It’s no secret that there’s been a pretty noticeable change in tone here at PRC over the last several months – not quite an elephant in the room, but a large ominous presence that a lot have picked up on. With our origins primarily oriented around slaughtering hardcore simulators, many of our readers began to notice that the games receiving any sort of praise from us weren’t simulators at all, but mass-market pieces of software aimed at just getting people away from first person shooters for a few minutes, and into driving race cars – no matter how compromised and simplified the raw on-track experience had become. Sure, I crucified the ill-fated NASCAR Heat Evolution, and outright refused to review Kylotonn’s WRC 6 last fall, but while serious titles such as iRacing and Assetto Corsa received their weekly lashings for months on end, mainstream products from Codemasters that never advertised themselves as hardcore offerings, as well as obscure PlayStation 2-era offerings, were seemingly given a free pass, if not more.
I could easily dedicate another article to explaining our unpredictable stance on driving games, but for this topic it warrants just an introduction.
There’s an old quote from the classic Grand Prix Legends manual of 1998 that states “the first time you go out on the track, you WILL spin and crash…“ – and for many that’s part of the allure of hardcore racing simulators to begin with. Whereas mass-market games aim to provide some sort of all-encompassing experience surrounding the simplified on-track product, hardcore simulators are designed to generate a style of gameplay similar to learning guitar, in which becoming proficient is both the game itself, as well as the reward. The reason so many people flock to simulators in the first place, is primarily because you have to work at them, and when you finally master that new track, or tame a car that’s traditionally out of your comfort zone, there is a tangible feeling of accomplishment like no other in gaming – and it’s one you don’t exactly get with blasting through Burnout: Revenge.
The problem, at least when it comes to us here at PRC, is that we’re already at that level of proficiency in regards to racing simulators, and it generally fucks with our perception of almost all driving games that come across our collective radar. I’m personally in a very unique spot, in that on some occasions, I get to upload hotlaps on YouTube with the tagline “World Record” as part of the video title. Now, that’s certainly a humble brag on my part, but in this case it serves a very valid purpose: unlike the quote above, which claims that all those who try Grand Prix Legends (or other games boasting an equivalent driving model) will spin out and crash… I’m sorry, but that doesn’t happen over in this neck of the woods.
Grand Prix Legends is fun for a lot of people because it’s objectively hard as fuck, and the months spent mastering it are why people enjoy sinking extended periods of time into it. But maybe for a second or two, imagine that you jump into Grand Prix Legends, and you’re making it around the track and actually posting competitive times against the ruthless AI, just as if you’d hopped on your Xbox to play Project Gotham Racing 4. Or imagine if, after all of the message board horror stories you’d read about Richard Burns Rally – supposedly the toughest simulator in existence – you jumped in and won the championship on the game’s highest difficult level, never wrecking the car once and winning all but a few select stages.
Suddenly, the ultra-hardcore physics seen in Richard Burns Rally just don’t matter, because for your own personal set of skills, this game is no more or less challenging than DiRT 2 on your Xbox. What does end up mattering, is the game built around it.
Yet for the average sim racer, this concept is totally lost on them, and you’ll see across basically every populated message board, sim racing community members talking down on games that do not feature absurdly difficult driving models, almost as if they’re inferior products and should be avoided by those looking to assert their elitism over others. And this is where I’ll begin exploring the absurdly hypocritical nature of everyday sim racers.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for several years, or are just getting into sim racing and maybe haven’t explored the back catalog of several developers, 2015 saw the surprise launch of Codemasters’ DiRT Rally – a hardcore rally simulator that was constructed by a mainstream-oriented developer in total secrecy, only to be dropped on Steam’s Early Access platform some time during the spring. Despite a lack of unique stages, even after the game achieved a “released” state, rally fans around the world simultaneously jizzed in their pants at what was finally a modern spiritual successor to Richard Burns Rally, which until then had been kept alive by an absurd amount of third party mods.
Yet despite the fanfare, DiRT Rally’s reception slowly changed over a period of what felt like about six months months. Originally praised by the community for daring to take aim at a niche market and picking up where other rally simulators had left off over a decade earlier, Codemasters were soon slammed by those who initially supported the title. While there were indeed questionable physics oddities that arose at high speeds – mostly due to insane sideforce values, an undeniably honest oversight in the grand scheme of things – rally fans were now blasting DiRT Rally for being “simcade” and “not a real simulator” because the car was working with them, rather than against them. And truth be told, the world records you can find on YouTube depicting DiRT Rally being driven to the absolute limit are pretty preposterous – so I’ll give you that.
Yet the same existed for Richard Burns Rally.
But rather than joint outrage and the dreaded S-word thrown at the classic rally simulator, almost a curse word in some parts, the same sim racing community eager to rip apart DiRT Rally for a few physics oddities, chastising Codemasters for swinging big and having a genuine physics oddity that could be dialed out with the community’s voice aimed in the right direction, as well as a patch or two to fully rectify things, ultimately remained silent when footage like this of their almighty rally simulator – depicting the same general problems exhibited by DiRT Rally – began to surface.
We can dig deeper, and we will. Though it’s pretty common knowledge by now, it must be said for the sake of the topic at hand that the original release of Richard Burns Rally was highly unrealistic from a physics standpoint, and several different modding teams have basically deconstructed and rebuilt the game from the ground up, including a complete restructuring of the game’s underlying driving model. Regardless of whether you’re a Czech Plugin guy, a firm believer in the NGP physics patch (hi, this is my category), or subject yourself to the torture of downloading the yearly monolithic RSRBR add-on compilation – not to mention those which I haven’t included – Richard Burns Rally needs extensive third party patchwork to behave in even a slightly realistic fashion behind the wheel, and it’s pretty much required downloading for any sim racers who may fancy a few laps in RBR. Sim racers who call Richard Burns Rally home, or merely have the title installed to be called upon during a rainy day and nothing more, do not bat an eyelid over what is a pretty monumental inconvenience of downloading several gigabytes of files just to have a piece of software worth playing at the end of the day.
Yet when the same amount of community patches and third party fixes are required to get the PC car collecting simulator Shift 2: Unleashed up and running, Slightly Mad Studios are suddenly slammed by the same sim racers – who willingly inject gigabytes of fixes and upgrades into Richard Burns Rally – as incompetent developers who are incapable of releasing a finished product, and that they should not need patches upon patches to fix their game. I must apologize for this, as in hindsight, it’s an incredibly stupid stance to take. Why is one game that’s only worth playing with an extensive amount of community patches praised, while another is basically tossed in the proverbial trash, when the vanilla versions of each simulator are both highly unrealistic and rely on the community’s work equally?It’s a question that you can either choose to answer, or keep going down the metaphorical mineshaft of hypocrisy, as it only gets worse.
We now shine the spotlight not on iRacing, but the iRacing community. For those who are maybe new to the game, or new to sim racing, as a guy who was most active on iRacing from late 2011 to the middle of 2013, what I’m about to say might be news to some, or a mere tidbit for fellow veterans. iRacing in its infancy looked remarkably different than it does today, and though the game never drove quite right behind the wheel regardless of what alleged tire model improvements and revisions were applied to the simulator, the mentality powering it during the early years was drastically different compared to what we know iRacing to be today. iRacing once lived up to its ultra-hardcore reputation.
At one point in time, the concept of fixed setup racing – where all participants are given an identical garage configuration for a given event, allowing driving skill to determine the victor – absolutely did not exist on iRacing, meaning that every single member on the service was required to spend their lunch break at work, or spare blocks in high school, reading up on race car dynamics and setup tricks to ensure their on-track success in what is widely considered to be the most popular hardcore racing simulator by a country mile.
However, after a smorgasbord of factors subtly pushed iRacing to reel in new customers by the truckload, including but not limited to members complaining that they were getting trounced by real race car drivers and amateur crew chiefs who knew their way around the garage area, did iRacing implement fixed setup racing – as had been seen in their last commercial release, an officially licensed NASCAR title. Fast forward several years to present day, and fixed setup racing for a fraction of the original race distance is now overwhelmingly popular, with feature-length “open setup” events reduced to sparsely populated affairs. This would not be out of place to implement in something like NASCAR Heat Evolution, in which the core audience consists primarily of casual stock car fans and teenagers, both of which whose lack of setup knowledge can be gracefully forgiven, yet this same mentality is occurring within the group of enthusiasts these games were built for in the first place.
So you have these people dropping hundreds, if not thousands on PC equipment, not to mention the cost of a subscription to the most hardcore simulator on the market and all of the content they feel is relevant to their interests, only to publicly admit they have zero interest in actually diving into the enthusiast aspects that play an integral role of the game. These people will actively knock a title such as NASCAR Heat Evolution for not allowing setups or caution flags online, but then pay double, triple, even quadruple the price of Evolution’s admission to participate in a quick 25-lap sprint race on iRacing with no caution flags and uniform setups.
I promise this gets better.
So let’s talk about the Assetto Corsa community for a bit here. When we first caught wind of this title’s existence in late 2012, and eventually got our hands on it in 2013, many including myself believed this would be the spiritual successor to the original rFactor, as ISI had grossly mismanaged rFactor 2 into a death spiral, and Kunos Simulazioni essentially promised a modding paradise that spat in the face of iRacing’s horrendous tire model with glorious vanilla content. For a period of time, it was the PC simulator set to dethrone iRacing, and early adopters such as myself were convinced that as long as enough people could be swayed by such a phenomenal driving experience, this would be everybody’s new home.
Yet while we all sat around waiting not-so-patiently for the simulator to be deemed finished in the eyes of veteran sim racers, as basic things like flag rules and the ability to jump the start had yet to be implemented, fanboys swore up and down that regardless of how much it lacked, this game was a true simulator, and even ex-Need for Speed fans had finally seen the light of PC racing simulators – now becoming sim racing converts thanks to the little Italian developer that could.
But in an ironic twist of events, Assetto Corsa was literally turned into Need for Speed by the community of veteran sim racers and recent converts despite acting as if they were somehow “above” EA’s arcade racing franchise. The most popular third party modifications for Assetto Corsa are not highly detailed race cars as you’d expect from a simulator, but open-world maps that allow you to explore the scenic backroads of Banff, Alberta – just as you’d do in a traditional Need for Speed product – or dart between passenger cars on public roads – again, a very Need for Speed-like scenario. Again, these creations all come from people who for the most part were trying to get away from the supposedly less serious environment of console arcade racers, only to mod Assetto Corsa in a way that turned it into a console arcade racer. Go figure.
Codemasters were awarded the official Formula One license in 2009 after a bit of a virtual F1 drought once Studio Liverpool pushed out their final release, F1 Championship Edition for Sony’s PlayStation 3, and truth be told, the first handful of games bearing the Codemasters logo honestly weren’t very good. Though Formula One 2017 is a masterpiece, the first few releases were clunky as hell, featuring awkward vehicle physics, poor penalty assessment, and a set of AI drivers that honestly just weren’t that good, especially when compared to what Codemasters were doing on the off-road spectrum at the time with the DiRT series of releases.
Yet what drew the most criticism from Formula One fans weren’t the driving physics, the penalties, or the AI – it was actually the tracks. Codemasters threw some dubious replica circuits into their yearly releases, with the Nurburgring in particular being a complete disaster; far too banked and wavy for what we’ve become familar with over the years thanks to the joys of laser scanning. But while sim racers had no problem slagging off Codemasters for tracks that were in some cases too wide, or in other instances featured absurd elevation changes that bore little resemblance to the real deal, they also had no problem turning around and ripping every single track from the entire game for use in their hardcore simulator leagues – some of which are still being converted again and again today for use in more modern simulators.
And sure, while it’s fairly easy to dismiss sim racers ripping Codemasters tracks for use in more hardcore-oriented simulators as the cheeky modders being resourceful, this too can also be dismissed as pretty blatant hypocrisy when you peel back the layers of mental gymnastics keeping it in the shadows.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed by now, but Formula One as an organization don’t exactly co-operate in the slightest with the modern crop of simulators on the market. iRacing are lucky to get a McLaren or a Williams entry here and there, and maybe ISI can pull a partnership with Marussia out of their asses, but for those in pursuit of an authentic Formula One experience, they’re left with two options – the officially licensed Codemasters game, which hasn’t really been constructed as a simulator, or a community modification for an already established racing sim. And it’s here where things get really tricky.
Formula One 2017 is quite good this year, but it’s also a mass-market Codemasters game, and I think there’s a valid argument to be made about it’s authenticity if gamers with an Xbox or PlayStation controller can wheel the cars around the circuit with all assists turned off. However, in being awarded the exclusive license to the world’s most prestigious racing series, there’s always a chance that maybe they’re not far off, especially with the current crop of Formula One drivers being brought in to playtest the thing every once in a while. Fifteen years ago, Michael Schumacher turning laps in F1 2002 on the PlayStation 2 in front of the TV cameras may have been little more than a marketing stunt, but we’re now in an era where basically every driver on the grid at one point was a teenager playing Xbox in his bedroom, and they know how important an authentic video game representing the sport is when it comes to reeling in new fans. So while it’s not wrong of some to say that Max Verstappen is only playing F1 2017 for a mandatory promotional appearance, it’s also not out of the realm of possibility to assume both himself, and others like him, are passing along some valuable info to Codemasters, and the game may be more accurate than the elitists would like to think.
But of course, sim racers eschew this theory altogether, occasionally proceeding to rip the car models from the same Codemasters Formula One games they’re happy to publicly trash, and then task some guy in his basement with zero technical knowledge of Formula One race cars whatsoever to create the car physics. In extreme cases, this has led to outright hilarious situations that really display the incompetence and hypocrisy of the community, in which sim racers would rather play an rFactor 2 mod that’s eight seconds faster than the 2004 pole time at Interlagos, than a Codemasters game where a car from the same season is only half a second up on the track record, because rFactor 2 calls itself a hardcore simulator in the description of the product on Steam, and F1 2017 doesn’t.
This is the sim racing community in a nutshell. These people are happy to exhibit an elitist bravado over the rest of the overall driving game scene by bragging about the time invested into alleged hardcore simulators, but at every opportunity instead prove themselves to be mere posers who are apathetic towards any actual enthusiast elements.
They imply they enjoy the aspect of “figuring out a car”, but within the confines of their own message boards admit that they are blissfully unaware of what anything in the garage area does, and flock to online race events that closely mimic what you’d see in a console lobby run by teenagers. They knock mass-market games that sell well and are reviewed even better, only to rip all the content from them, and despite claiming that their simulator of choice offers a more competent set of physics, instead hand the development of said vehicle attributes to a random motherfucker sitting in his basement with a demonstrably poor understanding of the car’s basic performance traits. And while one game gets a free pass for being unfinished and requiring truckloads of community patches to become both realistic and playable, another doesn’t. They also love to look down on games that don’t meet their standards of realism with pseudo-slang like “arcade” and “simcade”, but in doing so fail to recognize that it’s an admission that they aren’t proficient behind the wheel and are judging a game by how many times they spin out and embarrass themselves, not its all-encompassing verisimilitude.
It’s no wonder developers have mostly gotten out of this sub-genre, save for a few stragglers. This is a fanbase that is literally impossible to please.