While they started as a bit more of a racing sim company, Codemasters transition to the pseudo-sim (not a hardcore racing sim but far from a simple arcade racer) has come with massive critical acclaim. The launch of the Dirt series from the Colin McRae Rally franchise and the transition of the sim TOCA Race Driver series to Grid were met with praise from critics and gamers alike.
Then 2012 happened. Someone at Codemasters went a little crazy and decided that more arcade-style racing games were what Codies needed to get to the next level. The result was Dirt: Showdown, F1 Race Stars and Grid 2 all being released in quick succession. The pseudo-sim gameplay had been replaced with arcadey minigames, shallow gameplay, and a disregard for proper racing and the laws of physics, respectively.
While the F1 franchise motored on, the rest of Codemasters’ IP floundered without a direction. The company’s move from sim to arcade was backfiring with critics and fans. So Codies did something rare for the games industry: They listened to their fans. The gamers who were fed up with the direction of Codemasters would get their way with the latest iteration of the Grid franchise. Getting away from the arcade/floaty driving style of Grid 2, Grid Autosport would be a return to the more sim style of racing that Grid and the Race Driver franchises were known for.
The best demonstration of the renewed emphasis on more realistic car handling was the first time I turned a wheel in anger in this game. While the game calls it Formula C for legal reasons, the first turn in a Formula 3 car saw me fighting the car the whole way through. The brakes weren’t as quick to slow you down as Grid 2. The lack of downforce meant that I couldn’t carry as much speed as I expected through the turn and it also meant that the back-end wanted to slide out from under me when I put down the power. This ain’t an arcade game any more.
Grid Autosport gets away from storylines, unlocking cars and sponsor challenges and essentially tasks you with going racing. Most of what you’ll be doing is trying to cross the line first. Sure, there are some eliminator races (last place car when time expires is eliminated), time attack (fastest lap time wins) and drift events but the majority of the time is first-past-the-post wins. One complaint about the race modes is that Codies still doesn’t understand endurance racing. They’re races to the finish line after time expires not where you run when time expires and no real endurance race records distance travelled but laps completed and gap to the lead car on that lap.
The other thing that Autosport gets away from compared to Grid 2 is the exclusivity of tintops and street courses. While a number of the street and GT3 cars return from Grid 2, touring cars and (as mentioned) open-wheel cars. Some street courses from Grids 1 and 2 return but most of the circuits are real-world race tracks, including the Grid series debuts of Circuit of the Americas, Mont Tremblant (awesomeballs!) and Algarve. It’s just too bad there feels like there are so few circuits. One thing I remember from TOCA Race Driver 3 was that there was a multitude of circuits from all over the world including most touring car tracks from Britain, Germany and Australia. Add those onto this game and you have what would have easily been the racing game of the year. Instead, you have 22 tracks with several layouts each which just isn’t as fun.
For me, as a fan of some of racing games the edge more towards sim than arcade, the best part about Grid Autosport is that the car handling is very different in each class of car. Autosport breaks the cars up into Touring, Endurance, Open-Wheel, Street and Tuner. Every type of car has its own little differences that force you to change your driving style to succeed in. Open-wheel success is about running ultra-smooth and clean laps. Touring cars allow for more argey-bargey but low power means keeping momentum up is key. Street cars are about managing the low grip of the cars on fast circuits. Tuner cars require managing power to the rear wheels. And Endurance cars are about tyre management because going fast now will mean no grip at the end of a race.
It’s these differences that make the game a treat. While it’s all well and good to some that you can floor it and make a spectacular powerslide through a turn, it’s not exactly how I like to race. If powersliding is what you like, there’s always Grid 2. Me? I struggled in cars that wanted the back end to step out and punished you for trying to keep it together. It was getting boring to drive in a game where the only stat that mattered was horsepower because you’re just going to fling it sideways around the turn with no regard for the racing line.
Now, it’s all about control and smart driving. If you’re a backer of Project CARS or a fan of pure racing sims, it doesn’t quite go to that extreme. When I refer to Codemasters games as pseudo-sims, I don’t mean it as a slight. It’s not so hard that you have to use a steering wheel and be an amateur race driver to be able to complete a lap at a reasonable pace. However, it’s not so easy that you can run the car at almost any speed and expect it to stick. You have to drive the car, you have to be careful under braking to not lock up, accelerating out of the turn to avoid wheel spin, countersteering to keep the car straight and doing this all while trying to finish first.
Another big improvement from Grid 2 is the career mode. Gone is the pseudo-storyline about being the star of a racing series trying to draw fans. If you dominated every race a la Schumacher and later Vettel, you’d bore fans pretty quickly. Gone is the multiple event formats. (Also gone are Live Routes which were actually kind of fun.) You have five disciplines and a number of series in those disciplines to drive in. You can try your hand in as many or as few as you’d like. Apart from the Tuner series, you’re going to be straight-up racing the whole time so keep that in mind.
While it’s nice that you’re not forced into races and racing you’d rather not do, if you want to get into the game’s premiere-level Grid series, you need to try your hand at every discipline. The Grid Championship is a multi-discipline series that sees you run each type of car in a championship so you have to reach Level 3 (earning experience by doing well in races and completing objectives) in each of the five disciplines to enter the Grid Championship. It’ll take you one or two seasons in each discipline to reach that point. Whether it’s worth the effort is up to you but I didn’t particularly enjoy doing multiple Tuner championships to unlock it.
In a move back to the older Race Driver/Grid series games, you have full race weekends consisting of practice, qualifying and races. Depending on the quality of your team, you can change the setup of your car. The better the team, the more finely you can tune your car. The only draw back is that getting to those better teams require you to repeat championships. Even on hard difficulty, I was over a second per lap faster than the competition in Open Wheel racing. At least the AI is pretty smart at higher difficulty. They’ll block you, they’ll pass you, they’ll change their lines, and they’ll squeeze you into the grass just like real drivers. The only thing they don’t do is choke under the pressure when you fill their mirrors with your car. That’s one Codies promise unfulfilled.
And also back from older Race Driver / Grid games are teammates. Unlike Grid where you could hire and fire your teammate , the team that hires you picks your teammate. You can instruct him to go quickly or slow as you drive similar to Gran Turismo’s B-Spec mode but that’s about it. Sadly, EA Sports’ NASCAR series’ Total Team Control, this is not. And unlike the last two Grid games, there’s no team management options or paint scheme creation tools. You’re strictly a driver for hire. It’s more realistic so I’ll call that a wash even though I’m a bit disappointed.
While I seldom mention multiplayer gameplay in my reviews, I have to mention that Codies doesn’t seem to know what they’re doing. I don’t understand the lobby system they’ve set up and haven’t been able to get into a multiplayer race as a result. Even during launch week, I couldn’t get into an online race because the system is so backwards.
I remember NASCAR Racing 2003 Season had a system where people hosted races and you could enter them if you were at the right level (most didn’t have a level floor or cap). You could see the track, weekend format (practice, qualifying and race length were at the host’s discretion), series run, number of drivers in the lobby, the maximum number of drivers and everything else that could be set in the single-player mode. It was very easy and very user-friendly.
Apart from the weekly time challenges against the AI that end up in the online leaderboard, I couldn’t figure out how to do an online race. Next time out, maybe Codemasters should try a search or matchmaker function that works. Something like choosing a category to race and pulling up active lobbies that match your criteria. Online matchmaking seems so easy on the surface… unless you’re Codies, I guess.
It should be noted that this is a previous-gen game. Coming a year after Grid 2, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The graphics look like they’ve been improved a bit over Grid 2. That’s probably a bit of personal preference. In Grid 2, everything looked shiny and had bright colours. The graphics were designed to pop off the screen by being very vibrant, more vibrant than you’d see on TV.
Grid Autosport, on the other hand, has a comparatively matte finish and muted colour palette. It might sound like a bad thing but I like the more TV style presentation. That’s just one of the weird foibles I have about racing games. I’d rather play a racing game with a TV-style palette than a real-life palette because I’m playing on a screen. Having been to actual races and having seen how bright and colourful race cars actually are, it just doesn’t look right without the rest of the multi-sensory experience to go with it. (Yes, race spectating is multi-sensory. You see and hear the cars but you can smell the exhaust and rubber and feel them as the fly by you. Sometimes, I swear you could almost taste the exhaust in the air but smell is a large part of your sense of taste.)
The cockpit view is back in Grid Autosport too. It’s not a particularly detailed cockpit view. Given that there’s an XP bonus for driving without the HUD and another for forcing the cockpit view, a few more dials and displays to see how fast you’re going or a bit more feedback on speed in qualifying would be dandy. At least the frat boy dude bro who was your crew chief in the last game got the boot for a respectable British race engineer.
I’m a bit surprised by the mixed reaction that Grid Autosport is getting from both fans and critics. It’s probably just down to personal preferences but I don’t see how Grid Autosport isn’t every bit better than Grid 2.
A racing game doesn’t need a story to be great. Is the racing fun? Are the cars fun to drive? Is there a little depth to the game’s mechanics? These are the things that are actually important for a racing game. Sure, Grid Autosport could use many more tracks, a few more cars and some more championships in each category but that’s not going to make me say that this game is worse than Grid 2.
If you care about racing in racing games, Grid Autosport is a return to form for Codemasters. It’s not getting back to TOCA Race Driver or even Grid 3 levels of Codies greatness but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Grid Autosport was reviewed on PC but is also available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on the platform played on, PC specs, control scheme used and if you want racing from your racing games.