I’ve given the boys at Reiza Studios more than enough time to evolve their newest product from just another rFactor spinoff into something with a bit of individuality, but there comes a point where a stream of premium downloadable content packs serves to indicate the development process has been placed firmly in the rear view mirror.
Despite Reiza’s heavy push to establish a unique identity for their flagship racing simulator in Automobilista, I can safely say the end result is a product whose source material – a simulator most of us purchased exactly a decade ago – oozes through the cracks left by hastily implemented third party plugins, and less than stellar repackaging efforts. While I personally enjoy what Automobilista has to offer regardless of its many faults – the underlying physics engine is what I believe to be the best representation of race car dynamics on the market – I’m not in the mood to sugarcoat things and project my personal bias onto our readers given how many have genuine questions about this game: Automobilista is a severely dated product, and does not reflect where sim racing should be as a genre in 2016.
During certain sporadic moments, Automobilista indeed fires on all cylinders and provides a captivating hardcore auto racing simulator experience for those who feel mainstream entries into the genre like Assetto Corsa didn’t scratch that particular itch well enough. Within three or four corners, however, Reiza Studios can transport the player back to 2007; a time when the sim racing climate was dominated by freeware rFactor mods that didn’t always work as intended. Unless you’ve grown accustomed to racing simulators operating, feeling, and playing a bit like X-Plane over the years – pieces of software who sacrifice absolutely everything in the name of a robust physics model – Automobilista is an extremely tough sell on pretty much anyone even remotely interested in the genre. The carefully crafted image meant to indirectly compete with Project CARS and Assetto Corsa as some sort of name among the resurgence of modern racing simulators is too easily revealed to be what’s basically a payware mod for a game released an entire generation ago.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Automobilista as an idea really came about through the repeated attempts by Reiza Studios to break into the racing simulator market, with little to no success. Despite pushing out a chain of highly regarded niche motorsports titles centered around the Stock Car Brasil touring car series – South America’s incredibly popular version of NASCAR – Reiza failed to earn any substantial share of the market due to a selection of vanilla content that was virtually unrecognizable to those outside of Brazil. Sure, those who braved the steep learning curve of adapting to entirely new types of race cars – such as the Dallara-built V8 Chevrolet Sonic – sang the praises of Reiza’s relatively unknown simulator thanks to the team’s time spent fine-tuning and repackaging the default rFactor experience with their own licensed content, but Reiza’s work simply didn’t catch on with the greater sim racing community. People talked about it on various discussion boards as some sort of hidden gem, but they sure as hell weren’t flocking to it as they were with Assetto Corsa.
After a somewhat successful crowdfunding campaign which capitalized on their loyal group of core followers to support the South American studio financially, Reiza decided to essentially re-brand their flagship racing simulator with an all-encompassing name to distinguish it from previous offerings, and make a tangible effort to balance the abundance of South American content with cars and tracks the common auto racing fan would actually be interested in. Given that Project CARS and Assetto Corsa weren’t being especially well received among the hardcore sim racing community as those titles began to mature, Reiza took aim at this market and believed they could play ball with the big moneymakers by merely offering a more competent and complete product, for less. After six months spent in Steam’s Early Access program during the first half of 2016, numerous post release updates, and one batch of downloadable content, Automobilista is considered “finished.”
Is it a technically sound offering? Yes. Is it the most complete auto racing simulator you can purchase in 2016? Yes. I don’t want to mislead anybody on those aspects; you very well can purchase Automobilista and occasionally receive an experience that justifies the $40 you paid for it. However, Automobilista highlights why we need games like Project CARS and Assetto Corsa to come out of nowhere and attempt to push the genre forward. Once you get past the initial new game syndrome that comes with wandering through Reiza’s newest simulator for the first few hours, very little sets it apart from the original rFactor by Image Space Incorporated. And this scenario begs the question:
At what point will the act of regurgitating rFactor no longer be necessary?
How It Drives
After a grim-sounding introduction, some of you who haven’t invested a whole bunch of time into learning about Automobilista may be wondering why sim racers would be compelled to purchase what’s essentially a glorified rFactor mod compilation, with every nook and cranny of the sim racing landscaped scanned for valuable plugins and code alterations assembled into one complete package. Thankfully, the answer is quite simple, though it’s really only an element which takes aim at a sliver of the sim racing community; the physics engine has received a refresh rate boost.
Underneath the hood of any racing simulator on the market, you’re looking at a piece of software which performs thousands of calculations every single second to faithfully replicate what happens as your virtual race car moves around a highly detailed circuit. One of Automobilista’s main selling points among the hardcore sim racing crowd, and I’m being 100% serious here – this is actually listed on Steam as the primary new feature – is the increased physics refresh rate compared to the original isiMotor engine. In short, there are more suspension, tire model, and overall performance calculations going on within the application than there are in games such as rFactor, NASCAR 09, and GTR Evolution – and as a user, this means the authenticity of the driving model has taken a few steps closer to reality.
Personally, I notice the difference.
The isiMotor engine, which has powered games like rFactor and GTR Evolution isn’t inherently bad, but you do reach a point where you can tell it’s software from a bygone era of sim racing. The increased physics refresh rate in Automobilista sounds like a case of diminishing returns at first, but as someone who’s constantly pushing for that extra tenth of a second in dick-waving competitions with his friends, you indeed feel the extra layer of fidelity that Reiza have allowed for.
The first major change is how the tires behave. The way the outside rear tire bites, loses grip, and proceeds to bite again as you roll onto the throttle on corner exit is simply second to none in Automobilista, and I’ve found some complex sections are now significantly easier to navigate than they were in previous titles using the base version of the isiMotor power plant. Cars that reside on the high end of the horsepower spectrum are extremely satisfying to power out of a technical corner, whereas the original rFactor required a bit of guesswork and muscle memory. I feel like I can get up on the edge of the tire more consistently than I could in Stock Car Extreme, and it allows me to push much harder than I’ve ever pushed before in a racing simulator thanks to the high-fidelity physics engine. You can really wheel these fucking cars.
Second, there’s been a definite change in how your race car soaks up bumps, and on high-speed straights it’s almost as if you’re playing Assetto Corsa within the rFactor engine. The cars dance and bobble around in a much more lively fashion, moving away from the canned pot-holes you’d be subjected to in the original rFactor. Obviously, the graphics snap you back to the reality of what you’re playing, but for a brief moment, the brilliance of how Assetto Corsa simulates weight transfer, load shift, and other gravitational effects are replicated in Automobilista almost perfectly. Some cars are better than others, but when you’re in your favorite vehicle turning laps on a track you’re comfortable with, the dance which so many Assetto Corsa fanboys jerk themselves off over also manages to pop up here.
The only problem with the work Reiza have done on the underlying physics engine for Automobilista, is that it’s not as front and center as it should be; the refined refresh rate is only apparent in select situations. As an experienced sim racer, the nuances of Automobilista really only shine when pushing the car as hard as you can for a personal best lap. or wheeling your car in an effort to catch the race leader. In nine out of the eleven corners on a given circuit, it’s almost indistinguishable compared to a really good third party mod for the original rFactor, or maybe even Race 07’s default content.
So because of this, I definitely struggle to understand how so many sim racers out there are claiming Automobilista to be this giant leap from the source material it’s been constructed from. If I go out and run a few laps at 80% attack – the speed your average sim racer can compete at without wrecking – it honestly becomes extremely difficult to determine what Automobilista does better compared to the vanilla rFactor experienced we were blessed with a decade ago. Maybe I’m just being difficult for the sake of injecting a bit of controversy into my review, but to most people who pick this game up, I can confirm the increased physics engine fidelity won’t even be noticeable.
Does that mean I personally will go out and delete this game from my Steam in a moment of anger? No. I’m of the belief that the isiMotor engine is the greatest consumer vehicle simulator ever created, and for my own experience, what Reiza have built with Automobilista is exactly I want out of the driving experience it offers – rFactor, but brought up to 2016 specifications. To the masses who aren’t as quick on the virtual circuit, you guys will be hard pressed to discover any tangible difference between the two pieces of software while turning laps. Make of that what you will.
It’s Not rFactor, We Promise!
For many months, I’ve taken quite a few jabs at Reiza Studios for essentially packaging up as many of the best community rFactor modifications they could find, and selling their compilation in a Limited Edition bundle on Steam for $40 as a completely new racing game. It would be nice to pretend like I was intentionally trying to stir up the few Reiza fanboys who frequent PRC.net, but the reality is that I was right on the money. The more you continue to dig into what Automobilista has to offer, the more you become aware the product as a whole is a bit sloppy. I don’t mind this, as building a new rFactor install from scratch just for a mod or two is a genuine pain in the ass, and I’m okay with giving someone $40 to do it all for me, but I didn’t think it was too much to ask for Reiza to polish up some of the ugly bits that traditionally come with obsessively downloading and extracting mods; some of which might not work perfectly with one another.
Let’s talk about dynamic tracks for a bit. The biggest revolution in sim racing right now is the implementation of some form of real road technology, where the track accumulates rubber build up, marbles, and generates heat for extra grip (or lack thereof). Listen, I think it’s great that Reiza have put something like this into Automobilista, as it helps the game remain relevant alongside titles such as rFactor 2 and iRacing, where this stuff is really changing how races play out. However, the way the dynamic surface operates in Automobilista isn’t anything to write home about – and as you can see above, it looks awful in comparison.
Rather than gaining grip from driving on the racing line, the racing surface, at least from how it feels when I turn laps, is set somewhere at a value below what the engine considers “normal”, and then progressively gains grip until what would be considered the normal level of grip found in the original rFactor is achieved. And this is made apparent when you venture from the proper line in an effort to pass someone or simply make a mistake; it feels like a switch has been flipped, and you’re suddenly driving on ice. It’s not done very well, and reeks of a third party plugin that has seen much better days.
Reiza have also bundled a proper heads up display into Automobilista, marking a drastic shift away from the classic minimalist layout that traditionally occupies the bottom of the screen in the original rFactor. However, problems quickly arise with this new implementation, as often times you’ll run into situations where the speedometer stops functioning altogether, or portions of the interface – such as the tire read-outs – are all over the fucking screen with no rhyme or reason. During the end of your Qualifying session, the trademark iRacing delta bar – which has thankfully found its way into Automobilista – will suddenly disappear when the session ends, and there is currently no way to fix this. Turning the heads up display off via keyboard short-cuts in an effort to revert back to the in-engine display bundled standard with every isiMotor release physically causes the game to exhibit major stuttering issues for a few seconds, and as a whole it’s just really fucking sloppy.
On the plus side, you can actually configure the new HUD to your liking and receive something relatively reasonable once you drastically reorganize the default layout, but unless you physically dig into the core Automobilista folder and venture through several sub-folders on a quest to find it, you won’t even learn about the shitty little program’s existence or how to use it. I know I’ve joked about Reiza bundling a bunch of rFactor plugins and selling it as a new game, but that’s where the reality of the situation starts to hit home. Don’t shoot the messenger.
Next, let’s talk about the spotter. A recent update for Automobilista has introduced some sort of crew chief into the game’s audio engine, who makes simple calls throughout your time on track in an effort to warn you of competitors cars, or any relevant danger. This guy is horrible, and I’m not talking about the voice acting. I’ve never seen a spotter make such phenomenally poor calls in my life, and this comes from someone who has invested ridiculous amounts of time into American Stock Car simulators. I’ll hear “car left” as a rival car is physically in front of me, while the guy will clear me despite a vehicle being right at my door. No, the audio isn’t messed up; he’s extremely inaccurate, and therefore totally useless.
Menus awkwardly float around without any sort of proper aesthetic formatting, tire identities have occasionally cited real world brands that aren’t licensed to be in the game, and even the RealFeel force feedback plugin – a common INI file fans of the original rFactor have downloaded to enhance their experience with modern steering wheels – can be found chilling out in the base Automobilista directory. It’s as if Reiza Studios did as much as they could to re-design every last menu found in their 2016 offering, but didn’t really bother to hide how Automobilista was created. Regardless of whether they’ve acquired the rights to use all of these third party additions or not, it’s one of those deals where the curtain is pulled back to reveal something of significantly lesser value than the retail asking price. It’s rFactor with a lot of hastily-injected mods.
The biggest complaint with previous Reiza offerings was how much emphasis had been put on the Stock Car Brasil family of racing series. While there was no denying each individual car was a work of art, diving into Stock Car Extreme or Game Stock Car 2012 as a sim racing fan living outside of South America was an extremely tough task. You were forced to memorize a whole bunch of unfamiliar – and quite frankly bland – racing circuits, the cars were mostly unlike anything you’d driven before, and the games made no effort to outline where you might want to get your feet wet as an introduction to this strange world we aren’t all that familiar with.
For the most part, Automobilista fixes this. Along with the complete set of all major South American racing leagues, the history of Formula One is represented almost entirely, Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Truck Series makes an appearance, the rising popularity of RallyCross gives way to an off-road variant of the Mitsubishi Lancer, Australia’s V8 Supercars tour is represented with the Holden Commodore, and there’s even an off-brand Porsche included for good measure. While European Sports car fans may scoff at the lack of Prototypes or high-end GT entries, concessions have been made to throw in a couple of lesser known modern roadsters to fill the gaps left by the omission of Radical as a brand. It’s a good mix, with promises of even more coming in the way of DLC, but those looking for marquee brands simply won’t find what they’re looking for – almost everything is a fictional representation, complete with the obligatory generic two-tone liveries.
Tracks, however, are where Automobilista still falls a bit flat. While what’s included makes impressive use of a dated engine, you can’t help but notice the list of locations prominently favors South America – almost to a fault. You’re lucky to receive Interlagos, Montreal, the Red Bull Ring, Suzuka, and a cool off-shoot in Kyalami circa 1979, but odd-ball facilities like Campo Grande, Guapore, and Cascavel still dominate the roster. A wise sim racer would immediately flock to the additional content produced by Patrick Giranthon over on RaceDepartment – as his work helps turns the track list into something much more varied and complete – but this still doesn’t mask where the roots of Reiza rest; firmly in Brazil.
One thing I’d like to make note of, before we explore the downsides of what’s included in Automobilista, is that Reiza have gone the extra mile to accommodate the set of Stadium Super Trucks with an abundance of series-specific layouts. These trucks were not added in as an afterthought; if you saw these trucks in the previews and thought they look awesome as hell, congratulations, this can be used as a Stadium Super Truck game, and you’ll never have to touch anything else. I appreciate Reiza going the extra mile to make these unique vehicles feel at home in Automobilista.
However, with the added selection of globalized content, comes an unseen downside – many of these cars will reel people in to checking out what Automobilista has to offer, but sim racers will be immediately turned off at how difficult they are to drive. It’s awesome that a developer basically went out and made a hardcore racing simulator that chronicles the history of Formula One, but you bet your ass you’re putting every last one of them into the fence. Seeing Australia’s premiere racing series finally make it into a racing simulator is extremely satisfying, but these 600 horsepower sedans are not for the faint of heart – they’ll punish you for even the slightest of mistakes. What I foresee happening with Automobilista, is that the average sim racer will flock to these marquee cars, immediately become discouraged that they’re a lot more difficult to drive than first anticipated, and eventually they’ll be herded into checking out the South American content – which isn’t all that captivating unless you’re a dedicated pretend race car driver. Had a driving school mode been included akin to what we saw in GTR 2, this wouldn’t be much of an issue thanks to players naturally discovering their skill ceiling and settling into a car that’s right for them, but Automobilista just sort of boots up and presents you with everything, all at once.
On the plus side, mods created for Stock Car Extreme can literally be copied into the Automobilista folder and converted for use in Reiza’s current game by altering the extension of one text file – meaning some of the glorious stuff that’s been churned out by the community for rFactor or Stock Car Extreme over the past decade can be utilized immediately in Automobilista. I’m really enjoying the ability to wheel the old school Group 5 DRM cars around the superb historic locations such as Kyalami and the Osterreichring, along with a proper flock of GT3 entries at the repaved version of Interlagos.
The Art of Racing
While some sim racers merely enjoy the act of participating in closed track days with their car of choice, those who want to dive into a hardcore racing simulator for its intended use – competing against other virtual race cars over a set time or distance – will unfortunately discover Automobilista once again does not stray far from the source material it has been constructed upon. Both the act of configuring a race weekend to meet your own personal needs, as well as the art of racing itself, have been severely compromised by what’s now looking more and more like a piece of software that’s been designed for work rather than play.
The main menu looks beautiful, displaying all of the series included within the game – each with their respective tastefully designed icons – but once you plan on hitting the track, you’re thrown far too much in far too little space. Automobilista quickly becomes the X-Plane of the pretend race car world, throwing you an ugly, dated menu with a ridiculous amount of text options that may confuse a portion of the audience – especially as most of these are just sort of sitting there as if you already know what to do with them. Personally, I can navigate my way around the race configuration screen without much difficulty because I’ve been messing with racing simulators for a substantial portion of my life, but dear God is it a mess, offering no less than twenty different variables to tweak within a space that’s 1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels tall. For a game that’s looking to capitalize on the Assetto Corsa or Project CARS crowd – the latter suffering from its own set of claustrophobic menus – Reiza have done no favors to their customers.
I dig the Black & Red modernized art style, though. It does look slick when there’s much less on-screen action.
Age-old grievances from the source material still remain, as some AI cars fail to turn a lap during open qualifying sessions, and simulating to the end of the session after a lap you know you can’t improve upon results in AI cars producing laps much quicker than what’s theoretically possible at any given race track; a bummer given the ten year time span amateur modders and professional developers like Reiza have been granted to rectify these issues. Again, the theme of Automobilista looking like an upgrade, but playing much like the software it has been inspired by, rears its ugly head at a moment where you believed your money went towards something a bit more polished.
Can the artificial intelligence produce a captivating offline singleplayer experience? That’s a tough question to answer, partially because the AI cars in Automobilista are beyond bipolar or any other previously discovered mental illness; you never know if you’ll receive a lineup populated entirely by your wife’s son’s kindergarten class, or a grid of semi-respectable amateur race car drivers.
It’s difficult to dial in an AI difficulty setting that precisely matches your speed, and when you do, it certainly won’t work for another circuit. There are many different AI aggression levels to select from, but even on Low they have a tendency to drive right into you and lack any sort of spatial awareness unless you physically pull alongside them for a moment and have your girlfriend or equivalent anime body pillow flash her tits at them as a peace offering. The AI in Automobilista are simply not intelligent in the slightest; instead circling the race track as bots or cannon fodder for you to pick off, one by one. And when you do manage to sneak in front of an opposing driver, they immediately lose all of their composure, opting to hang their virtual heads in shame and reluctantly watch you speed off into the horizon.
Can you have captivating offline races? Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to sit through some enjoyable affairs with third party content copied straight from my Stock Car Extreme folder, meaning that there are indeed situations that can produce good, clean competitions with the bots which populate Automobilista. Are they rare? Yes, and that’s going to be a problem with some people. Despite making it through an event at Spa unscathed (above), there were several moments where the AI basically disregarded my presence or outright door-slammed me when I thought I’d made it clear I was occupying that current spot on the race track. You are indeed forced to learn how to cooperate with the AI in many situations, but once you figure it out, your offline races will become significantly cleaner. PRC.net cynic Joe Nathan has outlined this situation quite well in a YouTube video he’s uploaded recently, where one of the bots physically runs him off the road despite Joe cleary taking the inside line.
This is considered a “good” race in Automobilista.
Do I enjoy approaching each spontaneous offline event with the goal of intentionally staying out of the way of AI cars? No, I’d rather have a game that works out of the box; one where I’m not forced to treat the AI like hyper aggressive special needs children who occasionally nail complex corner chains with relative ease, but Reiza simply haven’t gotten Automobilista to that point.
In fact, it can just as easily go the opposite direction. I took UnitedRacingDesign’s DTM payware mod to a street circuit I’m quite fond of, and the end result was total chaos that eventually was chronicled in a full length article on PRC.net. More than half of the AI cars could not complete the outlap during Qualifying, instead opting to smash into every wall in sight, or perform some extremely daunting acrobatics that would most certainly earn them a place in Ken Block’s next Gymkhaha film. Sure, many readers will be quick to dismiss my findings as the result of modded cars not properly configured by Reiza themselves, but an overarching theme of my time spent with Automobilista throughout the title’s entire lifespan is the complete inability for the artificial intelligence to navigate most race tracks featured in the game with any sort of basic driving skills.
At their best, the AI are bots are fairly competent pace-wise, but pay no respect to your presence on the racing surface whatsoever. At their worst, they are unable to complete a lap. You can have races some would deem to be acceptable, but you can just as easily earn a front row seat to show-stopping issues that would simply not be accepted in other games with a larger, less sympathetic audience.
As for online racing, I’d like to ask what online racing? Automobilista is one of the least-played modern racing simulators ever to be released on Steam. Time trial leaderboards are lucky to list any times at all aside from obvious combinations – such as a modern Formula One car at Interlagos – and most online servers are intended for private leagues rather than public lapping sessions; a quick snapshot of the list right now, and it’s downright embarrassing. You won’t be playing this game online anytime soon. I can confirm that upon testing the server tool with a friend, everything works as intended, and there are no major technical issues to report of based on the few times I joined a room populated by other drivers, but online racing in Automobilista doesn’t happen outside of dedicated leagues, and in the English-speaking communities I’m aware of, this game hasn’t caught on at all. I wouldn’t even know where to look, aside from the European Endurance Center – who actually demand everyone to comply with their monopoly on the GT3 online scene in an effort to have large turnouts every race night.
Somewhat technically sound aside from classic gremlins that are a carry-over from the original rFactor days, Automobilista is the most complete racing simulator money can buy as we look towards 2017, but it’s also the most bland and uninspiring. Doing absolutely nothing to progress the genre forward in any meaningful fashion aside from merely regurgitating a simulator many enjoyed with the implementation of additional components most will be too lazy to look for, it’s honestly a bit sad sim racing is in such a state where a title like this is a legitimate option. Sure, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has received a high definition remaster, but the key difference is that Modern Warfare was a fantastic game that started a massive shift in the gaming landscape; fully justifying some sort of re-release almost a decade later. By comparison, the original rFactor was a quirky racing simulator intended for the most hardcore of computer nerds who also happened to love auto racing – and remastering rFactor – warts and all – meant putting a magnifying glass on elements of the game that your average user won’t be so eager to tolerate.
I personally don’t mind paying Reiza $40 to assemble all of the best third party injections into a customized rFactor install, with a significantly better art style and higher physics refresh rate, but a lot of people won’t – especially considering you can tell everything has been pieced together like a LEGO set without instructions, and new features such as the dynamic heads up display or live spotter, frequently fail more often than they function.
I feel the pros of Automobilista outweigh the cons, and it’s why I’ve spent the most time with it out of all other simulators I’ve currently got installed on my PC. For what I use it for – screwing around with car setups in an open practice session, and the occasional bot race – I find it to be adequate for my own personal needs. However, from an objective standpoint, it’s hardly the killer app or hidden gem some members of the sim racing community have made it out to be. It’s X-Plane on a race track; a hardcore simulator intended for a fraction of a fraction of an already small audience with extremely specific tastes. Given what Reiza hoped to accomplish with Automobilista – a viable alternative to something like Assetto Corsa or Project CARS – I can’t say the team have met their goal with 100% certainty.