We’re in the middle of the pack on the second lap of a touring car race when something other than our shunt-happy opponents hits us: this feels like TOCA again. With its continual reinvention of cherished series, Codemasters has been nothing if not brave, but the UK studio has returned to its roots for Autosport, stripping away the glitzy distractions of its recent releases in the process.
The pared-down design starts with the front-end, which dispenses with Codemasters’ usual interface flair and sticks with simple, clean (and fast-loading) menus set against a black background. There’s no garage, no collection of cars to accrue (unless you count the custom setups you can define for online racing), and no narrative – rather than focusing on your own racing team, you are simply a driver choosing which team offer to accept each season.
It’s a shock of clarity that will prove as divisive as Grid 2’s swerve into bombastic arcade territory, but anyone hankering for management elements should feel adequately compensated once they get out on the track. Codemasters has gone all out to address the criticisms levelled at Grid 2 by players disappointed with the game’s attempt at appealing to a broader audience, and created something rare: a racing game in which you actually have to race.
Leave the difficulty on its default Medium setting and you’ll find yourself up against uncommonly challenging opponents. Reaching the front of the pack is a Herculean effort as cars shunt and weave, defend their line and constantly look for opportunities to pass you. It makes qualifying (on the events where it’s available) a genuinely worthwhile endeavour, and even once you do make it to first position, the pressure never lets up. It’s telling that the lowest difficulty feels most like other racers, allowing you to thread through 16 positions over the course of three laps with little resistance; switch things up to Very Hard, however, and you can spend a whole race exchanging 13th and 14th positions with another car.
Crucially, Autosport’s career structure and nuanced vehicle handling combine to alleviate any potential frustration for players weaned on effortless victories. The career is split into five disciplines: Touring, Endurance, Open Wheel, Tuner and Street. Taking part in an event will earn you XP in that particular discipline’s strand, and larger Grid tournaments become available once you’ve reached a certain level in all five.
XP is earned in several ways: Team Targets ask for a minimum finishing position in the Team Championships (but you’ll only lose XP, not progress, if you miss this); Team Bonuses offer secondary objectives such as a finishing position in the Drivers’ Championship or finishing ahead of a particular driver; Sponsor Objectives offer smaller amounts of XP for, say, driving above 120mph for three minutes in total or improving on your previous lap time during a race; and finally Discipline Rewards award you for your finishing position, beating your rival, posting the fastest lap and any bonus earned from racing without driving aids or limiting yourself to an in-car view.
Yes, Grid 2’s most contentious absence, cockpit cam, has been rectified, and you can now choose between dash and driver perspectives. The dashboard itself is made up of textures seemingly ripped directly from the PS1 era, but they’re disguised by a pronounced depth-of-field effect that blurs the interior and focuses you on the road. It will look ugly to bystanders, but the effect is pleasing if you’re in the driving seat.
The same goes for your sense of connection with the road. Autosport has been built from the wheels up, boasting a complex grip model that underpins handling which, while still approachable, offers considerable depth. Traction is paramount in Autosport, and knowing when to break it and when to maximise your power transfer is key to moving your way up the grid. The weighty cars are prone to understeer, but rather than insisting on a powerslide to correct, they realistically respond to your throttle and braking inputs, making every honed cornering manoeuvre feel balletic. You can still get sideways, of course, but it’s rarely your fastest option outside of street races. Together with your opponents’ AI, such lively feedback makes for an intense, and satisfying, drive.
That boisterous AI does throw up some of its own problems, however. While opponents are noticeably less aggressive in open-wheeled races compared with touring and street events, they don’t always concede in the same way a human driver might, sticking to their chosen route even though you legitimately out-braked them into a corner. It’s less of a problem once the pack has spread out a little, but in a game that asks so much of you it can be frustrating to have your skilful manoeuvre met with apparent obliviousness – especially when some Sponsor Objectives ask you to complete a race with no collisions. Adjust for this, though, and the sense of speed and danger more than makes up for the occasional duff AI decision.
Codemasters has painstakingly tuned its flagship series, reducing weight by stripping it of unnecessary luxuries, and created a leaner, race-focused machine. While it can’t compete with the fidelity or detail of Gran Turismo 6, Grid: Autosport instead uses broad strokes to create a vivid impression of what it’s actually like to be bumper-to-bumper at 140mph as a hairpin comes into view. It is ironic, then, that for all Codemasters’ attempts to make the player feel like a race driver by building up a fiction around them, it is Autosport’s barebones, abstract interpretation of a driving career that proves its most successful.