I would like to think that I’m a fairly good judge of a racing game. I’ve played dozens and dozens of them, and along with being a massive motorsports fan I feel like I’m able to spot a good one when it comes along. I’ve written before about how good I thought recent efforts Forza 4 and GRID 2 were respectively, and how they were a breath of fresh air in a world of Need For Speed’s and GTA’s. In reality though, neither of these games would even get into my top five favourite racing games. Not even close. Here then, are the best five driving simulation games that history has thrown at us.
5 – Le mans 24 Hours (PS2)
A little known game that most haven’t heard of, but light years ahead of its time. Almost completely overshadowed by the release of Gran Turismo 3 in the same year (2001 by the way), Le Mans had a comparatively small roster consisting of ‘only’ 70 cars and 12 circuits. What it did have however was a game built around the endurance series of the time, with the same cars flying round the same tracks that you saw on tv. Tracks like Brno have scarcely been seen before or since, giving the game more than a hint of uniqueness, heightened by the addition of varying weather conditions.
It also brought us multi class racing – with Porsche 911’s running round, you always had to be on your toes as one of the big Audi or Mercedes Prototype’s was only a moment away from coming flying past you. Most of all though, Le mans 24 Hours was the first and, to my mind, the best execution of day/night racing that I have seen in any game. Hurtling along at 200mph with literally zero visibility, knowing that there are slower cars on track in front of you gave a truly exhilarating experience that even now makes me long for my Playstation 2 again.
4 – TOCA 2 (PC)
Back in the day, the BTCC used to be rivalled only by Formula One for the affections of motorsport fans. Long before the DTM came along and ruined the party with its clinical German efficiency, the British touring cars were the playground for ex-f1 drivers like Nigel Mansell and Derek Warwick, evergreen stars like Jason Plato and Alain Menu, and iconic liveries like the Audi A4 and Nissan Primera, instantly recognisable even now. All this made for an intoxicating mix of real world pedigree and development wizardry from Codemasters, who brought us a truly epic incantation that entwined realism, excitement and accessibility just beautifully.
TOCA 2’s real strengths lay in the rendering of the iconic circuits; Donnington, Silverstone and in my opinion the best racetrack in the world Brands Hatch were exhibited in all their finery, with gamers given pit strategy and traditional British weather to contend with alongside the racing action.
3 – F1 2010 (Xbox 360/PS3)
I have previously written at ridiculous length about the history of Formula One games over the past decade, and the glorious revival under the steady hand of Codemasters. It may be nostalgia, it may be personal preference, hell it may just be that it was the last time there was a truly great world championship, but for me F1 2010 was the absolute pick of the bunch. Following the bizarre Wii only release of F1 2009, 2010 brought joy to console gamers everywhere that FINALLY, after years of waiting, we had a properly good Formula One game again. Graphically it was gorgeous, controls-wise it was intuitive and precise, and gameplay wise it was brutal; blessed with the birth of my first son I sat at half three in the morning propping my child up with one arm, a bottle of milk and my phone in the other watching YouTube gameplay videos until that glorious day when I could afford to go and buy it.
Many could and would reasonably argue that some of the later iterations (mainly F1 2011) were better games, but I maintain that 2010 is the yardstick that all that followed be measured by, and for that it always has a special little place in my racing heart.
2 – Gran Turismo 4 (PS2)
Sheer racing perfection. A game so perfect that it’s hard to believe that it is now ten years old, it was arguably the first game to be built with HD in mind. I wont be the only one who remembers the joys of hunting the used car market for a bargain, the thrill of the rolling start and your car suddenly rocketing forward, nor the overwhelming glut of cars and circuits to choose from.
Whilst it is now a mandatory requirement that cars have realistic damage physics, Polyphony Digital turned their disdainful noses away from the foul smelling masses, choosing not to tarnish the beauty of the cars with damage. Nobody cared. These were the days before the ‘rewind’ function crept into the genre, meaning that a mistake on the last corner meant you had to man up and not cry in front of your mates. Nobody cared. The endurance races defied belief, including a 24 Hours of Le Mans race that actually lasted 24 hours, forcing you to use the Spec – B option of taking the role of team manager and guiding your car from the pit wall. With almost no weaknesses, this was the perfect game and I never thought I would play a racing sim as good as this again.
1- Forza 5 (Xbox One)
Do you know why there are no games on the Xbox One? It’s because Turn 10 have already completed this generation of console, so there’s no point in bothering to develop any new ones. Forza 5 is just absolutely perfect; a blend of next gen muscle power, HD graphics and stunning racing physics, it’s just a giant leap forward from anything that went before. The now traditional vehicle classes are all still there, as is the intimidating roster of real world circuits supported by a handful of tarmac fantasies from the minds of the developers. I had previously referred to Forza 4 as potentially the last great racing sim, and I am so happy to be proved ridiculously wrong.
The most notable improvement that makes Forza 5 what it is is the opponent AI. Each player has their own drivatar, a digital embodiment of their own driving style. Whilst you’re off living your life, your drivatar is hard at work existing in the games of other players, returning home like a faithful dog every day with a sack full of money that it’s earnt from other races. In turn, each time you line up on the grid you are joined by the drivatars of real gamers, each with their own driving style and loose interpretation of the racing line. It gives everything a much more realistic experience than any game I’ve played before; aggressive attack and defence twinned with the capacity to chuck it into the gravel and let you back through makes every race a hugely immersive experience.
Speaking of drivatars, you will find that each race you dive into is populated with the drivatars of your Xbox live friends, their cars/liveries/driving styles battling their way around the track with you is a wonderful experience. And at the end of each race you get a global leaderboard with localised competitors; you are forever being updated that you have done a better lap time than this friend or that friend, and when it gets personal you can enter into Rivals Mode; a pure time attack on the chosen track against the ghost car of your friends best lap time. It has the same addictive competitiveness as Trials HD, and is in my opinion the best example of social input improving a gameplay experience the genre has ever experienced.
The car and track rosters are as spectacular as you would expect; with iconic circuits like Le Mans, Spa and Silverstone, and cars from historic and prestige marques from Ferrari to Ford, Mercedes to Mini. And then, when you think you’ve got the measure of it, you find Kimi Raikkonen’s 2012 Formula One car. Then you find James Hunts’ 76 Mclaren and Nikki Lauda’s 76 Ferrari, and it just makes you go all misty eyed and just a touch over excited. Still no Porsche though, but I really couldn’t care less.
In my personal opinion, motorsport is the most exciting sporting experience anyone can have. Football has moments of ecstasy, rugby has brute strength and endeavour, tennis has skill and cricket has mental fortitude; only motorsport has all of them. People say its boring, just cars going round and round. I say you’re not doing it right. The sounds, smells and emotion of motorsport is unrivalled, and what Turn 10 have managed to do is port all of it into Forza 5. It’s taken ten years for something to come along that’s better than Gran Turismo 4, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s another ten years before we see anything better than this.