"Racing" is less a genre than it is a feeling. The ultra-realism of a game like iRacing and the cartoonish chaos of Burnout: Paradise have nothing in common except this: when you’re racing to the final corner, wheel-to-wheel with your last rival, you are utterly lost in that moment. That moment is why we play racing games. It’s the high that racing fans are always pursuing. The excellent racing games take you there again and again.
This list attempts to strike a balance inbetween high-fidelity racing sims, "sim-lite" racing games that balance realism with approachability, and action-oriented arcade racers. It’s biased towards games that suggest a lot of multitude of practice in one package, as well as toward more latest games that will work with a minimum of fuss.
Forza Horizon Three
Developer: Playground Games, Turn Ten
In our review of Forza Horizon Trio, Phil thinks calling it a racing game is reductive. "It’s a meaty, varied playground utter of things to do in cars." And he’s right. You’re rewarded identically for completing a race through the taut corners of urban Australia and driving a max speed through a farmer’s property. It has enough switches to turn on or off that can make it play like chewy arcade racer or like a realistic sim. You can garment any of over three hundred photorealistic cars with any dumb livery you like, or you can fine tune the suspension. The DJs will play special songs that give you bonus points for driving like a slick operator or a damn maniac. The list goes on and on, but best of all, you can do everything with friends in a fairly seamless cooperative mode.
Our recommendation is caveated with a warning that Forza is not an effortless game to run, and some spectacle issues are still getting ironed out, but none of them are enough to pull us out of its gorgeous, playful open world.
In our review of F1 2016, Sam White called it "the most well-featured, authentic recreation of Formula One ever created, and it’s a genuinely good PC port."
There’s a massive checklist of fresh features that make F1 two thousand sixteen the most immersive it’s ever been. With manual starts, every race embarks as a tense technical exercise. And a fresh R&D system doles out points that let you develop a specific car over the course of a season.
But most importantly, petite refinements to the racing round out the sim, including "the slide of the car as you over-accelerate out of a turn; the gentle squeeze of the brakes so you don’t slide into a smoke-billowing, tire-ruining lock-up; the aquaplaning as you stray away from the safety of the racing line in a monsoon downpour—every lap is a joyous exercise in taming a ludicrously overpowered brute. "
Trackmania two is split into three different games, Stadium, Valley, and Canyon. You don’t need the accomplish collection to love TrackMania’s gleefully uninhibited F-Zero meets Sonic the Hedgehog racing act. With endless levels thanks to the powerful level editor, and tracks more improbable than Escher architecture, TrackMania two is the most classically PC of the arcade racers.
Developer: Picture Space Incorporated
rFactor is still rough around the edges, but it’s the heir to one one of the PC’s excellent racing games and one of the most amazing modding communities in the world. rFactor Two, like its predecessor, just keeps growing after launch as fresh car and track packs come out across all kinds of different series. It’s not a cheap habit, but it will please serious racers.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
Developer: Criterion Games
The purest essence of Need for Speed before the series went all open-world, all the time. It supplies exactly what the title promises, in race after race, with no downtime. Love the elementary life as you aim a European exotic down a open up of hauntingly beautiful Pacific coast highway with a train of police cars following in your wake.
RaceRoom Racing Practice
Developer: Sector3 Studios
This is the descendant of SimBin’s once-mighty racing empire. Think of it as GTR Online: it’s the ruthlessly-authentic car sim you recall, but retooled for online free-to-play.
That’s also its weakness. Once you get the cars on the track, it’s all terrific and familiar. But off-track, RaceRoom is all about selling you bits and lumps of the game. Pick a series you want to race and buying the entire pack: that gets you all the cars and tracks you need to love it.
Codemasters’ easiest, most entry-level game. The car treating is very forgiving, but with just enough fight in it to train you the basics of corner-braking and throttle-control. It’s got full-race weekends, strong opponent AI, and tons of multitude in its racing formats. It’s a superb point-of-entry for people nosey about sim-style racing, and joy for more xxx drivers who just want to relieve.
Rivals is very likely the best of EA’s open-world racing games right now. With parallel career tracks for playing as both the cops and street racers, and tons of online features that put you neck-and-neck with human opponents, Rivals makes a strong case for combining Burnout: Paradise-style open-world racing with online connectivity. At least until EA turns the servers off…
Developer: Codemasters Southam
Rally racing is a contest inbetween driver and a narrow, twisting ribbon of country road that is doing its best to kill the driver.
Mud three brings it to life in all its stomach-churning glory. It feels quicker than any other game on this list, because skidding sideways and fifty MPH through a dirt-and-gravel hairpin, just inches away from a wall of a Finnish birch, proves to be more intense than taking an F1 car through Eau Rouge at Spa.
Developer: iRacing Motorsport Simulations
With its regular online racing leagues and meticulous car and track modeling, iRacing is as close to real racing as you can get on the PC.
That also means iRacing is something you need to work up to. It has no meaningful single-player component and, with its subscription fees and live tournament scheduling, it requires significant investment. But for a certain class of sim racing fan, there is nothing that compares.
Driver: San Francisco
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
With a retro-chic ‘70s vibe, one of the best soundtracks in games, and a truly original twist on the open world racer, Driver: San Francisco just radiates style and cool in a way that no other game on this list can match.
With the capability to "shift" inbetween NPC cars at-will, Driver:SF is one of the only post-Paradise open-world racers to think of something fresh and fresh to do with the freedom of the open world.
Split / 2nd
Developer: Black Rock Studio
Welcome to the Michael Bay Motorsports Hour, where fake sports cars will rocket through desolate, orange-filtered urban wastelands at dazzling speed while drivers accumulate enough energy to trigger bomb-drops from overhead helicopters, perverse sweeps from out-of-control cranes, and even the odd explosion of an entire city block.
It’s the flawless chaser to a lot of open-world arcade racers: Split / 2nd is laser-focused on absurd automotive chaos and increasingly improbable tableaus of bloodless mechanical carnage.
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
For a game that is ostensibly all about striking a compromise inbetween realistic sim racing and edge-of-your-seat arcade act, Shift two feels totally uncompromised. It channels the violence and hardly restrained power of high-end sports cars with the brilliant touch of an ace driver like a Senna or a Niki Lauda. The cars twitch and buck under acceleration, the tires shriek around the corners, your vision is twisted and twisted by the speed and the G-forces… but somehow you’re in control.
That’s the illusion that Shift two crafts. It always feels like you have a tiger by the tail… but somehow you keep the car on the road, and keep clawing your way through the field. The thrill and the terror never fairly go away, however, thanks to Slightly Mad’s outstanding use of camera effects, sound, and a deceptively twitchy treating model.
Shift two strikes a flawless balance. It’s the game I go to when I want a ridiculously intense and requesting racing practice… but I don’t want to work as hard as a game like iRacing or RaceRoom attempts to make me.
Developer: Criterion Games
Burnout Paradise is seven years old. Seven years old! Seven years of being the most imitated racing game in history.
And yet the original model still surpasses its imitators. It’s so much purer and more titillating than the games it inspired. It doesn’t have any licensed cars, so instead it features car-archetypes that crumple into gut-wrenchingly violent wrecks. Compare those to the fender-benders that wipe you out in Need for Speed: Most Wished, Criterion’s attempt at topping themselves and where you get the sense that just depicting a shattered headlight would have entailed hundreds of meetings with Lamborghini’s lawyers.
Paradise isn’t an online "social" practice. It’s not all about collectibles and unlocks. You get fresh cars, but they’re not the point of the game. It’s about driving around a city populated entirely by cars, listening to a drivetime DJ spin classic and pop rock tracks while you drive hell-for-leather through twisting city streets, mountain passes, and idyllic farmland. It’s violent, blindingly prompt, and endlessly entertaining. It’s created the modern arcade racing genre, but the joke is on us, because all we’ve done ever since is attempt to get back to Paradise.
Developer: Kunos Simulazioni
Assetto Corsa might be the finest driving simulator in the world right now. Its treating model is amazingly wooing and challenging, without ever feeling exaggerated for effect. It’s also got a satisfying career mode that throws a nice array of challenges at you across a broad multitude of disciplines. Each fresh stage helps you develop the abilities needed to drive Assetto Corsa’s most requesting cars at the highest levels of racing.
It’s also a slightly bare-bones game off-track. Its UI looks more like engineering software than a game, and there isn’t much flavor. The track list is a little puny for my liking, however the extensive car-list makes up for it.
Still, the minimalism suits Assetto Corsa’s mission: it’s about driving as cleanly and skillfully as possible on the very outside edge of spectacle. At a certain point in your racing life, that’s all you want to do.
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Project CARS is an effortless pick by being the "desert island" racing game. If I could only take one of these games with me to a permanent gaming exile, Project CARS would be the one I choose.
It’s gorgeous, with some the most vivid weather and lighting conditions I’ve ever seen in a racing game. It’s got all the diversity you could want, from classic F1 racers to old 1970s touring cars to modern Le Stud’s Prototypes. Each car is unique and challenging, placing fresh requests on your abilities and rewarding you in fresh ways. It’s got fine tracks, with special love and attention lavished on some of the lesser-known UK racing circuits, and might feature the most arousing version of Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew turn in the history of the genre.
Project CARS requires a lot of forgiveness and DIY tweaking. AI drivers are too "on-rails", but patches have made them far less accident-prone. It takes a lot of fiddling to find the exact difficulty and realism settings that are right for you, and the career mode isn’t much to write home about. It’s not the greatest racing game ever made, but right now it is the most essential racing game around.
Its fiddly customizability ultimately works in its favor as it becomes a game that will grow alongside your abilities. Bit by bit, I find myself turning off driver aids, getting more ambitious with my car setups, and bumping-up the AI difficulty. Project CARS has served up a lot of excellent races but, most importantly, it is always an amazing drive.