by Matt Kamen
I hate San Francisco.
No, wait, that's not fair. The actual, real world San Francisco is a great city. What I hate is the San Francisco Street race track in Grid Autosport. I especially hate a particular hairpin corner halfway around, that seems at least vaguely sentient and intent on preventing my successful navigation of it no matter what tactic I take. Speed through? Crash. Slow down, braking in accordance with the usually helpful racing line guide? Crash. Handbrake turn? Spin out, then crash. Move through at a crawl? Well, no crash, but forget about reclaiming a decent position in the pack. As one of the first tracks to be tackled in the game's Street discipline, it's a bad omen for anyone hoping to either learn the ropes or refresh themselves on Grid's mechanics. The game even opens by dropping players into a high-spec race you have barely any chance of winning. Far from a welcoming start.
Persevere, and you'll find there's actually quality material here, but it's buried deep. Career mode will fill the bulk of most players' solo time, split into five paths: the aforementioned Street, plus Touring, Endurance, Open Wheel, and Tuner. Each offer distinct experiences and have numerous races and cups to complete. Touring is essentially Grid Classic, capturing the spirit of the ToCa games of old, while Tuner feels the most arcadey of the bunch, with time attack, drift challenges, and other less serious modes included. Endurance introduces management of tire wear into the Grid series, with longer races, no pit stops, and rougher tracks that practically melt your rubber away. Open Wheel is Grid's take on F1 performance vehicles – high speed, high power, and not made for collisions. You'll need to hit levels 3, 6, and 9 in all five categories in order to unlock the seriously testing Grid Grand Slam, Masters Trophy, and Legends challenges.
However, to get there will take much grinding. Bad JRPG amounts of grinding, as you trundle towards each new level. Mercifully, experience is awarded for almost everything you do in the game, not just winning, so even if you're really struggling to get anywhere, you can still slowly progress. The RPG comparison remains apt, with mini-objectives such as 'place higher than rival driver X' or 'spend X minutes above 90mph' feeling like side-quests. No matter what, it will be slow going - starting cars in all categories are near uniformly terrible.
Although there are some concessions to less skilled players, they all come with penalties. Difficulty can be adjusted and customised before each race, which is a great touch, but the experience gained diminishes if you actually try to make things less frustrating. Even the use of Codemasters' rewind feature, allowing you to undo a poorly done corner or dodge a crash on second go-around, is capped.
As you gain access to more vehicles, matters do improve. With three tiers to work through and 78 cars in total, more experienced players will appreciate the subtle differences between their fleet. That blasted San Francisco track aside, handling overall feels much improved on Grid 2. The damage system is nothing short of brilliant, it’s one of the high points of the game, with each car responding accurately to collisions or chunks of metal being lopped off. It all has a massive effect on performance – get a dink on your axles, for instance, and you'll be pulling to the side for the rest of the race. That's the kind of challenge that I want from a realistic racing game, not arbitrary difficulty spikes.
There's an elephant in Autosport's room though, and that's the timing of its release. Five years passed between Race Driver: Grid and Grid 2. Just over one year has gone by between Grid 2 and Autosport. The short turn-around, the conspicuous absence of a '3' in the title, and the game dodging PS4 and Xbox One makes this feel like a stopgap measure until a 'proper' sequel arrives. Despite omitting the next gen consoles, though, it does look lovely, even if some of the tracks are lifted right from its predecessor.
Grid Autosport isn't a bad game, per se, it just plays like an unfairly tough one. Not Dark Souls tough, where the challenge is offset by a sense of personal improvement as you observe where and how you went wrong. Here, it feels difficult for difficulty's sake – there were countless races where the AI seemed to tap into some illicit nitro and speed past me in the final stretch of a race, when I'd maintained a comfortable lead. There may as well have been a blue shell smacking me out of the running.
For all my gripes, I can see the petrolhead players lapping everything about Autosport up. For better or worse, Autosport seems a reaction to user comments about the more accessible last game, almost a love letter to Grid devotees. It's just a shame that anyone not already thoroughly versed in its demanding ways is going to give up long before they find the few diamonds in Autosport's rough.
I held off on commenting on Grid Autosport's multiplayer until I could experience it in active player conditions. Here's what I found.
Grid Autosport is a very different experience online. The diverse racing styles and plentiful tracks keep things fresh, and playing against real players feels so much better than the AI cars. Get a full grid of racers together and this becomes the place where you can truly test your skills as a driver. If there aren't enough actual players online for a challenging race, virtual opponents can be added, though the same issues that frustrate in single-player start to raise their heads. Playing online was smooth, with no drop outs or lag experienced along the way, though Codie's own RaceNet service stuttered a few times logging in.
The multiplayer is more than just the driving though – it's also where you build up your own fleet of vehicles, rather than racing in whatever's provided during the solo game. If you fancy building a huge assortment of cars, be prepared to spend a LOT of time grinding again, though here for money rather than experience points. Cars can be hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase, and you start with a meagre $10k. Each car has its own stats though, and mods can make big differences in performance on the track, even at lower levels. If you're a member of a RaceNet team, running your crew's livery in your races can help boost levels, but outside of that the visual tweaks are fairly minimal.
Online, I've had a far more enjoyable experience with the game that largely eliminates the sense of automated unfairness from the single-player. It makes the game easier to recommend.