Racing games have a weirdly niche market. Most people are at least mildly interested in cars, but for the genre, a lot of gaming publications and magazines seem to pay only the minimum amount of attention required. You get a review when a game comes out, but most of the hype we see and hear comes for games like Fallout, Red Dead Redemption, GTA, or Battlefield. Or, if it’s not for one of those franchise heavy hitters, it’s a sort of slow burning search for a proper Alan Wake sequel or we’re wondering what happened to Brothers in Arms: Furious 4 (it was cancelled, is what happened).
But now we’d like to rectify that. We’re fans of cars, you’re fans of cars, so we’d like to celebrate cars in gaming. These are the games that all car-loving guys should play.
Forza Motorsport 6
If you took a random sampling of your gamer friends, or are a gamer yourself, you’ll find most people usually pick their console based on its exclusive titles. That’s kind of the point, especially since there’s not a huge difference in power between the machines, and if you’re really that worried about powerful hardware, you already bought a PC. For fans of racing games, their choice is a fairly easy one. The Forza franchise is an Xbox exclusive (although, this increasingly means Xbox and Windows 10), so that’s what they buy.
The Forza Motorsport series has always had a huge emphasis on realism. Motorsport 6, the most recent entry, features more than 450 vehicles, 150 different driving surface types, and 26 true-to-life racing locations. The developer, Turn 10, is so obsessed with accurate simulation that they create virtual models of individual car components, and cars perform based on how the pieces combine with each other. It’s exactly the same way cars are built and behave in real life, Turn 10 just digitized it. Every car is customizable down to the tire pressure, so if you’re a perfectionist who needs control over every aspect of your car, you can do that with Forza Motorsport 6.
The game even simulates human drivers. Difficulty settings in the game are determined based on how other people drive, not robots. When you’re racing, the other drivers’ behavior is based on data Turn 10 gathered from its own research, watching and recording professional drivers as they worked. That means if you set the difficulty to professional levels, you’re pitting yourself against people who made a career out of driving. All that is why Forza Motorsport is the first on this list. If you’re looking for an insanely accurate racing simulation, this is what you should be playing. Xbox One
Forza Horizon 3
If the Forza Motorsport series is made for realism, then their recent Horizon games have been more about stylized action. Customization is still present, but Horizon has more of a focus on fiction and spectacle, and wants to be a more welcoming game for casual players. Some gameplay from the game’s debut at E3 last year should give you a better idea of what we’re saying. Get past the YouTuber’s 20 second intro and you’re treated to pure racing gameplay.
It starts off simple enough, with a Lamborghini race through a few paved Australian roads before switching to a huge offroading truck. We couldn’t tell the make or model, but the race also then becomes a more freeform dirt track spectacle, speeding through coastal jungle and caves, across cliff-bordered beaches, and over huge jumps. The second significant part of the video puts a buggy up against a Jeep suspended from a helicopter, transitioning from dirt roads to asphalt to beaches without any sort of warning.
Part of the attraction for the Horizon series is how easy it is for people who don’t play a lot of racing games to pick up. If you’re a car guy who’s looking for a game to play online with friends, Horizon’s going to be a much easier sell than some of the other games on this list. You still get your customization and your friends get the excitement of an arcade racer. Plus, since they own it, they’ll probably start getting more into the nuances of the cars, and you may find you have more car friends than you thought. Xbox One | PC
Customization is going to come up a lot in this feature, but most of the games we’ll talk about only really let you mess around with car features or performance. Project Cars gives you a bit more power. As in, it lets you customize everything about it, including cars, controllers and their mapping and sensitivity, and even the changing of the weather on different courses. This is a game you can pick up and play right away or, if you want, spend twelve hours rooting through menus setting everything to exactly how you want. For a better example, your opponents’ AI is set by a number slider instead of the traditional easy, medium, hard choices.
Gameplay doesn’t suffer from the customization either. If anything, it’s enhanced. All the tools you could possibly need to make this game fun for yourself are right there in your hands. If you want a faithful racing simulation, you can have that. If you want to race what equates to a bunch of fourteen-year-olds on a go-kart track, you can do that too. Because this game also has go-karts. And consumer level cars. And professional cars. And prototypes you can’t even get.
It’s a beautiful game that strips away most of the video game quirks, focusing instead on providing players with a fun but accessible way to live out their driving fantasies. There isn’t much in the way of excuses for not enjoying this game. All Platforms
Other games on this list have off-road elements to them, but Dirt Rally seems to have an active aversion to conventional urban paving. What asphalt is in the game seems to have been included because the real-world host country’s travel regulations demand the road be paved. If it were up to the industry, there wouldn’t be a scrap of paved road anywhere near their tires.
The game is made by developer Codemasters, whose claim to widespread recognition in the industry is their mastery of the racing genre. Their other titles include the DIRT series, Colin McRae Rally, an F1 series with entries in 2014 and 2015, and GRID Autosport, so in terms of bona fides, Codemasters absolutely isn’t lacking. The game brings the attention to detail present in other games on this list to rally gaming, with praise from both the racing and gaming industries.
We should also mention DiRT Rally fully supports Oculus Rift VR headsets. For most of us, that’s the closest we’ll ever get to actually experiencing professional rally racing and since the game’s mostly set in European tracks, we’ll get a mini vacation at the same time. If you want to, you could take a leisurely VR cruise around the tracks rather than pitching yourself headfirst down a Finnish mountain. Take some time to look around. Console | PC
Assetto Corsa is like the non-exclusive version of Forza Motorsport. Both games are built in very similar ways, with laser scans of famous tracks, hyper-specificity in car simulation, and a devotion to their physics engine, since, if that’s broken, it doesn’t matter how well the cars are modeled, it’ll feel like you’re driving on a completely different planet. Both are clearly built by people who love racing and feel the need to do the sport justice.
Assetto Corsa comes with an impressive roster of vehicles too, featuring common names like Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and McLaren, but then get into names we don’t hear as often, like Abarth, KTM, Scuderia Glickenhaus, and Pagani. These are the kinds of cars you don’t see zipping around the streets and plenty of their price tags are astronomical, so if you want some hands-on time with some of Europe’s supercars, something like this might be your best bet.
The developer also claims to have VR support in the game, though not full, so VR is treated more as a display device than a full utility. From what we can tell, you have to switch in and out, meaning menus aren’t in VR but the actual race is. It’s a little more work than normal, but we have to say worse games have asked for more, so if we have to spend a few minutes with a regular menu before we get to sit ourselves in a McLaren’s cockpit, we’ll make that sacrifice. Console | PC
The Burnout series has always been half racing game, half Mortal Kombat for cars. Going fast is only half of what’s going to get you across the finish line first. You also have to smash the shit out of everyone else trying to pass you, with sweet slo-mo closeups of their visceral destruction. Each event is a frantic, insanity laden sprint to the finish line, one where you’re going to be ramping off as many things as possible, and hopefully landing on your opponents. This lets you go faster so you can crush more of your opponents into various medians, piles of dirt, cliff edges, rocks, trees, or other cars, which then lets you go faster and so on.
The game features an open world, which has been divisive among fans. Some preferred the freedom of a choose your own path race, while others felt restricted tracks actually enhanced the destruction of the races. If you’re all on the same path, it’s much more likely that you’ll be running into each other, which is the whole reason you’re playing Burnout in the first place. It’s up to you how you feel about that, since both have pros and cons, but for us, we didn’t feel a whole hell of a lot of difference. Plus, with an open world, accidental T-Bones are much more satisfying.
Depending on your preference, Burnout has one flaw in the cars it features. There aren’t any manufacturers you’ve heard of, not because you don’t keep up with the car scene, but because they don’t exist outside of Paradise City. But if you can get over the lack of real world cars, you’ll quickly realize that the vehicles that are available are only different enough to avoid a lawsuit. For example, if you want to careen around town in a Ford Mustang, might we suggest a nice Hunter Calvary?
We’re also going to cheat a bit and suggest Burnout 3: Takedown. If we were writing this ten years ago, it’s highly possible this wouldn’t even be a list and we’d just spend two thousand words talking about why Burnout 3 is the greatest racing game ever made. The reason it’s not included is we’re already taking you back a generation with Burnout Paradise (even if it is backwards compatible on Xbox One), so we didn’t want to make you dig out your old PS2 on our account. Last Gen Consoles & PC
Need For Speed: Rivals
The Need for Speed franchise has been a genre mainstay since 1994, back when PC gaming was done on DOS systems and Sega was still making consoles. In fact, that 1994 release wasn’t even for a console that’s still around. It was for 3DO, a console that was fairly advanced for its time, but couldn’t get a footing in a market already dominated by Sega, Nintendo, and Sony. But failed gaming consoles is another article for another time. We’re talking about Need for Speed right now.
Entries in the series have never really dropped below mediocre, except for mobile versions of things (which no one can seem to figure out). Need for Speed: Rivals is the franchise’s most successful next-gen installment, signaling a return to the format and dynamics that made earlier games like Hot Pursuit 2 so replayable. Environments have a far more rural highway feel and like Hot Pursuit, the emphasis is on the cops and robbers gameplay and brings online multiplayer into the mix better than previous entries.
There’s also the benefit of using DICE’s Frostbite engine, which means the game looks like Battlefield: Cars. Smashing through obstacles and other cars on the map has a satisfying weight to it not present in other games, so while customization might not be as extensive as some hardcore racing fans might like, it takes a backseat to the breakneck speed and destruction inherent in the chases. All Platforms (including last gen consoles)
Upcoming: Gran Turismo Sport
We could speculate as to why, but racing games always seem to have better visuals than some other games. No matter the console, a racing game’s world always had the edge on its competing genres when it came to graphics. Now we’ve seen this trailer for the upcoming sequel, we’re convinced we were right. It could be all pre-rendered stuff, but if it’s not, Gran Turismo Sport may be the first video game to achieve photorealism. The footage is absolutely stunning, and we were only watching on a 1080p monitor. The resolution can be bumped up to 4K, so we can only imagine how good that looks.
Gran Turismo Sport comes with the added benefit of getting you your racing license and that’s completely not a joke. By fulfilling certain in-game requirements, you’ll be eligible for the “FIA Gran Turismo Digital License,” which will have the same use as a real life license. So far, 22 countries have agreed to participate in the program, including the UK, Norway, Australia, India, and Rwanda. Sadly no US yet, but the list isn’t final, so there’s still hope. PS4