Grid Autosport is a racing game which largely eschews the hype and bombast of motor-racing as a sport; it downplays the celebrity and the ostentation and focuses entirely, through a sparseness of design, on the racing itself. Thus arguably it is much more purely simulationist than most games; it has minimal narrative (complete races to challenge more capable opponents), a simple and functional user interface and most importantly minimal downtime between events. Getting from race to race is almost seamless, and this – in an era of complex user interfaces that can be difficult to navigate owing to too many decorative elements – is a virtue of the game.
Compared to recent racing titles, which work to create a narrative and sense of cinema around what is ultimately a simulation, Grid offers a restrained package to its credit. Trying to forge a sports-story narrative with named rivals, characters and the like in a game that is seeking to simply give the player a realistic depitcion of motorsport is often superfluous and rarely effective Grid Autosport actively rejects this; the player’s sponsor changes, but there are no cutscenes and the effects seem mostly cosmetic. Even the challenges – giving a kind of RPG-esque progression through the game – are predefined and downplayed, the emphasis not on creating the player’s own experience through the game but on simply rewarding skill. This is, in fact, a good way of using achievements; too often they are either simply progress barometers (one achievement per level completed) or reliant on almost obsessive attention to detail (collecting all items, handicapping the player to complete a challenge). In Grid Autosport they are simply tokens of recognised skill; if the player completes a race particularly well, then they are credited for this achievement by the game. Playing a game like this – without any of the extraneous customisation of goals and attempts to add meaningful player choice to how a player progresses through a simulation – is a refreshingly old-fashioned experience compared to many modern titles, and accentuates the real strength of Grid Autosport, the racing itself.
The racing engine itself is heavy and solid, with harsh impacts and – when the driver’s eye view is used – a genuine sense of speed and tension. The damage model can be set to either cosmetic or accurately modelled, and the latter setting requires precise and controlled driving to see a race to the end. This is particularly important given how aggressive – not destructively, in the Destruction Derby or Burnout sense, but instead in the virtuosic sense of how motorsport’s professionals block racing lines and stay ahead – the AI is. Medium difficulty is a genuine challenge not so much because the player’s vehicle is disadvantaged (without the extensive tuning and customisation of a game like Forza the races – many of which use fixed vehicles – are generally fought on an even footing) but because the other racers know the course and can block overtaking. Finding a gap that does not throw the player off the racing line and into either a collision or a hazard is a tactical challenge, and Grid Autosport is very much a thinking-person’s game. Pleasingly the difficulty is very granular; driving assists can be turned on or off (and using too many can be a disadvantage as they take away the ability to drive “badly” and take risks) and this is independent of race length adjustment or AI difficulty setting. Each tweak of the difficulty adjusts the player’s score for a race, and the game will respond to these choices – if easy difficulties are resulting in utter whitewashes of the AI, the player will be advised to increase the challenge in some fashion. There is, in a series staple, a “flashback” feature whereby a player can rewind the last few seconds of a race to avoid a crash – one of the few concessions to pure abstracted gamism in the game. Yet it is unsatisfying, perhaps because of the intensely – almost to the point of dryness – simulationist tone. Rewinding throws the player’s concentration off, may leave them in an equally unavoidable situation and ultimately is a hindrance more than an aid.
While vehicle customisation is more limited than some games, especially early in the career as the preview showed, it is present in a form; suspension and handling can be adjusted before a race and there is a practice lap feature available to encourage experimentation. Again, this is a concession to simulationism over gamism; time to practice is limited, and the capacity to adjust cars prior to a race is similarly limited. Rather than being a game about building up a library of vehicles to be tuned and tested at leisure, Grid Autosport presents motorsport as something where the driver must only worry about driving. It is to the game’s credit that it made me seek out every “simulationist” option outside of the core difficulty controls possible – using only the first-person view (where the edge of the helmet visor obscures vision) and turning off the rewind feature – in order to make it feel as immersive as possible. The sense of immersion is also aided by the visual and sound design – Grid Autosport is graphically impressive, with good lighting effects and detailed crowds and backgrounds. The sound is distinctive in its sparseness; there is the constant accompaniment of engines and intermittant radio advice, but other than that there is silence. A game without omnipresent music accompanying gameplay is unexpected but refreshing, aiding concentration and emphasising the simulation aspect over the gamist. In time it is easy to not even notice the absence of a soundtrack, and it goes a long way towards emphasising the game’s “seriousness”. It does not need to sell an “extreme,” macho world of motor-racing with loud dance music, supermodels and supercars – the sort of thing an audience would see at the buildup to the Monaco Grand Prix, for example – because its focus is on the drivers and the cars as sportsmen using sporting equipment.
The preview of Grid Autosport was played using an Xbox 360 controller on pre-release code using a PC. The author played it at distributor Namco Bandai’s London offices, under the supervision of Namco Bandai staff, with a number of other gaming journalists. Refreshments were provided, but all travel and other expenses were paid by the author.