Posted on July 1, 2014 AT 03:00pm
Grid: Autosport makes you pay your dues.
Nearly all racing games abide by a simple pact with the player: Drive well, and you’ll finish in first every race. Yeah, you might need to pause and restart a few dozen times to get there, but the balance is skewed just enough in your favor that eventual victory is all but ensured.
Autosport is having none of that. When you start your first season in any of the game’s five disciplines—touring, open wheel, endurance, tuning, and street—the game treats you like the rookie you are. Your only offers come from low-end teams, and that means you’ll be driving slower cars with fewer upgrades and less tuning capability alongside an AI-controlled teammate who, if he’s especially lucky, might come in second-to-last place.
Of course, if you’re particularly dedicated, you can still manage to sweep every event, but the disadvantage is tangible enough to make it clear that’s not the point. You shouldn’t be trying to drag your anchor of a partner to the top of the team standings—in most cases, it ends up being mathematically impossible. You should be trying to make a consistently decent showing and improve your reputation enough to leapfrog your way up the ladder to teams with the resources to match your skills.
In that respect, Autosport is the first game I’ve ever played that offers a glimpse of what it’s actually like to be a professional racing driver. You have to struggle in inferior conditions and prove your talent before the keys to the kingdom open up to you. While you might start off resenting those smug bastards in Ravenwest because they can outrun you on any sprint, you’ll be happy once they finally invite you to drive under their banner, because that means you’ve finally made it. It’s a decidedly different—and vastly more interesting—progression than the standard newcomer-who-instantly-obliterates-the-old-guard approach of most racing titles.
Similar attention has been paid to capture the spirit of each of Autosport’s five disciplines. Everything from vehicle and track selection to the rulesets feels smartly tailored to bring out the distinct appeal of each type of racing. Endurance races introduce tire degradation, requiring you to tone down aggressive braking and cornering enough to make it to the end of the lengthy races. Open-wheel contents practically demand you use your practice time to learn the courses and do well in the qualifying laps to get a good result, but the touring races allow you to play a bit more fast and loose, since the starting grid for the second race in every series flips the results of the first one. Rather than just hopping into a faster or slower car and doing the same thing over and over again, you’re actually developing entirely different skill sets.
If a particular event type doesn’t sit with you, though, you’re sadly stuck trudging through long enough to unlock the cross-discipline championships, and that’s a time investment on the order of dozens of hours. Still, the wholesale commitment to the idea means that Autosport pulls off its jack-of-all-trades act much more convincingly than either of its predecessors could.
The varied gameplay is also bolstered by a handling system that’s adequately challenging without drifting into the alienating territory of hardcore simulation. Braking and cornering are a tad bit forgiving of bravado tactics, but they still encourage you to make realistic considerations like paying attention to the distance markers to know when to brake for a turn and choosing the ideal moment to dip your nose into corners. More importantly, the physics allow the different classes of cars and their disciplines to feel wholly distinct. The hot hatches feel zippy and feisty, American muscle sluggishly moans around corners, and F3 cars roar through chicanes at seemingly impossible angles. Autosport is a far cry from Grid 2 and its drift-first mentality. While that philosophy might have proven more instantly accessible to a wider audience, the shift back toward realism offers considerably more depth and room for growth.
It’s a just shame that the promising on-track action is hampered by less-than-capable AI. Codemasters seems to have balanced every computer opponent with the touring races in mind, where a little paint-trading and aggression is to be expected, and forgot to flip the switch off for everything else. Few things are more frustrating than losing a lengthy endurance race because a competitor decided to execute a PIT maneuver on you in the final minute or having your open-wheel car obliterated in the first corner by a laughably violent pileup.
They also lead to predictable outcomes, thanks to the gradient their programmed skill levels fall neatly into. It’s particularly noticeable during touring events thanks to their reversed grids. Try to move up from the back of the pack in the first race, when Ravenwest is in pole position, and you’ll probably be struggling to overtake them all the way to the final straightaway. Try to move up when the guy who just came 16th is setting the pace, and you’ll probably be in the lead by the end of the first lap.
But there’s another downside to Autosport’s intriguingly different arc, and it’s a big one: There’s just less room to personally connect with the game as a whole. As a driver for hire, you’re not really growing anything beyond your own legacy. The first Grid had you managing your own team, picking your teammate and cars and bringing the organization to glory. In Autosport, all that’s basically decided for you the moment you sign on the dotted line. You can’t own any cars or impact your teammate beyond requesting they drive aggressively or defensively, and that feels like the gentlest of suggestions in practice. Even upgrades come predetermined and preinstalled—the better teams just have more.
The fantasy of other racing games might be superficially silly, but it also allows for a much greater sense of player agency and attachment—to the cars you handpick and upgrade into track monsters to the team you raise from obscurity into world-class dominance to the silly, hideous paint jobs you spend far too much time designing. Grid: Autosport treats all those little points of emotional connection with almost total apathy, and the result, while undeniably polished and admirably true to the spirit of the sport, feels cold and a bit soulless.
|Developer: Codemasters • Publisher: Codemasters • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 6.24.2014|
Grid: Autosport’s attempt to capture the spirit of five distinct racing disciplines pays off in terms of gameplay variety, but the experience feels stripped back in many of the ways that make the genre’s best titles feel like personal journeys.
|The Good||Smartly designed event types; a handling model that forces you to drive intelligently without feeling too inaccessible.|
|The Bad||The structure doesn’t allow for much decision making or player investment.|
|The Ugly||Watching an open-wheel race descend into a demolition derby in the first turn.|
|Grid: Autosport is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS3. Review code was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this review.|
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