PREVIEW Grid Autosport

Grid Autosport: set adrift on racing bliss

By Steve Boxer

Grid Autosport might be the last major current-gen racing game, and it’s certainly the most impressive. We got hands-on with it, and delved beneath its great-looking surface with the help of its developers.

Can you have too much of a good thing? That’s the question that sprang to mind when we heard that Codemasters is preparing to release Grid Autosport, the latest iteration of its much-loved multi-disciplinary racing franchise, just a year after Grid 2. And, like Grid 2, it will run on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, so it isn’t as if, thank the Lord, it’s some quick-and-dirty console-crossover next-gen port.

Keen to ascertain what Grid Autosport is all about, we hot-footed it to Stratford’s Olympic Park, where a car-park had been converted into a track to host an event called Drift All-Stars and, we were told, we’d be initiated into the mysteries of drift by professional drift-racers. Sure enough, there they were, with their odd anonymous Japanese hatchbacks with garish paint-jobs. But alas, they weren’t allowed to take to the track with us as passengers, thanks to what would fall somewhere into the spectrum between negligence and sharp practice on behalf of the event organisers.

But never mind, as we could drift away happily in the game itself, without running any risk of injury. Producer Toby Evan-Jones was on hand to explain that Grid Autosport contains no fewer than five distinct forms of motor-racing: “There are touring cars, with packed grids, where you’ll be trading paint; open-wheel features precision racing, standard specs and slipstreaming; street racing involves aspirational cars, tight circuits and aggressive racing; tuner competitions feature drift-racing and a time attack mode which is all about tuning; and endurance racing often takes place at night, and features much longer races and tyre wear.”

Hands-on

The first three racing disciplines are pretty familiar from Grid games of the past (and Toca Race Driver games before them), but even minimal hands-on time with them suggested that Grid Autosport will turn out to be a worthwhile exercise.

The first thing you notice is that it looks appreciably better than Grid 2 – indecently good for a current-gen game, in fact. Textures are convincing, track detail is stunning and particle effects utterly convincing. The legendary grid levels of car-feel were abundantly evident, too, with huge-engined, rear-drive street-racers feeling completely different to light, pointy open-wheelers and front-drive touring cars.

And the outlandish drift-racers, which would get sideways with the merest steering input and had to be turned in way before any corner you approached, were both utterly unlike anything else and enormous fun to pilot. We found the endurance racers – a new addition for the franchise – pretty tricky. They had vast amounts of power going through the rear wheels, so tiptoeing around corners to avoid race-wrecking spins was de rigueur. And the endurance races had an interesting accelerated-tyre-wear mechanism which meant that it often paid to take things gently at first, before waiting for your rivals’ grip-levels to fall off a cliff.

As any Grid fan would expect, some of the world’s top circuits are in the game, rendered in impressive detail – we drove around Jarama, Yas Marina and Hockenheim, plus the familiar San Francisco street circuit from Grid 2, the detail of which had made a noticeable leap forward since Grid 2, with its trademark jumps proving particularly spectacular. There will be 80 to 90 cars in the game, all with full damage engines – we drove a Formula 3 open-wheeler, a pumped-up street-racing Audi and a specialist drifting machine. Expect a drip-feed of details on tracks and cars as Grid Autosport nears its launch date.

Structure: online and single-player

Evan-Jones explained that, in the single-player Career mode, “You can choose your path, specialising in one or two disciplines, if you like.” You’ll be racing for specific teams so, at the start of each season, you’ll get a number of offers, and can choose the one which meshes with your favoured disciplines and comes with season-goals that you feel able to achieve. Then you race for that team – which provides the cars and sponsors -- for a season. Evan-Jones says that team-mates feature: “You can issue commands to your team-mate: if, say, you’re both supposed to finish in the top five and you’re ahead, you can tell him to get a move on.”

Another unusual mechanic in the multiplayer game sees persistent damage being applied to your cars, along with a limited number of garage slots. Evan-Jones said: “You can buy cars new or second-hand, but you need to pay to repair them. As you accumulate XP, you’ll unlock tuning options and customisable liveries. But the more you run a car, the more it costs to repair it, so at some point, you’ll have to decide whether you want to sell it to free up its garage slot.”

As with Grid 2, the single-player and online sides of the game are kept separate. Racenet, Codemasters’ equivalent of Criterion’s Autolog, which generates online challenges on the fly, looms large as ever and, in Grid Autosport, has one major new feature: Clubs. Evan-Jones said: “You can create a Racing Club or join one. If you make a Club livery, using the livery editor, you can distribute it to everyone in your Club, and in that livery, they will contribute to the Club’s overall performance and standing.”

The way Evan-Jones tells it, his development team felt there was unfinished business when Grid 2 came out, and there were requests for features from the sizeable Racenet community (over a million-strong, according to Codemasters), including the return of Cockpit Cam, which is indeed back for Grid Autosport. So it just drove on with the development and made big strides early on, hence the swift arrival of Grid Autosport. And the fruits of his team’s labours are indeed impressive: there’s just no way that we’ll see a better-looking, more state-of-the-art or more intelligently structured racing game for the outgoing generation of consoles. Which bodes well for the first next-gen take on the Grid franchise – even though, Evan-Jones says, Codemasters won’t be rushing onto the PS4 and Xbox One until it can deliver something truly stunning. But as last hurrahs of a console generation go, Grid Autosport is hard to beat.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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