Since I was a little kid, while others wanted to be policemen, astronauts or veterinarians, I always wanted to be a race car driver. While it hasn’t yet worked out as expected in real life, I can sort of live the dream with race simulators, such as Assetto Corsa.
At first appearance, Assetto Corsa might seem like an ordinary racing game. It doesn’t have uber-fancy graphics or any exceptional “never been seen before” features, and Assetto Corsa is certainly not “completely redefining the genre of racing games.” Yet, it still offers features and content that isn’t often seen, but greatly appreciated, in this genre.
When gamers hear adjectives such as “simulation,” “real,” and “challenging” to describe a racing game many potential players are immediately scared off, but is this sort of reaction justified? While it’s mainly the older PC racing simulators that defined the common misconception that “difficult sim racing equals realistic driving,” such misconceptions remain prevalent within the sim racing community today. Yet, even when taking all those arguments into account, looking at the sales charts of Steam, it doesn’t take one too long to find Assetto Corsa. So what makes Assetto Corsa worth a look?
First of all, Kunos Simulazioni is not an unknown name, at least not for dedicated sim racers, but everybody else might not be familiar with them. For those that aren’t, they are located in Italy, close to Rome at the Autodromo Vallelunga (yes, their office is indeed AT the race track). They have previously released two other racing games; netKar Pro in 2006 (which was supported with official updates until early 2011), and Ferrari Virtual Academy (their collaboration also explains the Ferrari license for AC) in 2010, which is, with a content list of only 3 cars and 3 tracks, more of a promotional paid demo based on netKar Pro rather than a full game. However, both games were not really suited for the “casual sim racer,” as the advertisement for both titles was more based on word-of-mouth recommendation, and both used dedicated websites for distribution rather than services such as Steam. As far as gameplay, each title only offered solo practicing without AI, hot lapping, and online racing. Kunos’ physics engine that was used for both games is the reason Assetto Corsa was highly anticipated since early 2012, when the first screenshots and bits of information were leaked online. However, it wasn’t until March 2013 for netKar Pro owners, and November 2013 for everybody else, when gamers were finally able to get their hands on Kunos’ newest title.
Starting up the game, a plain but streamlined user interface (UI) is presented to you. Changing options, choosing your desired car and track combo, all of this is done in a matter of seconds. While some might argue the UI is too simple, I’d say it’s not exactly a bad thing, considering it is all in favor of accelerating the setup process. I’d even go so far and dare to say what we have here is probably one of the best graphical UI we have seen in a long time. It is that good that it deserves its own section in this review! No loading times within the menu (going on-track, obviously, takes some time to load all the assets), jumping from one section to another through the sidebar on the left, and the general responsiveness are very impressive. The only annoying intricacy is the manual integration of car/livery previews, which is annoying for modders and livery creators wanting to implant their work properly into the game.
The convenience of the UI doesn’t stop on-track, though. On-track, you can arrange a fair amount of ‘apps’. Want a clean screen with no HUD overlays? One click and you’re ready to go. Want to have your track map in the middle of the screen? Select it from the list on the right, drag it into the middle and you’re done.
More than Racing
Since the 1.0 Release Candidate, Assetto Corsa also offers a “Career” mode, which might feel familiar to you if you have already played other racing games. The progress made is not of any importance since every car and every track is unlocked from the beginning, meaning no grinding for money in order to buy cars is required. However, the idea itself is nice and well-executed, as, if you feel like you want to get used to everything by progressing through the game, you can voluntarily start up the career mode. You start off with driving FWD hatchbacks, before you are then “invited” to test other cars and partake at races or time attacks. The description for the events gives the mode a nice touch, as it feels like there’s some sort of story to it – don’t worry, it’s more of a “progressing as a race driver” story, not something extremely cheesy like the “Need for Speed” franchise had only a few years ago.
There is also a “Special Event” section with races against the AI, and events from the three modes “Time Attack”, “Hot Lap” and “Drift” (there is also drag racing, but I’ll just consider them as normal races). These events all have three set goals per event, and for every target attained, you receive a Steam achievement – you know, for bragging rights and the like. The difficulty level is pretty high, but still manageable. Wait, let’s forget that – it was manageable until the feature with the different track conditions was implanted. Now, you have to beat times meant for an ‘optimal’ track on a green (dirty, grip-lacking) track – meaning you either drive a few dozen laps until the track is in perfect condition or just don’t bother with it, which is the likelier and personally recommended option – unless your patience is outstandingly high. It makes sense that the difficulty level is very high, but if one even struggles to obtain the lowest goal, it isn’t extremely difficult, it is unbalanced.
If one even struggles to obtain the lowest goal, it isn’t difficult, but unbalanced.
Time Attack is a game mode that might remind you of the good ol’ Arcade cabinet sort-of games like Outrun – you have a certain time in which you have to pass checkpoints on the track. However, it is nothing like that, as you’re driving on a race track (point-to-point circuits such as the Trento Bondone hillclimb can not be driven on in Time Attack mode) and by passing checkpoints, you receive points, based on how much you improve. And this immediately shows the flaws of this otherwise neat game mode, as you can easily rack up tremendous amounts of points by sandbagging, which removes any kind of challenge due to it being all about the right timing.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well, ‘Drift’ has to be easy!” – it isn’t. Unlike other games, Assetto Corsa does not use heavily altered physics to make drifting easier. This is not a big issue though, as drifting is pretty much “the way it should be”. While it is authentic, it is not really casual-friendly, and will definitely cause some frustration – don’t worry, it is doable, and if a person like myself, with no real driving experience can sort-of drift, most of you should be able to as well.
Now onto the races. While playing with or against the AI might seem a bit boring to some they bring longevity to racing, something rarely found in any other game genre. In Assetto Corsa, you’ll discover that AI drivers are both a gift, and a curse. During the current development process, their behavior has improved a lot – yet, there might still be a moment or two where, because of their actions, you are torn between anger, laughter and pure confusion. Thankfully, you can adjust the AI difficulty to your liking, as is the case with most simulators on PC. Fancy a challenge? Slide the button all the way to the right and enjoy being slaughtered by virtual drivers. Don’t feel like trying at all? Tone the opponent strength setting down to the lowest setting of 80%. If you’re not participating in a Special Event or Career race, give every AI driver underpowered cars and enjoy the massacre that is the polishing of your self-esteem.
The AI’s behavior has improved a lot, yet their actions are still confusing sometimes.
If you don’t like being wrecked by other AI drivers, don’t worry, because there is also the possibility to have the same experience, but with real drivers instead! However, this time, the wrecks might be more intentional. The online part works great, the booking mode (you can only join a server if you’ve already registered for the session(s) beforehand; initially the only method to join a server) has been made optional, and even joining a server while a race is currently in process works almost flawlessly.
So far, I have encountered only a few network issues. Even with around 20 drivers, it seems to be running fine, even on a more demanding circuit such as Spa-Francorchamps, due to the course length. Of the two issues I encountered more than once, one should definitely be fixable. The minor issue is you have to choose your livery before you join a server – you can, thankfully, choose your car in the lobby selection screen, however you can’t do so with the paint of your desire. The more annoying issue is when leaving a server, your “progress” is deleted immediately, meaning as soon as you leave a server, everything is gone – annoying since you can’t change any game settings on-track.
Variety? Yes and no. Quality? Yes and yes.
Assetto Corsa, without any additional, unofficial mods, features 42 cars (11 of which have “tuned/upgraded” versions) and 9 tracks (11 if you count the drag strip and drift course), with a total of 16 configurations. Additionally, another 5 tracks and 50 cars will find their way into the game, either via DLC packs or free updates. Now, for the Forza and Gran Turismo fans, this might sound like a small selection of cars and tracks. But the fact that all of these tracks were laser-scanned (produces highest accuracy possible) and the fact that Kunos is an independent development studio consisting of only 5 to 10 employees definitely makes up for that.
Also, while the latest releases of the previously mentioned games do a really good job at simulating the vehicle physics, Assetto Corsa takes it to a higher level. While some people still say Assetto Corsa is a soi-disant “simcade game” (a term I personally despise and, if anything, it applies more to games such as Codemaster’s F1 series and the like), I believe the physics are authentic, and the feel of every car absolutely corresponds to this thesis. Please bear in mind that real GT3 cars are not made for the top 1% drivers, but for car nuts with bags full of money. Therefore, they are equipped with a handful of driving aids, resulting in them being relatively easy to drive – unlike historic F1 cars, some of which, as in the example of the Lotus 49, didn’t even have slicks (non-grooved) tires back in the day. While it is pretty easy to compare the physics and the facts, it is hard to describe the sensation of driving, but let me tell you this: If there’s anything more fun to drive, it must be a real car. I am not even exaggerating, but speaking from experience, even in the early stages of the Early Access, I didn’t even mind putting down a few laps on my own. No AI, not playing online, not even trying to achieve a high rank in a leaderboard. I was driving because it was fun to just drive on your own – something I didn’t really do in other simulations or games since it got quite stale after some time.
If there’s anything more fun to drive, it must be a real car.
There are some issues though, many of which are more connected to the input settings. For people with a clutch pedal, but no H-gate shifter, it would be great to use the sequential shifter/paddles in combination with the clutch, but then, this might discourage competitive drivers to use their H-pattern shifter. Also, it is not possible to assign any action to the directional pad of the Fanatec Porsche (probably the same with other wheels using directional pads) wheels, forcing you to re-plan your more-or-less universal button configuration scheme.
Like a beaten-up supercar: The graphics
It quickly becomes apparent that Assetto Corsa doesn’t really stack up against Project C.A.R.S. in terms of visual quality. While Assetto Corsa looks very good and also has some nice details, it lacks that “wow” effect – not even the integrated (and customizable) post-processing filters can do much about this, even though they do make the simulation look much nicer. Performance-wise, unfortunately it doesn’t quite live up to its graphical level. While driving on the track on your own, the frame rate (on my system and fully maximized settings) varies from 60 to 70, depending on the track and environment – with a full grid, it gets even worse. But don’t worry, tuning down the graphical fidelity doesn’t necessarily make the game look worse and you can still get up to 120-140fps (when driving on your own) out of the game while still retaining at least 90% of the graphical quality.
The most outstanding graphical setting in the game is the lighting. Dusk and dawn look incredibly amazing, and even getting blinded by the sun almost becomes a joy – as long as you’re not in a race – but you still have to deal with the sun though, for the sake of realism. It becomes even more immersive as soon as you start racing with triple monitors, or better yet, an Oculus Rift, and Assetto Corsa supports both!
Mods – in 2014!
Mods are an essential part of the game, as the game was designed with a high level of modularity in mind. As of right now, players are able to integrate their own vehicles and tracks into the game, with the same tools the developers use! They are also able to code their own apps with Python and great apps like a leaderboard for each car/track combo, custom gauges and many more have already been created. The quality obviously depends on the creator, but so far, many great mods have been released. Unfortunately, the game’s community is also filled with people illegally converting content from other games, and some are even charging money for it too! Luckily, the staff and members at the official forum do a decent job at keeping the selection clean from illegally converted cars and tracks, so if you care about your content not being a low-quality port, the official forums are your place to go.
I wished the game had some sort of “track builder” included, but I think that’s really a bit too far-fetched – especially because I think the track mod market would be flooded with low-quality content this way.
To sum up, Assetto Corsa truly is a great racing simulation, and in my opinion, deserves to be called a “real” next-gen simulation. The content list, while not on par with games of the Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport franchise, is still pretty impressive, and based on future plans, it sounds like Kunos is not going to drop support for the game anytime soon. However, while the graphics are good, they’re not jaw-dropping, and some functions (online, special events) still need some work. It needs to be said though that for a game by an indie developer with around 10 workers, the results so far are truly amazing. One can only hope that with even more success, Kunos can not only hire more workers, but also license more content, scan in more tracks, and get information from manufacturers outside of Europe to add to the game.
Like GT/Forza? You’ll LOVE AC.
Content (bar mods)
As soon as possible if you are a big fan of racing games and simulations
For details on release dates and other related info, head to Assetto Corsa’s game page.
** When is it worth the price? — In lieu of review scores, we opt to give our opinion on whether the game is worthy of it’s release day price, or if you should wait for a patch or a sale. **
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