For Codemasters, it's been a funny couple of years. After a scintillating start to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation with Dirt and Grid, two smart console distillations of the studio's automotive expertise, a more erratic rhythm has set in. A couple of superb Dirt sequels were followed up by the slightly less stellar Showdown, a quick-fire sequel whose knockabout racing couldn't quite sustain standalone status, while Grid 2 took a lunge for the mainstream that left many of Codemasters' more traditional fans wanting.
"I think we ended up in a bit of a no-man's land," says Clive Moody, a producer at the studio since the days of TOCA. "Both those games were very much outside of that comfort zone we've got. For us it was feeling our way a little bit, and despite doing as much focus testing as we could possibly do on those titles, clearly we hit in some areas and missed in others. We're completely honest about that - there are certain things that we didn't get right on Grid 2."
What exactly those things were depends on your perspective, and the complaints were many and varied: there was a de-emphasising of the motorsport upon which the series' name was once built, a new, thick American twang that sat awkwardly with that same heritage and a handling model that, in its pursuit of a bigger audience, left people like myself confused and frustrated. And, lest anyone could forget, there was the jettisoning of the cockpit cam.
"The reality was, we set out to make a game that was slightly different in its emphasis from the first Grid," says Moody. "And it was definitely and consciously aimed at a broader audience to enjoy the kind of experience that Codemasters make. The downside to that is all those people that loved Codemasters games for years, they felt left behind by that approach."
So Codemasters now has an answer for those fans. It's called Grid Autosport, and in many ways it feels like a response to some of the negative feedback met by Grid 2 some 12 months ago. There is more motorsport, spread out across five different disciplines threading endurance, open-wheel, tin-tops, street racing and drift cars thread across a team-based career mode. There is a more refined handling model that's accessible while staying faithful to the characteristics of each individual car, and one with none of the messy dramatics Grid 2's TrueFeel introduced. And there's now not one but two cockpit cameras, a generous solution to a problem that plagued Grid 2 from the point of its announcement.
"Oh, don't tell me..." says a playfully exasperated Moody. "I probably have never personally taken so much grief and abuse! It was a little unpleasant. Again, it was a decision taken in absolute good faith in Grid 2 with that different audience in mind, and we were up-front with it right from the announcement. But it never let us go. It was just horrific for a year. So of course, the kind of game we're building this time, it absolutely had to come back, and we bought it back in a better way than before with two views."
Grid Autosport's cockpit cams are slightly different beasts to their predecessors in the Codemasters stable, with a pronounced field of view effect blurring out the interior details at speed, placing attention firmly on the track ahead. It's not dissimilar to the approach taken by Slightly Mad with its Shift series, and there are comparisons to be made, too, with the hack-mods introduced soon after Grid 2's release by fans - and it's their work Codemasters has lent heavily on for the new viewpoints in Grid Autosport.
In Grid Autosport nearly every major criticism levelled at its predecessor by the fans has been addressed, and often with some gusto - and with all this coming less than 12 months after the last game, it's hard not to think of this new instalment as Grid 2: We're Sorry Edition. "That's really harsh!" says Moody. "We're not sorry about Grid 2 - we absolutely stand by it, and it does have a lot of fans out there. A lot of people played it, a lot of people enjoyed it - it just wasn't the core game a lot of our fans were expecting. That's what we're addressing.
"In the studio, it's in our DNA - we wanted to go back there, and make a game that's got an absolute focus on motorsport, and on racing, and purely on that without divergence that doesn't fit well within the context. In terms of the sense of buy-in from the team, it's the highest I've ever seen it. And that love comes through in the final thing - it's a game that's been crafted by a bunch of guys who love what they're doing. I think I'd like to say, with Autosport, as it's something we've got such a heritage building, the style of experience, it's something we can totally nail this time around."
Moody's point about the team within Codemasters being energised by the return to their roots can be seen in the massive grin on the face of Gehan Pathiraja, the car handling lead, as he describes Autosport's new model. Pathiraja's another veteran of the studio, a man who's applied his passion for cars (in the Codemasters car-park sits his Honda S2000 in stealth black and with a number of aggressive augmentations bolted on during Gehan's spare time) to Codemasters' stable of games, from the nuance of Dirt 3 through to the slightly more wayward Grid 2.
"At the time it was a good idea for the game," says Pathiraja. "It was certainly a direction we wanted to try out. Having put it out, we realised our core audience wasn't totally in favour of it. We gained some new audience, so it was a good trial, but our roots really lie in that nice balance between sim and arcade, which is what you get in Autosport."
It's a balance exquisitely met this time out, and one that's been arrived at with the help of some serious talent. The editorial team at Autosport, a bunch who know a thing or two about motorsport, have offered their advice, as too have people with first-hand experience such as tin-top racer Matt Neal and reigning British Touring Car champion Andrew Jordan.
"We tried to push the handling systems to deliver something far more authentic, more than we have ever before," says Pathiraja of Autosport's approach. "That means going back to the drawing board and changing things such as the tire model and everything else. You can create arcade handling quite easily by just increasing the grip, but it's where that grip comes from that makes it more or less fun. This time it was going back to the tire model, but making it more authentic. Now you've got the fall-off when you go beyond the slip angle, so if you push the car too far, you can start skidding but it doesn't boost you along."
The result is cars that are easy to drive while remaining utterly engaging. Too often driving games equate oversteer with excitement - a problem with Grid 2, as well as one becoming more pronounced with recent Forza Motorsports - so it's an absolute joy to play something not only unafraid of understeer but happy to revel in it. Driving a race-spec front-wheel drive Ford Focus around Hockenheim, the nose eagerly breaks loose around the latter half of the stadium section, sending the car towards the outside gravel-trap until you're brave enough to boot in a little more power, and a little more traction.
It's indicative of a car behaving as you'd expect it to, something true across all of Grid Autosport's garage, from the aggressive torque of a hypercar like a Zonda R to the more obedient - if slightly skittish - downforce-aided cars like the Dallara F312. This might not call itself a sim, but Grid Autosport gets as close to capturing the essence of these cars as certain other games that noisily boast of their sim credentials. "Without a doubt, that's what we're looking for," says Pathiraja. "All the cars are handmade - it's a bit like Morgan. We like to craft each one by hand, and we pay a lot of attention to them stats-wise."
More than the driving, though, what sets Grid Autosport apart - and what's perhaps most exciting for Codemasters' traditional fans - is the racing. Few games set out to replicate the noisy tussle of pack racing - to my mind, only the original Grid and Simbin's excellent Race Pro made any effort on consoles in the past generation - and Grid Autosport picks up the baton with aplomb. Offline races are combative yet courteous (though that may not be the case when going wheel-to-wheel with the returning Ravenwest team), with AI aggressively defending their lines and exploiting gaps you leave while never overstepping the mark. It's the kind of game where a well-earned fourth place taken after trading paint with another driver feels just as heroic as some of the more isolated victories you take elsewhere, and hopefully it'll transition to both two-player split-screen and online where 12-player races are supported, alongside clan support for up to 100 team members.
Grid Autosport is the Codemasters game many have been waiting years for, then, although there are still a couple of areas keeping it back from being the finished deal just yet. A generous amount of real racing cars are included (not, thankfully, split across a bewildering tangle of pre-order bonuses either this time out), yet a lack of official racing licences still grates, so it's not quite the return of the traditional British Touring Car Championship content some had been holding out for. A shame given the rude health that series is currently enjoying, and looking to the wider world of motorsport it's also something of a missed opportunity given the many series seemingly ripe for the picking.
Then there's the matter of Grid Autosport missing out on the new generation of consoles, with no PS4 or Xbox One versions in the planning. PC owners won't be too put out, and will also feel the benefit of being the lead platform this time out, with 4K support ensuring that, with the right bit of hardware behind it, Grid Autosport will be the measure of any thing we've seen on the new consoles. For Codemasters, the decision to stick with is as much to do with logic and reason - the new Ego engine isn't quite ready, and the many traditional fans that Grid Autosport is aimed at aren't ready either to make the leap - as it has with a more personal desire to see out what started so well all those years ago.
"We've talked a lot about what Grid 2 was, and how it didn't service our core fans. I wanted to do something - a last hurrah if you like. This is the game that shows you what's doable, and what's possible," says Moody. "For me, it's more about unfinished business on those consoles."
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