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What is the best PC racing game? So many elements contribute: the genre’s not only about graphical fidelity and hair-raising sound design – though both certainly help – it’s also about pulling you into the action as if you’re there in the driver’s seat, eyes strained as the asphalt whips past at 240kph. From honing your timing for a perfect gear shift to kicking out the back-end for a sublime drift, a quality racing game just feels right.
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Don’t go asking, “How could you forget about Grand Prix Legends! Where’s Geoff Crammond?!” When versions of those games surface on Steam or GOG, we’ll be the first in line to play them again… and inevitably find they haven’t aged as well as we hoped. So for those of you who are just looking to hop in and fire up the engine of a superb racer, whether that’s an intricate sim or an arcade thriller, these are the best racing games to play right now:
The most realistic PC racing games
Codemasters’ Dirt Rally has surpassed its predecessor, Dirt 3, and is arguably the best game Codemasters have made in years. With a far more authentic handling model, Dirt Rally does away with many of the arcadey touches that continue to persist in the core series.
That also makes it a proper rally game in a way gamers haven’t seen in a long while. It’s not just that these races happen to be set on dirt tracks with loads and loads of slidey sideways driving, but that you’re actually taking part in the kind of endurance racing that rallying is all about. You have to take care of your car through every race stage, which introduces an element of strategy and resource management that’s all too rare in sim-racing.
Now that it’s been out a while, Dirt Rally has also accrued a dedicated and meticulous modding community that regularly put out tweaks and fixes that massively improve the core game, especially for rally aficionados. Everything from gorgeously rendered car skins to the most subtle of weather and lighting changes are available to elevate the core game just that little bit higher.
Want more? Here’s our Dirt Rally review.
Shift 2 might be the best compromise between realism and accessibility of any game on this list. It’s not just the ways the car handle – menacing, but capable – but the way it consistently thinks about what players need to perform at a high level. Rather than lock your view gazing out over the hood, or ask you to spring for TrackIR to let you turn your head, Shift 2 has a dynamic view that subtly changes based on context.
Coming up on a gentle right-hand corner, your view shifts a bit as your driver avatar looks right into the apex. For a sharper corner, your view swings a bit more so you have a sense of what you’re driving into, yet it doesn’t feel disorienting at all. It feels natural.
The thoughtfulness even extends to depth-of-field. This is a wildly overused visual effect but Shift 2 uses it to highlight where your attention should be. When someone is coming up fast on your tail, objects farther away get a bit fuzzier while your mirrors sharpen to razor clarity. As you move around in dense traffic, your cockpit gets indistinct while the cars around you come into focus. It sounds gimmicky, but it all feels as natural as driving a car in real life. Shift 2 is really dedicated to communicating the fun and accomplishment of performance driving, and it succeeds admirably.
Real cars, you might have noticed, rarely cartwheel into the verge the moment you dare to mix steering and acceleration inputs. In fact, they’re quite good at going round corners – it is almost like an engineer has given the problem some thought during the design process. Performance cars, while certainly more liable to bite back, are even better at the whole turning thing. Throw a Ferrari or Lamborghini around the track (as we have done on a number of occasions) and you’ll probably spend more time having fun than fretting about the absence of a rewind button in real life.
Slightly Mad know this. They are, it seems, just as frustrated by the driving sim genre’s propensity to equate challenge with the sensation of driving on treadless tires on a slab of melting ice set at an angle of 45 degrees. So here, cars actually go around the corners, even when you give the throttle some beans. Don’t get us wrong, this is no virtual Scallextric set – you can still make mistakes, and traction is far from absolute. But, crucially, you aren’t punished for these mistakes with a rapid trip into the nearest trackside barrier (at least, if you play with a wheel – pad control is still a little oversenstive). The result is a game that feels much more like real driving, and it is wonderful.
The studio has made plenty of other changes in this sequel too, shoring up the car selection with a greater variety of vehicles, and creating a career mode that feels less wayward without sacrificing the appealing freedom of choice pioneered by the previous game’s. There’s even half-decent AI to race against if you don’t fancy the cut and thrust of online play. But the most spectacular update is the game’s astonishing weather system, one that calculates a dizzying number of factors about the physical properties of materials and surfaces, water pooling and run-off, in order to spit out the best set of weather effects – and wet weather driving – we’ve ever experienced in a racing game. A rather successful sequel, then.
The best PC arcade racers
Any genre veteran will tell you that good track design is an essential part of any quality racing title. While in most games a hairpin bend, g-force-laden camber, or high-speed straight might suffice, for TrackMania 2: Canyon track design takes on a terrifying, Hot Wheels-inspired new meaning. Sweeping barrel-rolls, nigh-impossible jumps, and floating platforms that stick up two fingers to physics are what set the TrackMania series apart from other arcade racers.
The real heart of TrackMania 2 can be found online, where the ingenious, convoluted creations of others take centre stage. The competition is fierce and frantic. A race can quickly devolve into a hilarious highlight reel of missed jumps and unforeseen corners. The racing mechanics make for an ideal pick-up-and-play title that you can lose hours to without noticing. That’s largely because of how easy the cars are to drive, and yet, once you hit the (often ludicrous) tracks, it’s anyone’s bet who’ll take first place.
We had to make do without Forza on PC for all of eternity, but that changed with Horizon 3. An absolute party of a racing game, the Horizon series abandons the main Forza personality traits of ‘steely’ and ‘serious’ and replaces them with the absurdity of a high-octane car festival.
Your job in Horizon 3, aside from racing a healthy variety of stunning motor vehicles, is to build your Horizon festival in the Australian outback. You’ll compete with attending guests in a variety of petrolhead events, from simple first-to-the-finish races to stunt jumps through cargo ships and multi-hour-long endurance tests.
Of all of Forza Horizon 3’s achievements, though, its open world is the one that will capture your heart. A stunning recreation of classic Aussie landscapes, you’ll find yourself pulling awe-inspiring drifts through dusty corners and hurtling past the perfect blue waves of the South Pacific. It’s a road trip you won’t forget in a hurry.
Every arcade racer should be as cool as this game. If Steve McQueen were digitised and turned into a videogame, he would be Driver: San Francisco.
While Driver: SF features cars and influences from a variety of eras, it approaches everything with a ’70s style. It loves American muscle, roaring engines, squealing tyres, and the impossibly steep hills and twisting roads of San Francisco. It may have the single greatest soundtrack of any racing game, and some of the best event variety, too.
It also has one of the most novel conceits in the genre. Rather than be bound to one vehicle, you can freely swap your car for any other on the road at the push of a button. So, in many races, the car you finish in might not be the one you started with, and in car chases, you’ll quickly learn to teleport through traffic to engineer a variety of automotive catastrophes just to screw with opponents. It’s bizarre, original, and perpetually delightful.
The best PC racing simulations
F1 fans have had to wait a long time since 2013 for Codemasters to steer their licensed F1 IP back on track. There were moments of brilliance along the way, like F1 2015’s revised handling physics and a steady increase in overall fidelity, but it’s only with the release of F1 2016 that we see the studio come good on their promise. It was a promise laid out back in 2010, actually: be the driver, live the life.
Simply put, it’s the most complete and compelling career mode to date. Shooting fish in a barrel compared to F1 2015, which lopped that mode out entirely, but nonetheless impressive. You can now lose your drive entirely if you’re underperforming, and on the other end of the spectrum it’s possible to upgrade a wayward mobile chicane like the 2016 Sauber up to genuinely competitive levels via mid-session testing and its upgrade system.
It’s the little things that really make the difference, though: virtual and actual safety cars. Tremendous weather effects. A surprisingly robust time trial mode. Customisable helmets. All these small details accumulate to let you know that Codemasters really, really care about this sport.
You can’t put together a list of great simulation racing games without having something from SimBin. While the studio appears to have lost its way a bit with the dubious free-to-play RaceRoom Racing Experience, SimBin were sim racing royalty during the mid-2000s. Race: Injection is their capstone game, the package that combines just about everything they accomplished with the GTR series and Race 07.
These are hard games, but the race-modified sedans of the World Touring Car Cup should ease your transition into serious racing. Even a racing Honda Accord is still a Honda Accord, and the slightly more manageable speed and difficulty of the WTCC is a great place to learn the tracks and SimBin’s superb physics.
But there are muscle cars, endurance cars, and open-wheel racers to choose from in this package, all of them brilliantly recreated and offering unique driving challenges. For the money, you probably can’t do better than Race: Injection for sim racing.
Unfortunately, the Race series was also long in the tooth even as Injection was released, and there’s no concealing the old tech it’s built on. Don’t let the flat lighting and dull graphics throw you off, though. A few minutes with these cars, especially if you have a quality force feedback wheel, and you won’t even notice the aged appearance.
Less a great racing game and more a great handling model with a game built-up around it, Assetto Corsa feels like driving a real car around a real track, to the point of being uncanny at times.
The presentation is kind of crude outside the races themselves, but on the track it’s exactly what it needs to be… right down to some terrific AI driving. These aren’t slot-car drivers, but convincing opponents who will overcook it going into a turn, lose control as they try to get back onto the track, and even give you a love-tap as you race side-by-side through a turn. It’s definitely a great option for people who need something that combines modern, attractive graphics and good AI with high-fidelity simulation.
Welp, here we go. The Grand Poobah of simulation racing.
iRacing blurs the line between play and work. Its cars and tracks are recreated with a fanatical attention to detail, and its league racing rules are about as serious as you’ll find in any racing club or at any track event in the world. This is a racing game for people who want the real thing and are willing to spend hours training for it. It is perhaps the pinnacle of Papyrus legend David Kaemmer’s career. For those of us who cut our teeth on the IndyCar and Grand Prix Legends game, that name alone is recommendation enough.
iRacing is not cheap – though, at $50 a year, it’s better value than many an MMO. Nor is its emphasis on graphics. But its rewards are aimed at a specific and demanding group of players. When you’ve outgrown the Codemasters games, and even stuff like Race: Injection is wearing a little thin, this is where you go.
That’s our starting grid, but what do you think? Let us know your picks below.