We here at PRC.net spend an awful lot of time shitting on a variety of different driving games, offering a dark and disappointing glimpse into a very specific sub-genre of automotive video games.. Whether we’re criticizing a developer team for erratic interactions with the community, pointing out physics flaws in popular titles, writing lengthy tirades about pricing models that screw over consumers, leaking rumors from credible individuals wishing to remain anonymous, or just generally approaching every aspect of the hobby with a pessimistic attitude, after a year we’ve established ourselves as an accurate yet bleak source of news, reviews, and opinions. Some people like that, some people don’t. If you’re part of the latter, there are several other outlets covering these games which retain a much more positive outlook.
However, we’ve never put together a definitive list reviewing the titles that are indeed worth your time. Believe it or not, there are a handful of games both past and present that we very well do enjoy, and have sunk long hours into despite almost 500 posts slamming the very hobby we claim to love. A list like this is important, as it firmly establishes what our expectations are when it comes to driving games in general, and why we’re so hostile towards other titles when they get it oh so very wrong. An article outlining the titles you should be devoting time to was never really on the drawing board until we got an Email specifically requesting one, so to give credit where credit is due, avid PRC.net reader d0x360 is responsible for the creation of this article.
As a site with a reputation for extreme negativity, the most shocking thing we can do is to publish an article with genuinely positive intentions. If you’re new to sim racing in particular, new to driving games in general, or simply wondering if you’re about to purchase a title worthy of sinking your leisure time into, this is the article you’ve been waiting for. Contrary to popular belief, there are a specific handful of titles that we can safely give a passing grade.
Now, our format for this guide will be quite a bit different than what you’d normally expect from the average Buyer’s Guide regarding other forms of entertainment or products. We’re not going to address each title in ways that analyze the amount of content or gameplay you’re getting for your purchase. You’re obviously planning to spend money and invest time into a video game regardless, all that matters is picking up a title that you’ll keep coming back to, night after night. As a result, our ranking system is designed to push you in the right direction when making your purchase, the only question you’ll need to ask yourself is: “What type of game do I want?”
Expanding on lingo you’ll see used among the regulars over at r/SimRacing, our sim racing buyer’s guide will be broken down into three distinct categories: Primary Sims, Alternate Sims, and Diversions. In each category, we’ll list a few titles that we can safely say are worth the purchase, and worth spending long hours exploring everything the game has to offer. There will be no mentions of titles to be cautious of, nor will we list titles to outright avoid..If you are curious as to why a certain title did not land on our buyer’s guide, I urge you to filter our articles by a specific category relating to the game you’re interested to know more about, using the right-hand column marked “Categories.” If you’re on the shitter at work and browsing PRC.net on your phone, you may need to scroll to the bottom of the currently loaded page.
Before we begin, it’s important to note that if money is no object and you are comfortable enough with buying a game as it will not affect your personal finances in any substantial manner, go for it. We are in an era where driving games have regressed in popularity compared to the Playstation 2 days where even the International Hot Rod Association and D1GP were able to land officially licensed titles; these games are released at such a slow state, if you drop $70 on something new, you’ll have three or four months to save up for the next major release. There is no harm in trying everything if you have the means to do so, just be mindful of Steam’s refund policy which enforces a two-hour gameplay limit.
Alright, let’s get at it!
You’ll see guys all over Reddit, RaceDepartment, and other driving game message boards saying things like “Game X is my primary sim” while in the middle of a conversation regarding patch notes, additional content, or the announcement of a major update.What these users are referring to is a racing sim they play for multiple hours on a nightly basis, becoming invested in not only the challenge of becoming a better driver within the game, but getting to know the community, and exploring the third party modifications others have made to extend the list of content available for the game.
As we’re currently in an awkward transitional phase between Stock Car Extreme and Automobilista, one primary sim worth your time is basically anything released by Brazilian Developer Reiza Studios. Built using ISI’s trusted rFactor as a base, and brought up to modern standards via the use of community plug-ins and the work of talented 3D artists and physics editors, Stock Car Extreme/Automobilista is essentially the closest we’ll get to an HD Remake of the original rFactor – an already reputable game based on its physics engine and functionality alone. The game’s history has its roots firmly planted in the South American Stock Car Brasil touring car series, but Reiza have included a multitude of international cars to diversify the content list. With everything from V8 Supercars, to 70’s Grand Prix Classics, as well as Rally Cross Mitsubishi Lancers and even Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks, this is a game where you can sit down and learn how to drive seven totally different cars over seven days – and then do it all again next week. As the game’s file structure is virtually identical to rFactor, the list of free third party mods available is unmatched by any other sim. If you’re even the least bit curious as to what a good racing sim looks like; a game you can point to and say “this is what a PC racing simulator is all about”, it’s Stock Car Extreme/Automobilista.
Those who fancy playing in the dirt simply cannot go wrong with Codemasters’ DiRT Rally. Originally beginning life as a private side project during budget and staff cuts over at Codemasters HQ, the attempt to produce a modern successor to Richard Burns Rally out of boredom accidentally resulted in what’s probably the best rally game of all time. Physics wise, the game went through several major refinements during the time the title spent in Steam’s Early Access program, and the result is a driving experience unmatched by other racing sims now that the project is complete. This is a purchase where not only will it take you on a virtual tour through the history of the WRC with it’s expansive car list and real-life stages, but will also help show off your new PC upgrades, as it’s one of the best looking racing games ever. With a full offline career mode, online rally cross races, online leagues that are surprisingly easy to set up, and a Pikes Peak Hill Climb component to keep you busy, the only reason I’ve lost most of my interest in the title is because I’ve been playing it steadily since April. Seven months of gameplay is damned impressive for a rally game where the bulk of the racing is spent driving on a narrow road by yourself while keeping an eye on the clock. The authentic handling model and real-world stages will frustrate you during your first few laps, but you’ll not only become a better sim racer for sinking long hours into DiRT Rally, you’ll have fun.
The concept of an “alternate sim” is a bit difficult to understand, as most people don’t go out of their way to purchase a video game just to put it on their shelf and save it for a rainy day. Yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing here. Alternate sims have one or two key aspects that justify an investment of your time and money, but not enough to keep you playing for hours on end. These games use physics engines that are fundamentally similar enough to the titles we listed in the Primary Sims category, meaning you won’t need to re-learn how to drive just for that game, allowing you to have these games installed and swap to them when an interesting piece of content or update is released.
We begin with Sector 3’s Free-to-Play RaceRoom Racing Experience, a game notorious for a pricing model that’s not-quite iRacing, not qute MX vs. ATV Alive, and a whole lot of retarded. The fact that community members on Race Department are having to write miniature guides explaining how not to get ripped off by the nonsensical micro-transactions speaks volumes about how out of touch RaceRoom are with their customers; while not ridiculously expensive like iRacing, the sheer number of currency conversions and funny money involved is enough to deter all but the most avid of PC sim racers away from the title. However, those brave enough to march past the paywall are met with a very competent game that can be described as the spiritual successor of Race 07 or GTR 2 depending on what content you purchase. While exploit setups exist, multiplayer glitches frequently affect online races, and the game is still clearly powered by the isiMotor engine we’re all too familiar with, the base driving model is sublime, and the multiple GT3, DTM, and WTCC expansion packs compliment the diverse selection of tracks. The biggest problem with R3E is that there’s not enough new, improved, or outright different to justify buying everything the game has to offer, and a wise sim racer is one who purchases only a partial amount of content for R3E.
Another title worth the base asking price, but not so much the full lifetime online membership, is ISI’s own rFactor 2. Once hailed as the leaders of the sim racing world after their landmark release of the original rFactor in 2005, ISI have quietly retreated into their domain and silently pushed out small updates and pieces of content for rFactor 2 while dedicating the majority of their time working on the rFactor Pro software used by professional race teams. There are enough improvements over the original version of the consumer title to justify the additional purchase, as the Real Road Technology and Dynamic Weather add a necessary to a virtual racing weekend, but the lack of support from both ISI and third party content creators relegate this title to periodic use. The content selection is an area ISI have had trouble fleshing out, and the cars available by default in the sim, such as the GT3 Chevrolet Camaro, simply aren’t very good. However, some pieces of third party content, such as the UnitedRacingDesign EGT mod, are of such high quality that even my local Sim Racing Center has implemented them into their software for public use. It doesn’t have the best selection of cars or tracks, nor is there very much online activity, and some of the stuff made for the game is of a questionable quality, but occasionally rFactor 2 demonstrates why it’s worthy of your time – just not all of it like its predecessor.
Sim Racing doesn’t always have to be serious, as the skills you’ll acquire from playing the most hardcore driving games available on the PC will make you feel like goddamn Superman when venturing to less-serious titles, and in some cases give you a new appreciation for titles of the past. Given the label Diversions, these games are what you fire up when DiRT Rally seems a bit too demanding for 11PM on a Saturday night, but your inner auto racing nerd wants you to stay awake for a few more hours and play some goddamn video games.
Many games have tried to replicate the Tuner culture fad of the early 2000’s made famous with the Fast & Furious movies starring Vin Diesel alongside the late Paul Walker, but only one game has gotten every aspect right: Need for Speed Underground 2 is your one-stop-shop for car customization, street racing, drifting, and all-around tomfoolery that multiple generations of open world driving games have failed to re-create. With the game readily available on a host of torrent sites, along with High Definition texture patches and Widescreen Resolution hacks, there’s no point in waiting for EA to get their act together and release a game that lives up to the Underground name. The soundtrack may be ripped from an angst-ridden millennial’s first generation iPod, and you’ll occasionally notice the design of the city is… not very city-like, but once upon a time, Electronic Arts was fully capable of producing extremely compelling games. Underground 2 is every bit as fun to dick around with in 2016 as it was at launch in 2004, and with your new knowledge from sim racing, the tuning menu might actually get some use this time!
The next diversion to explore is not just a single game in particular, but an entire sub-genre that can best be described as Nostalgia Gaming. As sim racing teaches excellent driving skills and racing tactics, not to mention the entire technical side of auto racing if you choose to tinker around in the garage menu, re-visiting titles you once spent hours on as a child or teenager may help you fall in love with an old game all over again. I flat-out sucked at MX vs. ATV Untamed when I first received the game for Christmas shortly before the Giants defeated the unbeaten Patriots in 2008. I just didn’t get how motocross worked. Eight years later, armed with the knowledge of how to chain rhythm sections together and carry momentum through each corner, suddenly I’m winning races and actually enjoying what the game has to offer. I was eleven years old when I first got my hands on NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona and didn’t understand how anyone could enjoy driving the slower classes available in the game. Then we turned on the game’s Hardcore physics – too intimidating for eleven-year-old me – implemented a real world Street Stock setup, and realized Hasbro built a surprisingly competent oval racing simulator for the Nintendo Gamecube. A compelling three-way points battle throughout the game’s roster of fictional environments was my reward for firing up Hot Wheels Turbo Racing on a Nintendo 64 emulator. Basically, y’all never signed a contract saying you can no longer touch your Playstation 2 or Xbox 360 ever again, nor will the police show up at your door if you download an ISO of Need for Speed: High Stakes for use on a Sony Playstation emulator. You’ll be surprised how much fun you can have revisiting older titles with the skills you’ve learned from the time invested into modern racing sims.
But the greatest little racing game you can use to kill some time in-between serious DiRT Rally sessions is an award that will forever belong to GeneRally, the freeware creation by Finnish brothers Hannu & Jukka Räbinä. Designed to be a simple 3D version of Midway’s Super Off-Road or Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat, with functionality for endurance racing and third party content, GeneRally is basically Stock Car Extreme with cars built from a mere 40 polygons. The responsive driving physics, massive online modding community, abundance of third party content, and low system requirements all combine to form a racing game with virtually no negative aspects. It may not be pretty, but the key thing is that it’s fun, and something you can sit down with an Xbox controller to relax with. You won’t run out of cars to drive, and you won’t run out of tracks to race them on. And if you do manage to grow bored of the driving aspect, the modding portion isn’t exactly complicated.
I think that covers everything we could have possibly mentioned. Again, the goal was to provide a list of the absolute best games for each category; if you have the money and feel comfortable with trying everything available on the market, don’t be afraid to do so – just remember that you may run across some of the issues discussed on PRC.net regarding said games sooner rather than later. The sim racing genre may be in an absolute state of despair as we begin 2016, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a handful of very good games available, nor does it mean you’re obligated to completely ignore everything else already on your shelf. If you’re in the hunt for a new title to add to your collection, or contemplating diving head first into sim racing, basically anything mentioned above will be a worthwhile purchase and save you the headaches of coming across a buggy, unfinished, or unnecessarily expensive title.