Released just 12 months ago, Grid 2 proved divisive. Codemasters' experiment to give the series broader appeal upset many of the players who grew up with TOCA.
While the studio is known for its willingness to experiment within its series, twitchier arcade handling and the loss of an in-car view for the sake of more sumptuous visuals was too much for most series loyalists. Grid Autosport, then, is a heartfelt offering to stem the flow of those petrol-soaked tears, and it is remarkable.
This time around Codemasters has removed every last ounce of excess weight. While Autosport is still centred on your progress through a driving career, all of the detailed fiction that it has built around that in previous games has been stripped away. So there are no longer any team-mates to hire and fire (although you still race with one and can tell them to defend or drive more aggressively using the shoulder buttons), no team management elements (you just choose contracts from other teams instead) and your career has been abstracted into a non-linear jaunt through five disciplines.
Those styles will be familiar to anyone who's played earlier Grid games. Tourer takes in multiple engine categories of touring car events and feels pleasingly like a return to TOCA. Endurance puts your super cars out at night and asks you to loop circuits for eight minutes or more - you'll need to pay special attention to tyre wear.
Open Wheel events are perhaps the most exciting, and certainly fastest feeling, and include Formula 3 and Indy cars. Tuner is multidisciplinary and includes muscle cars, time trials and drifting. And finally, the Street discipline places you on tight, angular city tracks with poor sight lines.
Taking part in any event earns you XP in that discipline, allowing you to level up. You could, if you wanted to, focus entirely on a single strand for a time, opening new events and filling the progress bar as you go. But it's worth trying everything as, aside from providing welcome variety, earning a certain amount of XP across the board will unlock the larger, more lucrative Grid Championships.
Each time you pick an event, you must also choose an offer from a team to race for during that season. Teams will set different conditions - you might be required, for example, to place at least fourth in the team standings - which, if met, will net you a wad of XP. Coming in a miserable fifth won't halt your progress, however, you just won't earn as much and your offers for the next season won't be quite as good. Similarly, do well or exceed expectations and you'll find better offers on the table next time around.
As well as the team targets, there are also six sponsor objectives each season which include things like improving on your lap time during a race or finishing without any collisions. Tick the box for any of these and you'll earn more XP, and there are further bonuses for setting the fastest lap, beating your rival, and restricting yourself to in-car views (yes, it's back, thankfully).
"Whereas Grid 2's handling was bold and brash, Autosport's is more about refinement."
With so many ways to gather XP, the focus is pleasingly shifted away from podium finishes, as even coming last will contribute to your career progress. Which is a relief given how ferocious your opponents are.
Autosport doesn't wait around for you and, assuming you leave the difficulty level on its default medium setting, the effort involved in overtaking just one car, let alone the whole field, may come as something of a shock. But thanks to the non-punitive career design and the sheer thrill of racing against AI that appears to want to win (or at least come 13th) as much as you do, the steep learning curve never frustrates.
Autosport doesn't patronise you, which, in a genre that regularly sees you so far ahead of the pack on the final lap that you may as well be driving a time trial, is as refreshing as opening your helmet visor at 180mph (though with fewer bugs in your teeth).
But while the AI is an undeniably pleasing opponent, it's not entirely free of flies. The pushy driving style fits well with Touring and Street events, as you nudge and barge your way through the pack that responds in kind. But in Endurance and Open Wheel events, while other drivers are noticeably less aggressive, there are still too many instances of suicidal defensive manoeuvres in situations where a human driver would check their mirrors and concede a position.
It's a problem magnified by the otherwise excellent AI, admittedly, but in a game that asks for every ounce of your racing ability, it feels unfair to have an opportunity unrealistically closed off - especially if one of your sponsor objectives is a collision-free run. Grid's trademark (and since, widely copied) Flashback system at least alleviates some frustrations by allowing you to take another shot at a corner.
Competitive hiccups aside, Autosport's handling model is a constant pleasure. Whereas Grid 2's handling was bold and brash, all broken traction and drama, Autosport's is more about refinement. Most cars turn with a satisfying and weighty understeer - excluding the drift-tune vehicles, of course - that makes every corner thoughtfully strategic.
Throttle-induced oversteer is still easy to achieve (a relief if you're the kind of driver that's happy to slide across the finish line in last position with bald tyres, in a cloud of smoke and questionable glory) but getting your car sideways is rarely the quickest route through a corner.
Knowing when to lean on the accelerator and how heavy your foot should be is key to moving up the leaderboard, and for the first few laps you'll wonder why every other car pulls away from you after bends. Once it clicks, however, there are few handling models as satisfying.
As apologies go, Grid Autosport is entirely convincing. Not that we imagine Codemasters is in any way ashamed of the undeniably boisterous Grid 2, but in addressing the criticisms levelled at it so thoroughly and with such vigour, it's clear the studio hasn't forgotten Grid's core fans - nor, for that matter, TOCA's.
And in removing all the well-meaning fictional fluff that was engineered to make you feel like part of a racing event in previous games, Codemasters has created a Grid that makes you feel more like a competitive driver than ever before.
One of the outgoing generation's best racers and the kind of game that makes you wish for a new-gen port
- Aggressively competitive AI drivers
- Huge variety of tracks (100 in total) and disciplines
- The sense of speed - this game feels terrifyingly quick.
- Limited to 30fps when playing on console.