What's the best PC racing simulator?
The definition of simulation
SImulations are uncompromising games that attempt to model as closely as possible any real-life model or situation, and are perfectly willing to compromise on what others would see as 'fun' and the saleability of the product in order to achieve total and complete realism. They do not necessarily have to model motor-racing; other titles have most popularly modelled flight and train situations.
The genre has certainly come a very long way since the 90s when simulation titles were really big - games like Grand Prix 3 by Geoff Crammond for example. These games are now so advanced in modelling the graphics of the cars, the sounds of the cars, and most importantly the physics of their real-life counterparts, that they are now extensively used by real-life racing teams to help them prepare for races and even whole championships, allowing them to collect data usable for a real race for little cost. Simulators such as iRacing and rFactor are perhaps the most commonly used by real racing teams.
However, trying to decide the simulation that is best for you is a tricky one (hence this article). The focus is entirely on simulations as decided by the community, and not aracde-ey racing games.
What is available?
There are numerous simulation titles out there, all with their various good and bad points, their advantages and disadvantages. You will be hard-pressed to find the perfect simulation that is uncompromising on every aspect and will deliver a total experience, simply because of the sheer amount of work that has to go into the finely-tuned detail compared to most games. Thus, like motor-racing itself, you will have to compromise on some aspects.
The simulations also tend to vary in terms of their age. This is not like the Call of Duty series, where a new game gets released practically every year. A wholly new racing simulation based on a completely new game engine is quite difficult to find. However there is still plenty of choice as you can see below.
This is one of the newest simulations I will be covering here, and one that is certainly on the rise in terms of popularity, and in terms of realism. Essentially, iRacing takes a very different approach to the racing simulation genre (and in some ways to gaming in general).
It uses a subscription service, meaning you have to pay around $7 to $12 a month to continue playing. The idea is that the priceyness of it means you have access to a high quality service including high quality multiplayer racing, highly accurate cars and tracks, and the most realistic physics of almost any of the sims mentioned here. The tracks have all been laser-scanned - in other words the developers went to the tracks and using sophisticated technology have managed to 100% reproduce every bump and undulation, every tyre barrier, every kerb to the millimetre. You are quite literally driving on an almost completely accurate version of the track when it was laser scanned at that point.
The cars are similar. The cars are meant to be so accurate and feel real because in terms of the data and numbers, they are modeled exactly after real-life. What this means is that the times you achieve on track would be, in theory, extraordinarily similar to the times you would achieve in real-life.
All this sounds incredibly realistic, yet what is more impressive is its multiplayer. The developers have focused entirely on the online experience, meaning the other cars you will face will only ever be human controlled. A strict license system is used, meaning you have to race, do well, be consistent and not crash all the time in order to progress. It means you will play against players of similar ability to you, and it gives you an incentive to do well. It is incredibly sophisticated. And there is no worry about finding someone to race against either - you can go online and join a race within minutes.
Yet iRacing also allows for so-called League racing - essentially organized races put on by members to emulate a real-life championship, or to emulate what a fictional championship might be like in real-life. For this, iRacing allows you to pay $3 in order to host a multiplayer session with little to no lag, without you having to use your own server. This is excellent news for those who want to host the odd race once in a while and not have to go through the faff of hosting their own game and opening ports, or renting a server and grinning-and-bearing the often extreme costs. iRacing has been designed for multiplayer, and thus it does an excellent job of it.
The problems with iRacing, ironically, are those that come with its strengths. The specialisation structure means you cannot download community-made content as easily as in other sims, never mind a wide variety of content. The sim perhaps best for this is the one perhaps most highly regarded in the community to date, and although challenged by iRacing, is unlikely to give up this position until its sequel comes along. I'm talking, of course, about rFactor.
In short, you'd want to get iRacing if you're after uncompromised and total realism
rFactor has for a while now been regarded as the best in the business. It is most famous for its open-endedness and modability, allowing anyone with the know-how to add content to the game and thus increase its replayability and longevity, a subject where iRacing has often fallen down on.
rFactor's modability is almost certainly its greatest strength. Almost any type of motorsport can be simulated, and a solid physics engine means it is likely to be well replicated and similar to the real thing (as you can see in the Youtube video below). There are often numerous mods for one series, especially if its popular, so you can pick and choose depending on the quality you want, and depending on what year you want. For example with F1, almost every single era of racing has been modelled, with the very early cars of the 50s, right down to the 2010 and even 2011-era cars, with everything in between, the 80s cars and numerous 90s cars. NASCAR gets a similar treatment, with around 5 or 6 stock car mods devoted to the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping Truck series, often with each mod modelling all three. Touring cars are modelled, and there are whole mods that specifically focus on one car, such as the very popular WTCC BMW E90 mod.
It is also very easy to install extra mods and tracks. Often all you need to do is drag and drop, but if you're really lucky you might get an uninstaller too. The downside to this system is that there is no easy way of uninstalling a mod, short of going through the whole game folder and deleting files that might or might not be part of the mod! This could perhaps be better controlled with some sort of mod control panel - maybe we'll get this in rFactor 2?
The main problem with rFactor however is its singleplayer and AI. Granted, at least it has this where a sim like iRacing doesn't, however it is often poorly implemented, although again this depends on the car and track combination and the quality of third-person mods.
The server browser also leaves a bit to be desired, and sometimes doesn't display a full server list fully, although there are fixes to get around this that are widely available.
Another problem is its physics engine - although it isn't necessarily bad, players that revisit rFactor after playing iRacing for a while often complain about the lack of 'feel' that rFactor delivers, even with strong force feedback and custom mods installed to supplement this. The truth is that rFactor isn't as strong as many of its rivals at delivering the true feel of a car, how it slips and slides, and the feeling of traction and plantedness. This is perhaps down to the fact that it has to accommodate a wide variety of types of cars.
Another downside is the lack of weather modelling. You get the rather stilted choice of full-on sunshine, or an overcast sky, both of which are exactly the same except (if you're lucky) in terms of track temperature.
In short, you'd want to buy rFactor above the other sims if you wanted to have access to a wide variety of cars and tracks more than anything else.
A comparison of rFactor with real-life
arubellithi's great video showcasing why rFactor has been held in such high esteem for so long. How long did it take you to realise which one was real-life?
Race 07 and expansions
This sim is in some ways a combination of the other two, but it is of course also distinguished in that its name doesn't start with a lower-case letter!
Created by Simbin, the Race07 Series, along with its now numerous expansions, tends to focus on two or three types of racing more than anything else, not really supporting oval racing like iRacing or rFactor. Instead, it tends to focus on touring car racing, GT racing and open-wheel racing to a lesser extent. This focus means guaranteed quality similar to iRacing, although in a slightly more limited extent with no option of stock cars. This is perhaps the one area where iRacing and Race 07 trumps rFactor.
It is also the only one to really go for trying to model weather. You get the lovely option of rain, which can either be switched fully on, or to changeable, so it changes over a race weekend.
Probably the single most limiting factor of Race 07 is actually its price. If you wanted the whole package, with all of its expansions, you'd probably be looking to pay at least £50 or £60 for the entire bundle.
Perhaps the biggest plus with Race 07 however, is with its functionality. It is a very easy "pick-up-and-go" sim, meaning you can jump straight into the car and load up the default setup custom made for that track. This means it is great for not having to spend hours practicing a track to be fully ready for a race.
Ultimately its down to you really. Personally I've always been a big fan of Race 07, but if you want a wide selection of cars and tracks, definitely go for rFactor. If on the other hand you're after uncompromised realism, then iRacing is the one to go for.
For more information regarding the reviews of games there are a myriad of websites to go to. However I particularly recommend this one as it not only contains reviews on racing simulator games, but also contains information on mods and addons and lets you know which are the ones worth trying!