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GRID Autosport – The Switch Island Review

The Switch isn’t a natural fit for simulation racing games. The Joy Cons, even the Pro Controller, don’t boast analog triggers, meaning that precision acceleration and braking can only be implemented (clumsily) with the second analog stick. Historically, Nintendo’s ethos perhaps hasn’t been synonymous with more in-depth driving titles either – we’re much more used to a few rounds of karting on a Ninty console than a full-on race season.

However, what we’ve learned from the latest generation of Nintendo hardware is that traditional gaming enthusiasts are gravitating towards it as a way to fit their hobby into an otherwise busy life. The pressures of work and family mean that the people who grew up gaming in the nineties are now largely unable to spend much time playing in the living room, so instead they’re increasingly playing on their commute, on lunch breaks, or while the kids watch Peppa Pig on the main telly. Sony’s PlayStation Vita proved that home console gaming in your hands was an attractive prospect, but while Sony failed to enthral enough users to become successful, Nintendo  picked up the gauntlet and ran with it.

Over the span of two years, we’ve seen more and more traditionally home console style games come to the Switch, from the Mario makers themselves of course, but also from a variety of developers and publishers who have come to realise that this new and quickly growing niche of players are eager to devour big experiences on the go. In the rush to provide those very experiences, many have looked back at their titles from years gone by and swiftly ported them over to the hybrid console, looking to cash in. While I personally appreciated being able to play Resident Evil on the bus, it was the same game we’d seen released already on a plethora of consoles, with an RRP seemingly set to make people think twice about purchasing it yet again – £29.99 for a 3 year old HD remaster of a 17 year old remake of a 23 year old game is pretty bloody steep, after all!

Codemasters took a different tack though. From a stable of titles at their disposal, they chose the 5-year-old ‘GRID Autosport’ (originally released on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC) to be their first foray into world of Nintendo Switch. It was a game that reviewed well at the time, and also one that looked to set right the criticism levelled against the series’ previous entry, GRID 2. While this port may have come as a surprise to some, it’s easy to see why Codemasters chose it when you realise that the GRID games are the modern offshoot of the wildly popular TOCA Touring Cars games. That lineage alone should have people standing up to take notice, and it is one that the publisher isn’t done with yet – the latest title in that genealogy is about to release on PS4, Xbox One and PC, simply titled GRID.

Bearing all of that in mind, then, it’s a little easier to understand why ‘GRID Autosport’ was chosen above all other titles to be ported to Switch. It’s a game that the console is graphically capable of handling to start with, as well as an improvement on its predecessor. It gives that classic TOCA/GRID experience on the go (finally) and it’s packed full of content. It’s a no-brainer in those terms, but considering my opening line it’s also a risk. A lazier port could have seen this game sit quietly in the eShop as nothing more than a nice attempt at bringing big console thrills to the handheld crowd – especially at that £29.99 price point. Unlike some though, Codemasters was smart enough not to phone it in, and therefore hired the folks over at Feral Interactive to handle the conversion.

So, what could have been a game to pick up in a sale has turned out to be a bone fide must have for Switch owners even remotely interested in racing games and/or motorsport. What was an 8 out of 10 game in the dying days of the seventh generation of home consoles becomes a (spoiler alert) 9 out of 10 experience just 2 years into the life of the Switch. Choosing to port this game to Switch at a time when cash-in ports are high and real racing games are vastly under-represented, and also choosing a developer such as Feral (who are also taking on the Swich port of cult-classic ‘Alien: Isolation’) to do the job for them, has elevated ‘GRID Autosport’ to something more than it originally was.

As I mentioned before, this is a game packed with content, which forms the foundation here. The “Autosport” in the title refers to the fact that rather than focusing solely on one type of racing, we are treated to a total of five different motor sport disciplines (more in fact, if you include the drag racing that can be found in the ‘extra championships’ mode), each distinct and enjoyable in their own right. Being a descendant of the TOCA games, this of course features Touring, a form of racing possibly best described as more contact heavy than a traditional race, but not quite to the level of demolition derby (a race type also represented within this game). It’s a blast, and as well done here as I think I’ve ever experienced it. The tension of trying to make your way through the aggressive pack to pole position is palpable, and I certainly gripped my controller a little tighter.

Next up we have what is possibly my favourite, Endurance. Being ahead of the pack is still the ultimate goal here, however rather than traditional laps you must instead attempt to keep your position for a set amount of time (usually 8 minutes, though this can be increased), whilst also contending with tyre wear. Risky manoeuvres and going off-track can wear out your tyres quicker, and the more worn they get, the harder it becomes to drive well and stay ahead. There are no pit stops here either, so driving carefully but competitively is the order of the day.

Open Wheel racing is next up, and this can be described as essentially a stripped down version of Formula One. Less laps mean no pit stops are required, the managing of which usually form a central part of the challenge for F1 style racing. The vehicles you drive in this sport certainly have their unique handling (as do all of the styles of car here), however due to the arcade-style sensibilities which stop ‘GRID Autosport’ being an out-and-out simulation game, much of the technique is stripped away from this particular sport, leaving a shallow, though fun, approximation of it instead.

We then move on to Tuner, which is where time attack races and drift challenges come into play. While I found time attack trials to be mostly fun, pushing your car to achieve the best times possible, drifting unfortunately left a lot to be desired. This may be mostly down to my own preferences, but I found these events difficult, yet I often came out on top despite doing very little actual drifting. Sure I complained about a lack of technicality in Open Wheel, and here it is in full force… yet I’m not convinced! I think that it just didn’t click for me, and considering how much content there is in this game that’s okay. Others may enjoy these challenges, but I personally dreaded them as you are essentially forced to play them because you need to reach certain levels in all disciplines to be invited to the ‘GRID Series’ championships in the career mode (and you will rightly strive to get that invite).

Finally we have Street, which does exactly what it says on the tin. These are traditional races around city locations, in cars that range from hot hatches all the way up to hypercars. These are the kinds of race that games such as ‘Project Gotham Racing’ excelled at, but unlike full-on arcade titles likeNeed For Speed there’s not a nitro boost in sight. It’s just you and the raw power of your car on the urban streets. There’s a lot of fun to be had here!

You can play these various disciplines either on their own as one off races, in your own custom championships or in the meat of the game, career mode. Here you’ll set up your driver profile and be asked to choose a team to join each season in order to increase both your own standings and theirs. Teams are all sponsored by real-world companies, and every season you have two to choose from. They each require different things from you in order to be happy with your performance and award you XP, allowing you to progress further. For instance, you might be tasked with reaching a certain position in the standings during the season as a whole.

A season encompasses a number of events in a single discipline, a championship in which you compete to win. For example, in a Tuner season you may be asked to race in a couple of time attack challenges and a drift event. The number of events differ per championship, and as you level up you access further, more challenging championships. These are often chunky affairs too, taking upwards of 30 minutes to complete. A few have taken me an hour or more. That is both excellent and off-putting, as while I mostly relish the battle to improve my personal and team standing over the course of some tense racing action, sometimes it can feel like a bit of a slog (especially when those damned drift challenges come around yet again).

Overall though, career mode is a blast. You’re given the option to practice or qualify for position in most events, with the qualifying round also giving you an extra championship point should you come first. This feeds into the simulation side of the game, and I would often take on the qualifiers in order to ensure a beneficial starting position, and would even sometimes practice on a course if it was new and looked intimidating. Of course one of the features of the GRID games is the ability to rewind time in order to correct mistakes, which is certainly a novel and welcome feature that can take the edge off of more trying stages. At the lower difficulties these ‘flashbacks’ are unlimited, but as you scale up, you may only get a few per race, or even none.

There are five difficulties to choose from, and they change up the way the game is played in many ways, not just in terms of the flashbacks offered. At ‘professional’ difficulty (which I played at for most of my time in the game) damage is only visual and doesn’t affect the cars performance, the AI you compete against is rookie level and things like traction control and ABS are turned on. At the top end of the spectrum is ‘master’, and here car damage can end your race if you overdo it, you have no flashbacks to speak of, your transmission is manual rather than automatic, the AI is much more challenging and any assists are turned off. It makes for a rather uncompromising experience, and one certainly closer to simulation than arcade, if that’s your thing. The game repeatedly told me I was doing ‘too well’ on the difficulty I had chosen and suggested I go hard or go home. In all honesty though, while many races weren’t hugely challenging to me at professional difficulty, I was just having a lot of fun being in pole position and getting to check in with my team via the radio (with prompts controlled by the d pad) mid race to see what my team mate and event rival were both up to. I’m nosy like that.

There is a real sense that you are part of a team here, competing in motorsport events. Sure, there are no cut-scenes or fleshed-out characters to interact with, but hearing the commentators chatter before each event or when something happens on track, and having your team communicate with you by name, and even mentioning the name of your rival as you vie for position, adds a nice layer of realism.

I could go on forever about this game. A port like this on any other modern console would likely just be received as ‘average’, due to the fairly limited roster of cars and tracks alone (though this wasn’t something that personal bothered me – I felt there was enough variation in both tracks and cars to keep things interesting), but on the Switch it truly shines. This is in no small part thanks to the efforts of Feral, who have spent a lot of time ensuring that the experience is as tailored to the uniqueness of the hardware as possible. The game looks stunning in docked or handheld mode, for example, and there are graphics settings that allow you to get the most out of the game – you can reduce graphical fidelity and performance to improve battery life if you’re on the go, forsake battery life and performance to optimise the graphics, or favour performance (which brings things up to 60fps from 30) by sacrificing both battery life and graphics. The team have even thought about your poor memory card and released HD textures as a separate, free and optional add-on. I’d certainly recommend downloading them though, as they add a lot to the look of the game.

If that weren’t enough, Feral Interactive have also thought about controls. Most people will likely use the Joy Cons or a Pro controller, which is fine. With these, Feral has implemented HD rumble excellently, creating distinct rumbles for different surfaces which adds greatly to the immersion. I’d like all future racing games to be this attentive to the HD rumble feature! Given the lack of analog triggers on these controllers though, you are either left to accelerate and brake using the digital triggers, or use the right analog stick to approximate more accurate control. While the game is certainly playable using the digital triggers, there is something lost in not being able apply just the right amount of gas around a corner, or gently slow down – it’s all or nothing. Therefore, the implementation of analog controls via the stick is a nice touch, and does work well for the most part. Just don’t try using it with motion steering turned on – it is incredibly discombobulating.

The developer obviously realised how much is lost when you don’t have analog triggers available in a racing game though, and went the extra mile in implementing support for the Gamecube controller. Plugging this into the Switch dock using the wired USB adapter allows you to use the pad and its analog triggers to race with, and I must say it’s a bit of a revelation. After having played with the Pro controller for the first few hours and finding that digital triggers meant the car taking an age to get back up to speed after manoeuvres like cornering, the Gamecube pad finally gave me full control in a format that I was used to. I was performing much better, and enjoying the experience even more than I had been. It was wonderful to use the GC pad again with a modern game, and I had forgotten how comfortable it is to hold. It is a wonderful fit for ‘GRID Autosport’, and racing games in general. I really must tip my hat to Feral for being so generous with the control methods here. They’re even looking into providing support for the upcoming Hori Mario Kart wheel accessory, which would be amazing if they can pull it off.

The game itself, the content, deserves the 8 out of 10 it got five years ago. There is a lot here to like, but it certainly isn’t perfect. It’s a very good arcade/sim hybrid racer that provides a lot to experience. However, there are some misses for all of the hits, and definitely room for improvement. What lifts this game to a solid 9 on the Switch is the work Feral has done in porting it over. This is no lazy port or quick cash-in, which could so easily have been the case given the dearth of classic racers on the platform. This is a love letter to racing fans who no longer have copious time available to play in front of the TV at home. It’s a game equally as fun while sat on a train as it is sat on a sofa, one which accommodates the player no matter what input they might prefer or level of skill they possess. This is a game that wants you to have a good time, and it drops as many barriers to the fun of pure racing as it can to allow this whilst remaining an in-depth and comprehensive experience. This is a game that doesn’t yet have any multiplayer or leaderboards (though they are due to be patched in for free at a later date), but is still a must-have even without these. This is a game that does more than enough to justify and command its full £29.99 asking price. It is a game that is full of choice on many levels, and it’s all the better for it.

Can we get a Switch-only sequel please?

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