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In the assembled history of video and electronic gaming, there is a genre that is omnipresent throughout. It’s a steadfast constant from platform to platform, console to console, and with computers and computer gaming as it has developed and grown in processing power.
From humble beginnings to the current moment, it’s a genre of games that is often overlooked and has, almost ironically, never been exactly “first place” in the line-up, but one that always shows in the mid-tiers.
After Pong, Atari’s second-ever game was a racing game called Space Race, created back in 1973: the Neolithic era of video games. Racing games have been a part of the tapestry and catalog of computer gaming ever since; a constant, reliable stand-by and part of every library of games for every system ever made. They might not be the big, triple-A (AAA) franchises of the gaming world, but the genre has loyal devotees.
PC racing games offer a prime and essential form of competition: easy to understand, but hard to master. The objective remains the same, no matter what the plot twists or details, settings or vehicles may be. Get from the start to the finish and be the first one to do it.
While most driving simulators for the PC come with standard controller and keyboard mapping, racing game enthusiasts are prone to trick out expensive rigs with specialized force-feedback steering wheels, pedals, and shifters that are often as expensive as the PC that runs the software. And the industry puts out a steady stream of solid titles to service them.
So buckle your seatbelt, fire up the ignition, and roll on up to the starting line: Here are a few of the best racing games for PC available now.
Rally racing is a part of the car-racing subculture that is as much about the race as it is the specs and performance of the vehicle. The idea is that rally cars are performance and durability tweaked to be modified production-model vehicles, but must remain street-legal. Unlike NASCAR or track-racing, rally racing takes place on real roads and in off-road, dirt-road environments.
A rally car is built off of the frame of a sports car you could buy at your local dealership, and in order to qualify for rally-racing it must pass normal emissions testing and carry legal registration and insurance. The races are long distance and test the driver’s ability to consistently push a car to its limits, but to also know the limits and work near their maximums, through rough terrain and over a long period of time.
Dirt Rally 2.0 by Codemasters is a real rally-aficionado's simulation. This is one of the top racing games for the PC that assumes a level of familiarity with rally racing and doesn’t hold a player’s hand through many tutorial explanations of the concepts, so new players who are not well-versed in the car-world may struggle at the beginning. But it offers a real depth of play, detail, and realism that hardcore fans can appreciate.
Road conditions and weather dynamically affect performance and road surface degradation is a factor in the game. If your starting position for a timed track (all the way down to 150th position) is low, it simulates all the churn and grooves that the previous time-trial runners would have inflicted on the route, making for harsher control and more of a fight against the wheel.
A deep “garage” roster of accurate vehicle simulations will see car enthusiasts happy to explore and test out different models over wide ranging tracks set in locations across the globe. A special bonus for Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) gamers: Dirt Rally 2.0 will be getting a VR-version update patch this summer.
The Burnout series of PC racing games made a splash among console racing game enthusiasts in 2008. The games are set in an open world racing environment; a freer, more arcade-type racing experience where, as players, you can explore the huge, fictional Paradise City at your own pace. Here you can take on achievement/mission goals in various modes that can be creatively achieved anywhere on the map. It’s a racing game without defined tracks, per se.
While there was a Windows version previously released, the “Remastered” release bundles all the various updates, downloadable content (DLC) packs, and add-ons that have been released over the years as one cohesive bundle, with everything there from the jump. Additionally, the Remastered release supports higher resolutions and frame rates.
Burnout Paradise Remastered has a “Showtime Mode” that tasks players with staging the most spectacular and bounce-heavy crashes. The online, multiplayer “cops and robbers” mode pits a player against others in dynamic, chase and crash-based missions with an emphasis on controlled chaos and big explosions.
Fun, unlockable progression makes Burnout Paradise Remastered more of a social, gamified racing and driving experience than a hardcore simulation. Stunt driving and pulling off ludicrous moves across a wide variety of vehicle types makes this an essentially different kind of experience than a strict “racing” game.
Grid 2 is another Codemasters game, the eighth in the TOCA Touring Car series of games. It aims to be at least a little bit more accessible to gamers, striking a balance between hardcore car-simulation and more forgiving arcade-style, action controls.
This driving simulator for the PC features a large roster of cars to choose from and trick out, and sets players in a fictional “World Series Racing” league, a kind of new motorsport with rulesets made up for the game. The campaign/career-like story mode sees you trying to attract “fans” to this new motorsport by achieving different racing objectives in levels.
This clever device makes the different objectives and missions into a kind of meta-game that ties it together into a more cohesive package than just a series of random modes. Point-to-point race modes, checkpoint races, time attacks, and standard elimination races are all presented within the frame of being methods to promote this new “World Series Racing” league.
A standout feature of Grid 2 is the superb audio. It seems like special attention was paid to the sound design and it is surprising how much it adds to the enjoyment of the gameplay.
Developed by Slightly Mad Studios and published by Bandai Midway, Project CARS 2 is the follow-up motorsports sim to Project CARS, and improves on the original in meaningful ways, most specifically in handling.
The original Project CARS received a mixed reception in the racing game world about how it simulated grip and the loss of traction. But CARS 2 endeavors to really dial in the simulation of losing and regaining control across both configurations for steering wheel and handheld/thumb-stick controller controls.
The career mode is absolutely massive and a car enthusiast’s pleasure; a gigantic array of models and customizations await the player who goes crazy for such things. There are 189 cars to choose from, across 140 track layouts, all set in 60 different locations across the world.
Project CARS 2 has put an increased emphasis on online multiplayer play, with a focus on developing as an eSport. Online rankings, matchmaking, and championships are a part of the experience. Slightly Mad Studios worked closely with both auto manufacturers and race car drivers, getting data and specs to try to create accurate simulations of how different models and builds react. As a result the specific eccentricities and handling characteristics of a Porsche versus a Nissan, Ferrari, or Lamborghini are evident and, by all accounts, on the mark.
Race aficionados who have a big, customized wheel and pedal setup in addition to a VR rig on pc can play Project CARS 2 in virtual reality, which is a whole other level of immersion and true-to-life driving simulation.
With Assetto Corsa, Italian developer Kunos Simulazioni set out to provide hardcore racing sim fans with a game that strove for vehicle handling and performance accuracy, with an emphasis on modding (or adding modifications to) the experience and settings. An extensive “realistic” series of settings allows racing sim fans to fine tune exactly what they are looking to simulate - or not simulate - in the experience.
And that’s really the thing about Assetto Corsa. It is a drift game for the PC built specifically for the hardcore, already-engaged, deep-dive racing simulation fan. More casual gamers, looking for a mid-level, halfway arcade-style game might be advised to steer clear.
Assetto Corsa is not the most immediately accessible of racing sims. It expects players to have a lot of knowledge about the high-end operation of cars and pre-existing skills for driving them. And for those specific players, Assetto Corsa is a treasure trove.
But really, the treasure is only for those specific players. For more casual gamers, or those used to the modified, gamified physics and handling engines of more mainstream racing games, what will occur often are a series of frustrating losses, as Assetto Corsa handles accurately to a fault, with very little concession made for gameplay.
That said, if you are the kind of player who is looking for a real, honest-as-it-gets driving simulator for the PC, and not the bells and whistles of real-time weather or “collecting modes” of car-model examinations in virtual garages, then it is worth the dive. But be forewarned: the dive is deep and the learning curve is steep.
To everything, (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn turn) are not just lyrics by The Byrds, but seemingly the mission statement of Forza Horizon 4. A dynamic, world-affecting season system in an open-world environment and a focus on real-time, online multiplayer (and social) action make Forza Horizon 4 a real step up in its series.
Each different season, and its attendant, dynamic weather, truly affects the overall experience and become “characters” in the gameplay. Spring is full of greens and lush grasses speeding by. Autumn is alive with vibrant colors and falling leaves. And winter brings with it icy conditions and previously inaccessible frozen spots on tracks that become drivable once they’re solid.
But more than just the gameplay differences, what the attention to the seasons and the changes bring to the track and to your gameplay is a sense of a living world that you’re inhabiting and racing through.
Being an open world, Forza Horizon 4 presents an almost racing role-playing game (RPG) style of progression. Choosing missions and stunt tasks, drifting challenges, and races unlocks a kind of experience-point-like currency called “Influence” for your driver, which is used to unlock the different seasons.
The RPG elements continue, in that part of your time is spent crafting your racer avatar, and the open-world setting allows you to actually purchase homes that act as both bases of operations on the map and also as buffs/bonus additions to upgrading your vehicles.
Online play, offline play, and “semi-offline” play options are available (semi being the “Drivatars” of friends and rivals; ghosted versions of previously, asynchronously-run races by others that you can compete against).
Forza Horizon 4 happily leans into the “video game” part of being a driving games PC sim. All the aspects of play are “gamified,” including a sassy GPS artificial intelligence (AI) voice called A.N.N.A. (think David Hasselhoff’s KITT from Knight Rider mixed with Amazon’s Alexa) that informs you of the various races and challenges around you as you explore the open world environment. She also helpfully offers to mark the locations of favorite challenges on your map for easier accessibility.
With 450 licensed cars that you can obtain and race, each handling appropriately and differently, there are months and months of gameplay on this drift game for the PC that will suit both the casual racing game fan and the dedicated gearhead.
All open-road racers are not created equal. While The Crew 2 may be an improvement on the original outing, it still falls somewhat short of the mark when compared to titles like Forza Horizon 4. In The Crew 2, players travel across a condensed version of the USA, from hub area to hub area, completing missions and challenges and unlocking content along the way.
Playing in Street Racing, Off Road, Freestyle, and Pro Racing modes, the game offers decent progression, and can be played in a non-linear way, according to your mood about what kind of challenge seems fun.
The Crew 2 does offer fun racing and tries to be a cheery, inviting game for casual racing players. In some respects, it succeeds. If PC racing games are up your alley, it’s not a bad addition to your library, but it might never rise to the level of being your favorite.
Codemasters F1 series is to racing what the ongoing EA Sports franchise games are to their various sports. It is not just a racing sim, but also an ongoing sports and league simulation, with cut-scenes of sportscasters and produced TV “packages” as you progress through your driver’s career as a Formula One car racer.
As it is an iterative release (this one being the tenth title in the series), there are relatively few differentiators from the previous year’s release, but there are improvements and tweaks. In a world of online gaming, F1 2018 provides a kind of relief to those who feel tense or pressured playing against other live players.
Its offline, career/story mode provides AI competition that is sufficiently satisfying and competitive without being either absurdly over-skilled or easy to figure out. Multiplayer modes are available, though.
The bottom line is that F1 2017 was a solid, impressive Formula One racing simulator game, and F1 2018 does not break that established achievement. But neither does it break much new ground. Its improvements and tweaks are subtle and incremental, which is not a bad thing. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is always a safe bet, but if a player already has F1 2017, it might feel like a purchase that didn’t expressly need to be made.
The Forza franchise of racing games have their groove for car enthusiasts, and 2017’s Motorsport 7 continues the streak, offering car lovers an almost ridiculous number of highly detailed models of cars. While the game touts that the number is “over 700,” that’s somewhat misleading, in that many are duplicate variants with minor modifications. Never-the-less, the real number of approximately 400 is still impressive.
Absolutely different models, retro and current, are each accurate in their graphic presentation down to the placement of specific production-run warning labels/stickers printed and put into cars.
This is one of the top racing games available on the PC for those who are into the “collection” aspect of assembling a Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld level of encyclopedic garages of cars to examine as well as race, Motorsport 7 is a leader in a crowded field.
The graphics and attention to detail are second to none. For the kid who grew up collecting Matchbox cars and curating carrying cases of them, this is the kind of game that will give hours of car-loving satisfaction.
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