Listen, we’re right there with you. Your favorite car is sitting out there in the driveway or garage or storage unit unused, or maybe it’s moved on to greener pastures to help you though these uncertain times. All you want is to get a few laps or runs in to get your high-speed fix, but the reality of the situation is that ain’t going to happen anytime soon.
You’ve mastered Forza Motorsport, you’ve dominated Gran Turismo, but you still can’t quite scratch that itch. You need something more. Something more challenging, something more realistic and maybe, just maybe, something with online races that last beyond the first corner.
What you need is a proper racing simulator, and while iRacing is getting all the buzz, there’s a lot to choose from. I’ve already told you, now you’ll need some games. Here are my five picks for titles that will help you ease into this brave new world.
I’m starting with the game that will be most familiar to console gamers — and not just because it’s also available on consoles. Assetto Corsa offers much of the same polish and appeal as high-end, console-based racers, including top-shelf cinemas, history lessons about the cars and a garage mode where you can ogle your next ride. There’s even a respectable single-player career mode.
All that will make this game easy to pick up for those new to the PC sim racing world, but even more welcoming is the game’s core physics engine. Light and fun, Assetto Corsa is a driving game that encourages you to push a little harder. Go ahead, launch your car over that curbing, let the tail on your GT3 car kick out on that high-speed turn, you’ve got it all under control.
Assetto Corsa also has some handy force feedback options making it easier to get a feel for driving a car without any feel. This is likely to be your biggest challenge in getting up to speed on a PC. But, when it comes time to get really real, you’re going to need to step up.
Project Cars 2
Project Cars 2 can likewise be found on modern consoles, and so it too offers all the sorts of polish and presentation that you’d expect, including a lightweight but solid offline career mode. The car and track selection here are huge, particularly if you opt for the season pass and the numerous car packs that come along with it.
Like Assetto Corsa, the physics engine here is on the accommodating side. Cars are fun and responsive, but I confess I always struggle to get connected with them. Everything feels much the same, which is a problem given the huge variety of cars here, everything from two-stroke karts to four-wheel-drive rally beasts.
If it’s that last variety of machine that speaks to you, then you’ll want to move on up to the next game on the list.
Dirt Rally 2.0
The Dirt Rally franchise from Codemasters can trace its lineage back to the Colin McRae games of the mid-’90s, a franchise that was more than fundamental in shaping. But the series has evolved and matured since then to the point where it’s knocking on the door of hardcore simulator territory.
The physics here are still approachable enough to be entertaining for newbies, and the many offline career modes give you plenty of ways to work through the car’s selection of historic and modern rally machines. Along the way you’ll learn some real-world, low-grip driving skills that might just help you out in the real world — once the real world opens up again.
rFactor and I go way, way back. The original game released in 2005, but its core physics engine powered earlier iconic sims, like F1 Challenge 2002. Back then, I had to resort to user-created mods and ad-hoc online leagues. Now, with rFactor 2, it’s all a lot easier thanks to an extensive (and still-growing) collection of licensed cars and tracks, not to mention some of the most competitive online racing series.
Of all the games I’ve listed so far, rFactor 2 is where things start to get serious. You don’t have a half-dozen offline career modes to work through or a complex offline licensing system to unlock cars. You get a menu where you pick your track, pick your car and then go racing. Yes, you certainly can race offline and the artificially intelligent opposition will give you a good challenge, but like most race sims, the real competition is to be found online — including heavyweights like Max Verstappen.
rFactor 2 is the least game-like of the bunch so far and has relatively simple graphics compared to the three above, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. It’s a truly great sim.
This is the racing sim that’s getting the most buzz at the moment, and for good reason. Launching back in 2008, iRacing is an indirect spinoff from Papyrus Design Group, creators of some of the greatest racing sims of all times: Indianapolis 500: The Simulation, Grand Prix Legends and NASCAR Racing 2003 Season.
iRacing, though, is a different beast. You can almost think of it as an MMO racing simulator. Instead of buying a game and maybe paying extra for some cars and tracks, here you’re paying a monthly or annual fee for access to the service — and then paying extra for cars and tracks. How much? iRacing starts at $13 monthly, scaling down to $199 for two years of access, but right now everything is half-off for new members.
For that, you get access to world-class vehicle physics plus laser-scanned tracks and cars. The real draw, though, is the online competition, with an endless selection of series covering everything from Late Model oval racing up to Formula 1 and even stadium trucks.
Of all the titles I’ve discussed here, iRacing is the one that can feel the most like work. Rising through the ranks will require plenty of practice and dedication. But, it’s here you’ll find the most direct path to the pros. If you have the time and the money and you really want to see how you stack up against the world’s best, this is where you need to be.
First published April 9.