From the outside, sim racing can look a little daunting, with long-established communities that have their own jargon. Plus some titles that support home-made content such as cars, tracks and mods can become seriously bloated and confusing if you didn’t get in on the ground floor.
In this round-up we’ll talk about the best five hardcore PC sim racing games on the market. We’re not going to talk about arcade racing games or “simcade” titles: we’re just looking at physics-focused games that are best played with a racing wheel. We’re also limiting our coverage to games we consider to be currently in active development.
Ladies and gentlemen: start your engines.
www.iracing.com | Steam store page
iRacing is for the hardcore. You can tell this immediately not from the physics, but the price. A basic subscription costs $10 (£6.50) per month (if you subscribe on a month-by-month basis, which is not advised). Currently available on steam is a six-month membership package costing a reasonable £30.
However, total cost of ownership for iRacing can extend into hundreds of pounds. In addition to your subscription cost, you’ll have to buy new cars and tracks whenever you want to move on to a new championship. There’s no way around it: iRacing is expensive. But in return, the developers have not only delivered an impressive simulation, but also a robust overarching service and online hub.
There’s no main menu to speak of in iRacing: instead, every session begins on the iRacing membersite. Even if you want to conduct an offline practice session, you’ll need access to the internet in order to begin.
It’s a locked down title: there’s no third-party content, with all the tracks and cars in-game fully licenced and meticulously detailed. And you’d expect nothing less when each track costs you $15 (£10) and each car will set you back $12 (£8). You can get discounts by buying in bulk, which you’ll be doing quite a lot when you first start out.
The bulk of the races you’ll take part in on iRacing are ranked, meaning every official qualifying and race session is tracked and your actions rated. If you make a lot of mistakes such as driving off track or crashing into your opponents, your “Safety Rating” will decrease. This rating isn’t just for show; it directly impacts how you’re able to play the game, and you can only rank up at the end of each three-month “season” if your safety rating is high enough.
Races in most series are only held once every one or two hours, so waiting around can be frustrating, and getting taken out at the first corner induces fury no matter how patient you are. But it makes every race feel serious and every overtaking move a careful consideration.
iRacing’s physics are very good indeed. They’re perhaps not as fun as some of the other sims, but that’s partly down to the fact that you can’t really ever drive at 100% because spinning and crashing has such long-term and frustrating results. There are plenty of cars to choose from once you’ve passed the rookie phase of the game, with road cars, single seaters, GT cars, prototypes and officially licensed NASCAR and IndyCar models, too.
iRacing isn’t for everybody, it’s simply not suitable for sim racers who may only have two or three hours a week to play. For more hardcore players with lots of time to practice, it’s a great investment.
£35 | www.assettocorsa.net | Steam store page
Made by Italian developers Kunos Simulazioni, who previously developed the fun but ultimately troubled NetKar Pro, Assetto Corsa has proven to be one of the most popular sim racing titles of the last few years. It has an interesting selection of cars and tracks, although some racing fans may be slightly disappointed by the dominance of road cars over race thoroughbreds, but who can complain when you’ve got fantastically modelled vehicles from the likes of BMW, Lotus, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and McLaren? All the cars are fun and challenging to drive and there’s lots of adjustable driver aids to make the experience a little less challenging.
There’s a decent, if not extensive, selection of tracks available. Famous circuits including Monza, Imola, the Nurburgring, Silverstone and Spa Francorchamps are all present, as are lesser-known but equally fun circuits including Mugello, Vallelunga. There’s now DLC that adds the Nurburgring Nordschleife circuit, too.
If the car and track list isn’t long enough for your liking, Assetto Corsa has a huge modding community. However, it’s not well supported in-game and you’ll have to rely on third-party websites like Race Department to keep your mods updated. There’s currently no Steam Workshop support, either, which makes things even more confusing. Online races can often be extremely laggy affairs, with huge crashes on the startline a given in most public racing events.
Offline racing isn’t particularly good, sadly, because the AI lack any advanced intelligence and don’t provide a realistic challenge. Online racing is better, but the server selection “booking” system is both frustrating and confusing, while in-race voting is equally frustrating.
There’s lots to like about Assetto Corsa, but a lot of cleaning up is required if it’s going to be able to keep bringing in – and keeping – new players.
Stock Car Extreme
£23 | www.game-stockcar.com | Steam store page
Of the simulations on this list, Stock Car Extreme (also known as Game Stock Car Extreme) is definitely the most niche. But don’t let that put you off as it’s up there with the most fun racing sims if you’re willing to put up with its oddities.
The bulk of the game’s content is based around the Brazillian Stock Car series, a championship of ‘silhouette’ cars with more than 500bhp. This means most of the cars and tracks will be unfamiliar to most audiences outside of Brazillian Stock Car fans. Whether this is a good or bad thing is entirely dependant on what you expect from a sim racing game. We found it refreshing to drive tracks we’d never even heard of let alone driven on in a sim. There are also some more familiar circuits – although not licensed or named as their real-life counterparts – such as Spielberg.
While the stock cars form the bulk of the game, there are a selection of seemingly completely random cars from across the motorsport spectrum including 70s saloons, several varieties of go-karts (and tracks to go with them) and Formula One-style cars from various decades. These are all as much fun as the stock cars, meaning the game has an enormous amount of replayability.
It’s a good-looking game, although this is more thanks to the cars rather than the tracks. The cars are very nicely modelled while the tracks look a bit grainy and oversaturated at times. It’s far from ugly, though.
The handling model is challenging but rewarding; a delicate balance of steering and throttle is required otherwise you’ll very easily find yourself in an uncontrollable spin in most of the cars. It can be frustrating at times, but only because you know you’re not good enough. Luckily, there are various driver aids to make things easier if you just want to put the pedal to the metal without worrying about spending your time in a cloud of tyre smoke.
Sadly, online multiplayer is very limited. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but more because the community is very small at the moment. The game’s recent release on Steam might help with this, but we found single player to be a more consistent source of fun. The AI is pretty challenging, albeit sometimes predictable, and if you find the right difficulty level you can have some very challenging races against your offline opponents.
$44 (£28) and $12 (£8) per year for online access OR $85 (£55) one-off for lifetime access | www.rfactor.net
rFactor 2 is built around modding, with modest base game content backed up by a library of thousands of tracks and cars created by users. For this reason there’s a fairly high barrier to entry; understanding how to manage mods and content can be a little confusing.
However, and this separates rFactor 2 from most other mod-supported sim racing games, if you want to join an online race that’s using a mod you don’t have, it can be automatically downloaded to your machine from within rFactor itself without you having to go hunting for it. This didn’t always work first time for us, though, and we sometimes had strange bugs involving missing sound and assets that require a bit of head scratching to solve.
The handling model is engaging and satisfying, as you’d expect from a sim racing game that’s been around for so long, and the game looks great, too. Sound quality varies from mod to mod, but the quality is generally reasonably good.
The offline AI are competitive, although not quite as fun to race against as RaceRoom Racing Experience (below). rFactor 2 is by far the best simulation in terms of expandability, although it does require you to put some effort in. Also, you should bear in mind that there is a very modest yearly fee of $12 (around £8) after your initial purchase, or you can buy lifetime membership that’s currently priced at $85 (around £57).
RaceRoom Racing Experience (RRRE)
Free (in-game microtransactions) | game.raceroom.com | Steam store page
RRRE is a unique in the current crop of sim racing games. It’s technically free-to-play but if you want any remotely recognisable and fun content such as cars and tracks you’ll need to invest in some via the in-game store. Car and track packs vary in price depending on how much they offer, but you’re unlikely to ever spend more than £20 in one purchase.
Among the packs are officially licenced DTM cars and tracks from 2013 and 2014, as well as ADAC GT Masters from 2013 and 2014. There’s also WTCC content from 2013, which brings front-wheel-drive cars into the mix. The most fun pack, we reckon, is DTM 1992 (image above). You get five cars in the pack, all of which are absurdly fun to drive with powerful engines and plenty of room for oversteer.
Online racing is still in development and while pretty stable, suffers badly if a rogue driver with a very high ping enters the fray. Our best advice is to give them a wide berth, but even that probably won’t be enough. The online element isn’t particularly popular, though, and it’s entirely possible you’ll find no populated servers running tracks and cars you actually own. This is a black mark on what is otherwise a fantastic racing sim.
Luckily, offline racing is the most fun out of all the games listed here. The AI is much more daring and competitive than in other titles, and will provide and genuine challenge if you turn the difficulty up. Sometimes they’ll crash in extremely weird and scripted ways and can be a bit dopey on the first lap of a race, but otherwise they’re worthy opponents.
In terms of pure fun, RRRE is our favourite racing sim at the moment. Perhaps its physics model takes a few liberties, but for us that’s perfectly fine.
£40 | projectcarsgame.com | Steam Store page
We tackled Project CARS in detail in our full review, but here’s the executive summary: Project CARS has a robust physics model and has outstanding graphics, dynamic lighting and changeable weather conditions. It also has a wide variety of cars including open-wheelers, touring cars, road cars and GT machinery.
However, there are fundamental flaws. For starters, the AI is atrocious, with cars coming to a complete standstill on occasion, meaning that they’re far to easy to beat on many track/car combinations. And when they’re not stopped in the middle of the road, they’re probably crashing into each other or cutting the course for no good reason.
The career mode doesn’t feel particularly like a proper career, because all championships and cars are unlocked from the off, which reduced your motivation to bother with it at all.
We weren’t fully convinced by the force feedback, either. Sometimes it feels wonderfully engaging, but the very next race your wheel feels completely disconnected from the road, which is frustrating.
Still, though, these issues could be solved with a few patches but, for now, this is a niche title masquerading as one for the masses.