In December of 2013, I published a widely-circulated piece for Race Department that received a fairly positive reception within the community. Titled A Commentary on the Future of Racing Sims, the article discussed four upcoming racing sims: Assetto Corsa, iRacing, rFactor 2, and Project CARS, all considered by both developers and fans alike to be heavily in development and would not be near a “complete” state anytime soon.
I outlined what I expected from these four racing sims, as well as how the community’s involvement could change the path of development for the worse, as the “Virtual Yuji Ide’s” and “Virtual Danica Patrick’s” might offer useless feedback in terms of car handling and other core features, potentially changing the shape of the game if developers listened to incompetent fanboys who could shout the loudest. 600+ days later, all four games mentioned in the article are now on store shelves. Like it or not, all four developer teams list rFactor 2, iRacing, Assetto Corsa, and Project CARS as finished products. It’s time to see how they performed.
We’ll be taking a look at this paragraph in particular, and comparing how these games fared versus how they planned to innovate in an already crowded genre:
rFactor 2’s “innovation” comes in the form of a refined handling model after years spent working with F1 & GT teams relying on their rFactor Pro software, as well as a dynamic track surface. iRacing’s “innovation” comes in the form of laser-scanned tracks and a tire model that is based largely on a respected sim racing founder’s private research into how a tire behaves. Project CARS’ “innovation” comes in the form of years spent gathering data and building theoretical models that were inevitably scrapped due to time constraints and publishers who refused to see the full potential of their progress. And Assetto Corsa’s “innovation” comes in the form of the game being developed, literally, at the race track.
The Official Headquarters for Kunos Simulazioni are located atop the Autodromo Vallelunga Piero Taruffi, more commonly known by it’s short name Vallelunga. The Steam Early Access program for Assetto Corsa began in December of 2013, featuring a handful of cars, a few European tracks, and not much else. Anyone who jumped on the bandwagon at launch, even those critical of Steam’s Early Access format, were blown away by the game’s killer driving physics. People knew this was the second coming of something, they just weren’t sure what it was, or what it would turn out to be.
Updates trickled in every month or so, adding a small but sufficient stream of new content and improvements to a driving model a full generation above the competition. I personally spent hours on the RSR Leaderboards, dedicated to getting the #1 spot in the McLaren GT3 car, easily attaining the 100 hours played mark running hotlaps by myself. You didn’t care that AI hadn’t been added in yet, or when it was, you could only do ten lap races, or that Multiplayer would come later in the year. It drove so fucking good, myself and others probably went on record at some point saying things like “the Ferrari F40 could be the only car in Assetto Corsa, and I wouldn’t care that I’d spent $40 on it – it’s that good!”
But then, you started to care. You wanted a bit more to do within the sim because the base driving physics were so good, you wanted more to see and do. Once multiplayer was finally implemented, functionality, especially for server admins running a league, was almost non-existent. The AI was either slow or blissfully unaware of your existence, and updates caused them to have behavioral problems. Running online with your buddies was fun, but netcode issues caused tremendous lag shunts after what would generally be regarded as slight contact, and unless you knew the guy hosting the room, selecting your own car livery wasn’t an option. Not to mention night races, as well as rain races, features seen in NASCAR 99 on the original Playstation and GTR 2 on the PC, were confirmed to be left out until Assetto Corsa 2 – a game that isn’t coming for at least five years.
So while there’s a Forza-like community built around Assetto Corsa, those who eagerly awaited the day they and their online leagues could abandon the ancient rFactor or flawed iRacing for a truly next-generation sim were left awkwardly standing alone in the rain, told by Assetto Corsa fanboys that they were a minority and to stop whining about the lack of features. Mainstream sites, even within the greater driving game community, refuse to discuss some of the game’s shortcomings, and a launch party Kunos threw at Vallelunga featuring several gaming journalists guarantees that you won’t hear about what Assetto Corsa lacks anytime soon…
Originally, we as a community believed the reason Slightly Mad Studios dropped the ball on the Need for Speed Shift series was because of Electronic Arts. A popular rumor that even I myself regurgitated in the early days of Project CARS’ development (including in the article above) was that EA forced Slightly Mad Studios to scrap certain game elements at the eleventh hour, in fear of alienating the casual-oriented Need for Speed fanbase. The goal with Project CARS was to not only rectify what was wrong with the Shift games, but allow the community to decide the exact direction of the games – what cars, what tracks, what features, what the game should feel like, how the career mode should play out – built by racers, for racers.
As someone who actually bought into the WMD phase in early 2012, the game was unstable, handled poorly, and featured content that was done better in other games. I got off the hype train for Project CARS fairly quickly, but others opted to fasten their seatbelts for the bumpy road ahead. While the game was shilled for heavily on mainstream gaming sites, and your average sim racer claimed it would blow away the likes of iRacing and rFactor – a lone title that hoped to bring console racers and hardcore sim fans together under one roof – behind closed doors, a much different outcome was brewing. Users who questioned why builds were abnormally buggy and why the game played poorly, lacking any sort of cohesive direction, were banned from the WMD forums and labelled trolls by other community members drinking the Kool-Aid. There was every indication the game would launch as a buggy mess.
And that’s exactly what happened – the 80,000 people assigned to “test” the game were little more than viral marketers spreading the gospel of pCars on various message boards; patches are still failing to fix bugs that have been in the game since the pre-alpha days of 2012, when the game was played and tested by a mere handful of people. To make matters worse, the head of Slightly Mad Studios, Ian Bell, has almost gleefully started arguments with random forum members to discredit their – as he put it – consumer preferences. Despite the abundance of glitch videos popping up on YouTube each day showing Project CARS on the video game equivalent of life support; cars warping around and smashing into each other as if the disc is shattering to bits inside your Xbox One and subjecting you to a virtual acid trip, Bell is convinced his game is utterly flawless, and is already asking for your donations to make another one.
rFactor 2 is difficult to describe, as the game technically went on sale in 2012, yet never hit it’s stride until 2014 and maybe even 2015, as ISI constantly struggled to optimize the title and add content that people actually wanted to use. At launch, the game ran horribly, featured an irrelevant, outdated, patchy lineup of cars and locations, and an online pricing system ripped straight from the EA Sports book of bullshit. For $40, you could own an Offline License for rFactor 2, and for another $40 came a Lifetime Online License. The same bullshit that Madden fans spoke out against on consoles – the Online Pass – was now being implemented in PC Sim Racing of all places, where used games, the main reason for forcing an online pass in the first place, don’t exist.
As the title has gotten older, refinements in both hardware and software have made rFactor run better, and maybe look a little better, although that’s still up for debate depending on the HDR model you’re using. Default content now includes several modern racing circuits, historic tracks, street cars and purpose built race cars, such as the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Dallara DW12, but other issues have popped up. Installing mods, now done through a third party mod manager, is a pain in the ass. Vehicles and Locations converted from older titles are now not graphically up to par with the default ISI content, and sometimes, the features like the Real Road Technology don’t work properly on anything but the vanilla offerings. The lack of any online userbase aside from competitive leagues means there is virtually no one else to play rFactor 2 with, not even for a casual open practice session like you’d see in rival games.
Does it drive well? Yes. Can you race at night, in the rain, with a full field of AI cars? Yes. Is there enough functionality in the multiplayer side of things to accommodate hardcore league racing? Yes. Does anybody care? No, because most either don’t want to spend the money for an online pass, or have already sworn it off after trying it three years ago in a vastly different state. It’s like the title exists solely for those interested in online leagues, because the last time we checked, there were three people online.
Despite fanboy claims of “the game is always in a constant state of development and isn’t technically finished like a store-bought game”, we’ve now got over 40 cars and tracks to purchase at $15 a piece, the game hosts two separate year-long $10,000 championships, and has several partnerships with NASCAR, IndyCar, the Blancpain Endurance Series, Formula Renault, and NBC Sports. Guys, it’s done.
The laser-scanned tracks only increase in quality, with Monza and Zolder being the two greatest examples of what this crazy technology can reproduce, but the core of iRacing’s experience – the driving physics – leave a lot to be desired. iRacing refuses to use the standard Pacejka tire model seen in all other racing sims and have left tire behavior up to David Kaemmer’s experimental in-house model, with mixed results. While iRacing markets itself as the PC’s greatest racing simulator, driving techniques you learn in iRacing would put your own safety at risk when applied in a real race car, completely invalidating the whole point of the expensive racing sim. Car Setups are not much different, being broken for months on end, only to change in an update that introduces a whole new set of exploits that turn what could be a very valuable tool for drivers to use as a substitute for track time into another Forza-like competition atmosphere, where making the right friends who introduce you to all the different hidden anomalies are the key to winning races.
This is of course, unfortunate, as nobody has tried to copy iRacing’s successful online interface, which places you into a field of drivers sharing a similar skill set, and schedules each race to start at a specific time, allowing for huge fields only the most prestigious online leagues in ISI based sims can compare with. Many iRacing users simply put up with the physics issues, which have no clear resolution in sight, just to be able to compete against a field of 20+ drivers, instead of mulling about in public lobbies, hoping one of the five cars on the grid have played the game online before.
Is there a clear-cut winner between the four games above, 600 days after the original article was posted? No. The current Sim Racing landscape leaves the Virtual Danica’s and Virtual Yuji’s to fight among themselves over which game is less broken, which game has more fans, and which features the hardcore fanboys are willing to wait for despite being present in the previous generation of sims. This kind of environment allows Crowdfunding Campaigns for games people don’t play to succeed, YouTube coding livestreams to gain a dedicated group of viewers, and $10,000 dinner dates to become legitimate investment perks for sequels to games that were received horribly by the community. The current crop of games are so incomplete, people take to message boards and get caught up in these nutty fads because there isn’t enough to do in the actual game to keep themselves occupied.
600 days ago, four titles prepared to fight for the crown of the best next-generation racing sim, all attempting to innovate in their own ways, and nobody got it right.