Every racing game is a constructed, deliberately made art piece. They each exist in their own unique space, art style, atmosphere, and as you can probably already tell, I find them fascinating. There’s a lot you can get out of car games, from pure cartoonish entertainment to actual driving skills you could take to a real track. Some are more realistic than others, and if you’re really into cars, these are the titles I promise you’ll want to check out.
Rifling through my vast library of my own favorite games was no mean feat, but a fun excuse to do it was figuring out where each game belongs on a scale of realism, so we’re going to review this list from “arcades” to “simulators.” What do those words mean, you ask? Simply put, arcadey games don’t usually represent the real-world performance of cars too closely. You might hit jumps or shrug off wild crashes in arcade-style games. Simulators, conversely, try to precisely replicate what it’s like to drive a real car, and offer an accurate representation of how cars react to your driving and environments.
If you already knew that, I’m guessing I’ll see you in the comment section to debate my ranking order! I picked each game because of their proximity to a racing driving style, and because they represent the best that the genre has to offer. So let’s talk games.
Cinematic, fast-paced melee: Need for Speed Series (XBox, PlayStation, Nintendo, PC)
Need for Speed has a special place in the heart of anybody who loves racing games. It isn’t a sim racer‘s game, but it‘s for someone who enjoys cars, modifying them, and being able to jump in and drift like a pro. The series ebbs and flows as far as the quality of driving, thanks to a rolodex of developers that EA uses to develop each entry. Generally, all of them have great playability, and feature intuitive driving physics. Every modern entry in the series makes you feel like you’re in The Fast and The Furious. This is the game series for when I turn my brain off, and just want to destroy some AI drivers on some virtual street races.
Need for Speed: Heat from 2019 is the latest title to drop in this series, which gets you street-racing in a fictional Miami-like city. Though even more recently in 2020, a remaster of the 2020 Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit game came out for the Nintendo Switch.
Open-world dreamscape: Forza Horizon 4 (XBox One, PC)
When Forza Horizon originally dropped in 2012, it was a revelation for those of us who played Forza Motorsport from the very beginning. It is basically open-world Forza Motorsport 7, but with dulled out controls for ease of handling. According to Turn 10 and Playground Games, the developers of the series, the physics engine is lifted straight from the Motorsport series. Horizon 4 is the current edition, which came out in 2018. I don’t necessarily feel that when I’m playing, and the physics are very arcade-like. It’s a fun ripper of a game, with good music, good car modifications, and fun multiplayer.
Sir Lewis Hamilton lite: F1 2020 (XBox, PlayStation, PC, Stadia)
Once you’ve played one F1 game, you’ve played them all. With content updates every year, the series stays contemporary. Good physics backed up by good graphics lead to a pretty fun game with reasonable difficulty. Every car handles slightly differently, power units all sound distinct enough, and the game is fun when you’re pretending to be the new F1 debutante beating virtual Charles Leclerc.
F1 2020 boasts an expanded career mode with a short F2 career, as well as various promotional drives in historic F1 cars, like Sir Lewis Hamilton’s 2008 championship McLaren, Senna’s 1988 MP4/4, or Alonso’s 2005 Renault R25. The year-over-year improvements by the series have really paid dividends, and the latest entry is the best driving, sounding and feeling F1 game yet.
An arcadey sim… or a realistic arcade game: Dirt Rally 2.0 (XBox, PlayStation, PC)
The Dirt series is famous for tossable, easy physics, great crashes, and a selection of rally stages and RallyCross tracks. The spinoff of that series is Dirt Rally, and this is the second installment of the series. It is leaps and bounds better than the first one, which has some physics issues. Dirt Rally 2.0 presents a great challenge, while still being easy to get used to. An excellent combination of great gamepad controls and quick-ratio wheel inputs make for a manic driving experience in any rally stage. The force feedback leaves something to be desired, however.
It exists in a strange ether of an arcade-based physics engine being pumped up to feel more realistic. The cars are unnaturally easy to toss around, but that results in a fun, fast game. It’s realistic and punishing enough to create some difficulty, and fast enough to feel like you’re in the WRC.
Entry-level sim racing: Forza Motorsport 7 (XBox, PC)
The Forza Motorsport series is dear to my heart, being the first title where I learned how to race wheel-to-wheel with other players around the world. The latest one, Forza Motorsport 7, is the best entry in the series. The beloved Forza Motorsport 4 is near-mythical in the Forza fandom, and I believe 7 to be a real return to form for the series after some disappointing titles. Excellent physics, a great tire model, and well-polished online gameplay lead to a real winner for entry-level sim racers. It is let down with pretty terrible force feedback and feel with a sim wheel. This is a gamepad-and-controller only title for me, and it does both extremely well.
Forza Motorsport 7 has been out for a few years and is due for a new entry soon. It still boasts the best physics and handling of any game in the series, with an impressive tire model, slightly let down by the fact that the cars are un-spinnable.
The enthusiast’s simulator: Gran Turismo Sport (PlayStation)
Jazz lounge aesthetic, professionally considered virtual environments, beautiful car models, excellent track models, and a fabulous physics model paired with great force feedback and controls. Gran Turismo Sport is a unique title in the racing simulator space for being exquisitely refined at all levels, infallible brand recognition, and a mythical developer team behind every loving detail. I adore the Gran Turismo series because it provides a total experience from top to bottom, and has a powerful online racing community to boot.
Gran Turismo Sport is a sort of stopover for the Gran Turismo series, more focused on E-sports. It’s still a worthy entry with great driving physics, really sweet force feedback, and decent tracks. It is a little light on content compared to the main entries in the series, but that will soon be remedied with a full-blown Gran Turismo 7 release at some point in 2021.
A timeless simulator: Assetto Corsa (XBox, PlayStation, PC)
Assetto Corsa is a long-running staple of the PC sim racing community. Recently ported to XBox and PlayStation, it’s only become more fun to play since its release in 2014. The physics are top-notch, with graphics leaving something on the table. The standout feature of the game is its force feedback. Accurate steering, with an unbelievable sense of weight and inertia through the wheel, Assetto Corsa is a pleasure to drive aimlessly, grinding out laps on laser-scanned models of world-famous circuits around the world. Backed up with a peerless modding community, making full scale models of Angeles Crest Highway, Pikes Peak, the Wangan freeway system in Tokyo, and every car you can imagine. This game will be a winner for years to come.
There is only one Assetto Corsa out there, and it’s getting cheap. This game will have near-unlimited replay value so go snatch a copy up and catch me on virtual Angeles Crest!
Getting serious: Assetto Corsa Competizione (XBox, PlayStation, PC)
Assetto Corsa Competizione, known in the community as ACC, is the most recent game from Italian developer Kunos Simulazioni. You would be mistaken to believe this game to be an evolution of 2014’s Assetto Corsa. It is a brand new, ground-up game from Kunos. The physics model is world-class, and the impressively advanced tire model that simulates the contact patch from edge-to-edge on each tire, is an industry first, with classic Kunos telepathic force feedback to boot. The game is solely focused on world GT racing, with a full selection of GT3, GTE, and GT4 cars to choose from. The Competizione aspect of the game dominates it. A full online driver rating system and highly competitive player base make this game interesting to play for a long time, with a high skill threshold required to really enjoy this title.
A real simulator: rFactor 2 (PC)
This title exists in a class of two among sim racers. A decidedly small, but dedicated player base keeps this game alive while an exceptional physics model keeps it attractive. rFactor Pro is usually the base used by race teams to build simulations of their cars for vehicle and driver development, BMW and Porsche being the most notable to do so. rFactor 2 comes from the same people. This game requires a decent amount of wheel setup and practice to get the right feel out of the game; it’s far away from being a plug-and-play racing sim. It’s a deadly serious simulator, somewhat let down with an underpopulated online community.
rFactor 2 mostly exists as a bare-bones sim to build off of and doesn’t come with a ton of content. It has plenty to get started with, and gets more fun over time. Admittedly, I prefer to play other sims over this one.
The Gold Standard: iRacing (PC)
The sim racing community has adopted iRacing as its primary competitive simulator. This is the game to play if you’re looking to be as competitive as possible around the world, with manufacturers deeply involved, hosting their own series and world championships in-game. It is an excellent simulation, with precisely detailed tracks and cars. The game has gone through precious few iterations, with somewhat stubborn developers that believe they lead the way in all sim racing. The most recent controversy being the tire model; IndyCar drivers, F1 drivers, and the flood of professionals due to the pandemic came together to criticize the tires and their inaccurate modeling. As of this writing, iRacing has issued a 2021 update to the tire model, that I feel was a positive one. This an excellent title, with great, pure force feedback, and a difficulty threshold worthy of real driving. It’s super rewarding and natural once you get your wheel setup, though not my favorite.
The big drawbacks to iRacing are the this-takes-forever online licensing system, exorbitantly expensive DLC, and the annoying subscription based nature of the game. Prepare to spend a ton of money just starting on this sim, especially because the wheel setup required to have real fun in this game is pretty extraordinary. I only just got into it because my Fanatec Clubsport setup “feels worthy” of the title. Other wheels felt pretty awful. You can read more about my thoughts on iRacing here.
All of these racing games, and driving simulators, bring something to the table. Don’t let anybody tell you what game to play and not to play, but find something that suits you. Think of this list as a jump-off point if you don’t know where to start! Sim racing happens anywhere you can race against another person, or AI, and that’s all that matters. Have fun, play the game, and enjoy the work that goes into these products of passion.