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Grid Autosport preview - back in the cockpit with Codemasters' refined racer

Michael Passingham
1 May 2014
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Excellent first impressions of both handling and graphics which should please sim racing fans as well as casual gamers

Codemasters has long been the benchmark for racing games that blur the line between hardcore simulation and arcade style handling. Last year's GRID 2 arguably pushed those boundaries too far, with big-name brands and arcade street races getting in the way of a proper driving experience. Grid Autosport is a response to that negative fan feedback. Having enlisted the help of motorsport journalists, racing drivers and racing teams to tune the handling, Grid Autosport is being heralded as a return to the Grid series' roots.

We got some hands-on time with a pre-alpha version of the game ahead of its June 27th launch to see if it lives up to the promise.

Cars and handling
There are five distinct racing disciplines in Grid Autosport: touring cars, endurance racing, single seaters, street racing and drifting. Within these categories there are a number of sub-disciplines with what should be a fairly broad range of cars; at the moment there isn't even a ballpark figure of exactly how many cars will make the final cut. In our short session we were given access to a British Touring Car-specification Ford Focus, a Formula 3 car and a road-going Audi.

Grid Autosport touring cars

Grid Autosport won't just be constrained to the track

First up was the Focus, which we put through its paces on Germany's Hockenheim circuit. The car was developed in conjunction with UK-based Motorbase Performance, the team which built the real-life racer. We expected the front-wheel-drive, turbocharged machine to punish us when pushed too hard, with a dose of understeer when accelerating and a dab of oversteer when lifting off at high speed. This was true for the most part, although there are certainly still elements of the arcade feel in the game. This is to be expected, though, because Codemasters has to target a broad cross section of gamers, not just hardcore sim racers.

The car felt fairly soft when turning into corners and had quite a lot of grip, but braking too late, getting off-line and running onto the grass and gravel provide suitable punishment for over-aggressive driving, and the AI cars will swiftly take the opportunity to knock you down the order.

Grid Autosport Formula 3

Single seaters are challenging, yet rewarding

Next up was the open-wheel Formula 3 car, at Jarama in Spain. These machines provide a completely different experience and a much greater challenge than the touring cars; they're very snappy, meaning there's a huge amount of grip but as soon as you overstep the mark, you'll find yourself buried in the gravel or clattering into the tyre barriers. With all driving aids turned off, it's also easy to lock a brake on the way into a tight corner and collide with one of your 15 fellow drivers, and equally easy to get too greedy with the throttle and spin out. Low-speed grip fairly accurately represents the effect big front and rear wings have on the way a car handles; the slower you go, the less grip you have. Slipstreaming, where you drive close behind another car to reduce drag and increase acceleration, is also present, although only in the open-wheel category.

Finally, we had some time with a street-legal Audi on the hills of San Francisco. This was the most arcade-like element of our demo, with a fictional, barrier-lined circuit, tail-happy car and liberal use of the handbrake in corners, but it was still terrific fun. Drifting your car around a 90-degree corner is very satisfying, and also fairly risky as clouting a barrier is likely to send you into a spin or at the very least slow you down. It probably won't please the hardcore fans, though.

It's possible to tune and tweak the setups in each car, adjusting suspension and brake bias, but we weren't able to tell whether these tweaks translate into realistic handling changes based on our short time with the game.

Overall, handling is fun and satisfying. There's still a challenge to each corner, but is forgiving enough that it avoids becoming a chore. It's a happy medium between arcade and simulation, although more time, and more cars, will be required to see if Codemasters has completely pulled it off.

Car damage
Only visual damage was turned on during our brief demo session. Mechanical damage will be available in the final version of the game, meaning there will be consequences for crashing into your rivals. The visual damage on the Ford Focus was pretty detailed, with bumpers flying off and paint getting chipped after contact. Bigger crashes result in some bent bodywork, although not in the same way a soft-body physics engine would allow.

Grid Autosport street racing

AI drivers can prove quite the challenge

Cockpit view
Hardcore simulation fans were less than pleased with the lack of a driver's eye view in Grid 2. Codemasters said at the time that only five per cent of racers ever used these views, but nonetheless they have bowed to the pressure to win over the hearts of the five per cent. There are now two cockpit views; one with a camera fairly far forward towards the windscreen and one further back, simulating the driver's view point. The latter camera is very immersive; the cockpit and steering wheel are visible but blurred out to represent the driver's focus on the road. This doubles up as an easy way to save on high-detail textures on the innards of the car, but we're still happy to see the view return.

Driver AI
Grid Autosport's driver AI is already shaping up to be quite the challenge for experienced racing game fans. We turned the difficulty up to "very hard", and the AI proved suitably tough to take down. Normally this would be because the AI cars simply drive faster, but in this case they also defend harder and drive more aggressively.

While they still don't handle driving in close groups very well and are easy pickings on the first lap of the race, once the field spreads out, individual battles are a genuine challenge and require some thought about where to place your car. We did find that they were fairly passive once overtaken, however; we deliberately left a gap for an AI driver to pass, but it held back, seemingly unable to understand the opportunity we'd offered it.

Grid Autosport

Tracks appear well-modelled and nicely detailed

The AI drivers are difficult to unsettle, too. Deliberately hitting the rear corner of a car on a straight won't send it into a spin, instead it pushes back and carries on in a straight line. It takes real effort to knock the cars off the road. While unrealistic, it's probably for the best as it encourages proper overtaking and racecraft.

AI drivers also make mistakes, but based on what we've seen they appear to be heavily scripted. We drove four races at Jarama and saw the same crashes and spins at the same corners. One in particular saw a car rolling spectacularly after smashing into the tyre barriers, but after seeing this multiple times, it lost its novelty.

In the full game there will also be settings which allow you to change the way your team mate behaves, with commands that can tell them to hold station or attack the car ahead.

Tracks and graphics
Codemasters has only announced a few tracks so far, and there's no word on exactly how many real-world circuits there will be in the final game. The circuits we saw had a high degree of polish and detail, with bumps in the road affecting how the car handles and huge dust plumes appearing when someone drives off-track.

Grid Autosport isn't coming out for the Xbox One or PS4, but it looked highly detailed in the PC version we played. Whether this level of detail will hold up on the ageing hardware of the Xbox 360 and PS3 remains to be seen, however - especially with rival games Project Cars, Driveclub and The Crew arriving on next generation consoles later this year.

Grid Autosport street racing

Street racing is prevalent, but cars are fun to drive

Career mode
Codemasters has stayed quiet regarding Grid Autosport's career mode. All we know at the moment is that it sounds rather similar to Grid 2, where fans and sponsors are the commodity which allow you to progress through the ranks. Codemasters has at least said that it will be easy to jump between different disciplines, and that you won't be forced to spend a lot of time in ones you're less keen on.

What is clear is that big consumer technology, fashion and automotive brands will be front-and-centre in Grid Autosport; in-game advertising is something we've become very used to with Codemasters games including Grid and the Dirt series.

Grid Autosport touring cars

Professional racing drivers and teams helped develop the game

Based on our time with the game, we have extremely high hopes for Grid Autosport. However, big questions about real-life tracks, the career mode and multiplayer still remain, but handling and graphics are top notch. Grid Autosport launches in Europe on June 27th and in the US on June 24th - we'll be giving it a full review a little closer to launch.

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