Just a few weeks after Netflix released the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch – Charlie Brooker’s slick, game-literate hybrid of high-end drama and choose-your-own-adventure – its great rival in streaming video, Amazon, is here with a very different vision of the intersection of video games and television.
It’s The Grand Tour Game, an episodic, casual racing game spun off from the expensive antics of three elderly boors. It’s not very good – at all – but as an expression of how Amazon views video games, it is quite interesting.
You are surely familiar with The Grand Tour, which is just about to start its third season on Amazon Prime Video. After the BBC felt compelled to let Top Gear star Jeremy Clarkson go for being an unignorably terrible person more times than the broadcasting institution could brush off, he took his producer Andy Wilman, co-presenters James May and Richard Hammond and most of Top Gear’s hugely successful format with him to Amazon. That format consists of glossy stunts and travelogues, oafish banter and occasional bouts of motor journalism, dressed with an unpalatable dash of reactionary laddism and xenophobia. If you can stomach the presenters – a big if – then the exotic cars and dramatic landscapes do look lush in Amazon’s 4K streams, and the passably entertaining action is popular with petrolheads and children.
The Grand Tour Game is a £12 download from the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One storefronts which follows the action of each episode of The Grand Tour in a novel way. Extensive clips from the show segue smoothly into gameplay as you take control of whatever sleek supercar or claptrap invention the three stooges are driving, and replicate the staged challenges and races from the episode. It takes about half an hour to ‘play’ an hour-long episode as long as you don’t skip the clips, triggering an irritating Clarkson soundbite as you do so. (In fact, almost every action in the game triggers an irritating soundbite from one of the presenters, made twice as annoying by its jarring intrusion in the dreadful audio mix.)
At present, there are only two episodes to play, the first of each of the first two seasons. But as each episode of season three airs, the game will be updated with that episode too, so you can play along with the clottish trio on a weekly schedule, starting tomorrow.
For fans of the show, this is an undeniably appealing premise. Although the video playback quality within the game leaves something to be desired, the seamless transitions from clips to gameplay work well and the episode flows nicely to the recognisable rhythms of the TV programme. Despite what appears to be a limited budget, the game’s artists have done well to match the footage and take you for a drive through its beautiful locations, from a dusty racetrack in the Algarve to an airstrip in a deep Alpine valley.
The show’s car content is pretty good, and Amazon Game Studios’ licensing department has ensured the game can match it, so you know you will get to mess around with some exciting machinery. The first episode of season one features three cutting-edge hybrid hypercars (the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 and LaFerrari) and a drive of the BMW M2 around the show’s tastelessly named test track; the season two debut features a Croatian electric supercar called the Rimac as well as a Lamborghini Aventador and a Honda NSX.
The driving action is a let-down, however. This is disappointing, since much of the talent recruited for it by Amazon Game Studios comes from former Burnout and Need for Speed developers who previously worked at Guildford’s Criterion Games, including creative director Craig Sullivan.
You can detect that heritage in the high-speed, high-grip, slow-steering arcade handling – these guys still really love Out Run – and in the cavalier attitude to reality. There’s drift button and you even get to pick up power-ups such as a horsepower boost, a cloud of smoke or an annoying text message insult that obscures a rival driver’s view and slows them down. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle – it works well for the very broad family audience Amazon is going for, as does the thoughtful inclusion of split-screen local multiplayer. I suppose the kids will enjoy the puerile humour, too (failing an event earns you a ‘toilet’ rating).
The game events themselves are dreadfully basic, though, and weakly designed. A text from Wilman introduces each challenge, and there are a fair few of these besides races and time trials: drag races, drift challenges, speed traps and so on. There is no invention or spark in any of them, while the fixed and unvarying handling of the cars rarely adapts well to the task at hand, whether it’s hitting a tight apex on a test track or doing burnouts for the camera. Furthermore, some scenes of the show – such as a sequence when the squabbling boy-men have to navigate narrow city streets in their ungainly supercars – have had to be discarded, presumably because they don’t fit the template or because the developers don’t have the time or money to attempt to recreate them, never mind wring any fun from them. There’s nothing here for a racing game fan of any experience.
But that is not the point. The Grand Tour Game isn’t supposed to have value out of context. It’s a companion piece: a way for fans to extend their enjoyment of a piece of filmed entertainment. With its day-and-date episodic release and the way it inserts itself in the editing of the show, blending gameplay and video, it goes further in blurring the line between TV and games than any tie-in before it. It’s an interesting new format, even when you can feel the production values struggling to keep up with concept. But if it’s to be read as a statement of intent from a massive company that seems increasingly invested in gaming, then it’s disappointing that Amazon Game Studios’ maiden console release is, in its own right, barely a game at all.