The cars in Sony’s flagship PS4 racer, Drive Club, have each hair-thin strand of carbon fibre and seat fabric individually rendered by powerful hardware. The cars in GRID: Autosport? Well, they look nice too. They don’t look as nice, because GRID: Autosport runs on the Xbox 360 and PS3 (and PC, where its graphics are considerably improved).
But let’s face it: when you’re tearing along a straight at 200km/h, trying to figure out exactly how late you can start braking to nip past the guy in front without ending up going backwards into a wall, do you even see those extra pixels? Does a slightly more realistically-rendered sponsor’s logo make any difference?
Racing games are games in the truest sense of the word. Where RPGs and FPSs rely upon huge cinematic environments and characters voiced by Hollywood stars, racing games are purely about play: you versus the physics engine. Your reflexes and your understanding of the track are the stars, and the developers at Codemasters have agonised over GRID’s physics. They’ve been working on striking a very difficult balance, because while some games - most notably the Forza and Gran Turismo series - are all about being exactly as realistic as possible, they end up being as difficult as possible. Let’s face it, if you tried to drive any real car with a gamepad while floating three feet above and behind the back window, you wouldn’t get far.
GRID’s challenge is to making racing seem realistic, without making it so you spin out every time you stomp the accelerator. It's the same aim Codemasters has had for decades: to make a racing game rather than a racing sim, and throughout the F1, TOCA, Dirt, Micro Machines, Colin McRae and Race Driver series, the sweet spot between realism and fun has moved around. To help them find it for GRID, Codemasters enlisted racing drivers and journalists from Autosport to help them figure out how to make the cars feel more realistic than they really are, by doing things like adjusting the points at which the tyres lose grip (you can read more about this exacting process on their blog).
We found the cars in the new GRID are still easy to spin out - especially the F1 cars - but the game as a whole seems more pick-up-and-playable than one of the big-name racing sims. If you’re the kind of driver who has to turn on some assists to make it around a track in Forza or Gran Turismo, GRID offers a nice challenge. We still found ourselves battling for second- or third-to-last, but we had a lot of fun getting there.
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The other element that adds to the fun is the AI. There’s nothing more dull in a racing game than jostling for position with a shoal of robot fish hanging within inches of one another, obviously controlled by the same computer. On the contrary, GRID: Autosport’s cars are perhaps a little too fighty. They’ll slipstream right into the back of you and use you as a buffer on sharp corners, and they’re not above the occasional spin-out or wide corner themselves.
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Here’s an interesting fact: do you know why, in games like Forza and Gran Turismo, the cars take such little damage when you whang them into a barrier at 80mph? It’s down to licensing. The developers have to persuade Ferrari and Porsche and Bugatti to let them use digital versions of their cars in the game, but car marques are as much luxury brands as handbag makers, and they rely just as much on their image. So if you’re going to show a Ferrari in a game, you can’t show it getting too beaten up, or they won’t license it.
In this respect, GRID: Autosport actually wins some realism points off its more crisply rendered relations, because it permits proper damage. On the San Francisco circuit we tried for a rather ambitious straight line through a chicane at just over 100mph (nearly made it, mind you) and managed to bend the bonnet in half. A few corners later, we used a touch too much handbrake and went sideways into a wall at similar speed, and the passenger door swung crazily open for a couple of corners before slamming shut again. A nice touch - realistic enough, but not too realistic.
Oh, and if you completely disagree and graphics mean everything to you… well, the PC version comes with a 5GB high-res texture pack, runs at 60fps and can be played at 4K.
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