and understeered into a gravel trap. Then there was a big pile-up that wasn’t really my fault. And it was hilarious. TOCA, it seems, has come home.
Autosport has been developed following an extensive feedback process with players of previous title GRID 2, as well as with professional racing drivers and the team at the magazine from which the game takes its subtitle. The result is a racing game that’s tougher than GRID 2, more varied than GRID 2 and ultimately more satisfying as well.
The refinements start with an expansion of the range of cars on offer. Autosport divides its automotive selection into five main classes or ‘disciplines’, and those are divided further depending on the type of car - hot hatches, coupes, supercars, and so on. The bumper-to-bumper Touring Car events, close-quarter Street races on city courses and the drift events of the Tuner discipline are traditional GRID fare; Endurance races introduce the additional complication of tyre wear while Open Wheel features formula cars and stripped-back purebreds such as the Ariel Atom. The car tally might be smaller than that of Forza or Gran Turismo, but the sheer variety on offer is staggering.
Whatever you take to the track each type of car challenges the laws of physics with a refined handling model. It’s more restrained and more realistic than the drift-happy model of GRID 2, tending towards understeer at speed and with greater potential to lose control on the edge of grip. Cornering can be a genuine challenge, requiring delicate throttle control in the rear-driven cars to prevent messy spins. It’s no better or worse than GRID 2’s infinitely chuckable hatchbacks and supercars - merely different and much closer to how it would feel to drive these cars at top speed.
Rather than being beautiful - leave that to GT - Autosport is visually intense. The EGO engine pushes last-gen hardware as hard as it can go, combining razor-sharp rendering with a comprehensive lighting and reflection model. The landscape whizzes by in a smear of motion blur and cars spark and smoke when races get scrappy. Inside the car, depth of field effects blur the low-poly dashboard to bring the track into focus, softening further as you drive at speed. Even though the chest-tickling engine noises are dampened inside the cabin (unless you come a cropper and break the windows, a neat little touch) it’s the way to drive - as it always has been in Codemasters’ racers.
The improvements seem minute when examined separately but they stack up to create a nerve-racking and exciting experience on the track. I had a small epiphany weaving a supersonic sports car through the pin-sharp streets of Paris, glancing blurry sidewalls and teasing every piece of grip from the tyres, constantly on the edge but always, somehow, taking command of several hundred horsepower under my index finger. It’s easy to know when to lift off and when to mash the pedal. You can feel the car leaving your control when it goes wrong and wrestling it back without resorting to a do-over is lip-biting, tongue-chewing, lung-squeezing stuff. It is exquisite.
Freedom is the promise of Autosport’s single-player career, one that it delivers on with a catch. Pick a discipline, pick an event within it and sign with a team for that event. Complete the team objectives - win, don’t crash, set the fastest lap time and so on - to earn experience points in that chosen discipline and complete the season. The more points you earn, the more events you unlock. Better-equipped teams will start taking an interest as you advance, each one offering mechanical upgrades and bigger rewards. It’s a steady flow of progress, albeit one that repeats sets of cars every second event - but you can skip them without fear of having to backtrack and grind your way to the next tier.
How you race on track is customisable to your needs as well. You’re pushed to challenge yourself by turning off a driving aid here or there, or increasing the AI difficulty. Each tweak boosts the amount of experience an event gives you, and the truly hardcore can go as far as disabling the heads-up display and exterior camera views if they so wish. You do feel like you’re shaping the game into exactly the one that you’d like to play.
The catch to all this freedom, of course, is that there is an overarching master series which encapsulates all five disciplines. Competing in it has its rewards, but requires some ponderous box-ticking racing in cars you might not be all that excited to drive. It’s bittersweet, having to do what you’re told when the game promised you the entire motorsport world as your oyster.
As a free agent jumping from team to team it’s also bewildering that each team puts you in charge of their other driver. Omnipresent in the corner of the HUD is an icon showing your teammate’s position and current level of aggression, the latter dictated by pressing the shoulder buttons during the race. Unless you’re right behind them, pushing them to move, they’re as interested in making up places as I am in making up floral arrangements.
Often, your strategy will boil down to qualifying well and hoping the other driver makes up the points during the race, or skipping the qualifying so you can babysit from the back of the grid. My usual tactic tended to involve sticking my teammate at the “slightly aggressive” setting and hoping for the best while I hooned off to victory. It’s a frustrating mechanic, and one that lies at odds with Autosport’s manifesto.
There are moments when the single-player campaign can be left wanting. Fortunately, the open-ended approach to multiplayer is altogether more compelling. You are truly free to play as you like, buying cars in whichever disciplines you choose. Competing in your own cars rather than loaned ones unlocks upgrades for each one, allowing you to build up an armada of unstoppable race machines with your own blood, sweat and oil. Each car can be customised down to the sponsor stickers too: the machines you take to the world stage are truly your own.
Much like the single-player, the multiplayer disciplines are all individually levelled too. You can be royalty in a hot hatch even if you’re not great on the drift circuit. You can be good at what you’re good at, and the rest doesn’t matter. It’s true freedom in comparison to the (admittedly low) walled garden of the single-player. As with any online racer, there’s a crash-happy minority doing their utmost to end your race on the first corner - but there are ways and means of ensuring the only race they end is their own.
Codemasters’ have shaped GRID into a pick-n-mix racer so neat that each part could almost be repackaged individually: GRID: Street, GRID: Open Wheel, and so on. Other games have been released with much less to offer. If it weren’t for the fact I was reviewing the game I would have stuck exclusively with racing in Street events, because that’s the sort of game I wanted to play. And GRID Autosport was fine with that. Mostly.
It’s a definitive title in Codies’ portfolio, a career statement by a dedicated team of people who specialise in making racing games very well. Regardless of the disciplines you choose to race in and how you choose to race in them, the quality of driving is matched by few other developers on such an expansive scale. This is one for the completionists - and for the drifters, the street racers, the touring car hopefuls, the Formula champions. It’s a tailored suit, but further adjustments are no trouble, sir. No trouble at all. Come on in.