If anyone needs proof the sim racer is alive and well, they need look no further than Xbox One releases over the last twelve months. We’ve had some absolutely phenomenal simulation racing games: Forza Motorsport 6, Project Cars Game of the Year Edition, DiRT Rally… Enter Assetto Corsa, Italian for ‘Racing Setup’ or ‘Race Trim’. Developed by Kunos Simulazioni, an Italian developer based at the race circuit Vallelunga in Rome, it sets out to revolutionise console simulation racing. Having been available, and critically acclaimed, on the PC for two years, can the console release really bring anything different to the table? In a world where Forza Motorsport and Gran Tourismo exist, is it necessary?
Comparison is the bane of the reviewer. As I said months back, when I first started this venture with Brash Games, I like to go into each title blind, without any point of reference or preconceived ideas. This allows me to enjoy each game on it’s own merits, and provide an honest review which readers can trust. Sometimes though, titles build a rod for their own back, and avoiding a comparison to a different product becomes the elephant in the room. With Assetto Corsa, that elephant is it’s PC counterpart.
When Kunos Simulazioni began to develop the title, one of their goals was to provide an open and accessible platform which modders would be able to easily tinker with and add to. They even provided tools to import new meshes into the game, and apply shaders and physics to them so people could create their own tracks, cars, scenery, championships… Even the user interface is accessible and modifiable. Literally thousands of mods are currently hosted on various websites, and there are scores of servers running custom race weekends across the globe. By choosing this approach, the developer gets to have all kinds of things in the game they may not have had the licence for – a full field of current F1 cars, for example, or a custom British Touring Car Championship run to real-time dates. The consumer gets to play hundreds of events, with varying degrees of quality of course, all for a single one time payment without the need to shell out for different racing titles. To enhance the playability and depth of this unofficial modded content as well as their own licensed models, Kunos Simulazioni coded in support for various set ups – multiscreen visuals, for example, and expensive H-shift wheels.
Some people regard the above as Assetto Corsa’s raison detre. And yes, it’s bloody brilliant, and thanks to a supportive and far-reaching community it continues to grow. A true drivers paradise of simulation options. Of course, I’m reviewing the console version of the game, and none of the above matters. Because it isn’t here. It’s a lot to leave out. It’s the games personality, part of it’s core, but at the end of the day it’s user-generated content, and that’s not what we’re paying for. This isn’t rFactor 2. So what are we left with? We’re left with the simulation. And oh boy, what a simulation it is. Even with a standard Xbox controller, the driving just feels so perfect while using the in-car view. When you turn into a corner at speed, you get that unique sensation of physicality that, until now, has been impossible to replicate in a computer game.
You’re going slightly too fast as you approach the final bend, transferring the weight of your rear wheel drive roadster across the racing line. The increased pressure on the outer tyres, the slight over rotation of the inside front wheel, and the wonderfully light drifting as you down shift and apply the accelerator, perfectly sliding your nose into the apex. Relaxing your grip on the wheel, you allow it to gently feed back through your fingers as your car naturally follows the line to the outside of the following straight. A slight pop-pop-pop of the rumble strip, and your rear tyres regain their footing on the hot tarmac. Up it flashes in purple, on your HUD – another fastest lap. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what sets Assetto Corsa apart from the rest of the console simulation crowd. It’s the tangible feeling of being in control of a real vehicle, the physicality of driving a race car. It’s the weight, the control, the tactile feedback from the track surface through an amazing dynamic tyre simulation.
Backing up this supreme physical simulator is a great sound engine, although as I drive using the cockpit cam, I only really get to appreciate this during replays. Not only do they sound great, but the cars look superb. Not up there with Forza 6, which remains the pinnacle of fidelity when it comes to console racing, but still accurately modelled and beautiful to look at. Speaking of accuracy, the game features around eighteen tracks in various configurations at launch, and all bar one of the real world locations have been laser scanned. What does this mean? It means a small team of people walk the real track, taking 3D scans of the layouts, surfaces, the trackside, the horizons and scenery, the lighting, and all of it’s nuances to bring you the most accurate recreations of racing circuits around the globe. This includes the Nurburgring Nordshleife track, the infamous Green Hell in Germany. It took the team two years just to build this one circuit, and a comparison to any other game, no matter how good their version is, shows the sheer power that laser scanning technology has to deliver an accurate recreation. It’s simply flabbergasting, the work involved and the dedication of the developers, and although the trackside graphics are not AC’s strong point, the accuracy is peerless in it’s execution. Tracks like Spa in Belgium, with it’s iconic Eau Rouge twist and high-speed straights, just have that level of accuracy which allows you to drive cars around them you would in real life.
With great looking cars, an unmatched physics engine and perfectly accurate tracks, Assetto Corsa should be the ultimate driving haven for console simulation enthusiasts. However, one area let’s it down: The ‘game’. It’s so simple; uninspired. The antithesis of the pure driving pleasure you get from lapping closed circuits of the world, you’re presented with a bland, featureless menu devoid of personality. The usual options abound – Time trials, custom races, a bare bones online mode and, somewhat bizarrely, drift challenges. There’s quite a chunk of gameplay in ‘challenges’, where you are given goals to beat such as lapping a certain track in a given time using a specific car under certain conditions, and for what they are they’re pretty fun. But the meat of the game, or what should be at least, is the single player career mode. Quite literally a long queue of championships with uninspired names such as ‘Novice 1’ and ‘Novice 2’, each championship sees you driving a series of five or so tracks using a specific vehicle. You may have a time attack, followed by a race, then another time attack, then another race, and finally a hot lap in a totally different car. For each of these you are given targets to beat resulting in Bronze, Silver and Gold medals. Gain enough medals to unlock the next championship in the career. No Project Cars style contracts to sign, no Forza Motorsport 6 progression into other disciplines, just a long list of objectives to beat and medals to gain. This lack of imagination and bland execution runs through everything which isn’t directly associates to racing, or tinkering with car set ups. When you finish a race, there’s no podium, no animation; there isn’t even an in lap. Your car literally just appears by your pit box, silent with it’s engine off, and the results are overlaid onto the screen. It’s very jarring. Even a fade to black would have been more acceptable.
Assetto Corsa should take the place as the description of ambivalent in the dictionary. Never before have I been so torn about one game. We have a best-in-class automotive simulation on laser scanned racing circuits, with endlessly customisable controls and force feedback options. And all of that work, that Italian passion from a team of developers who live to make racing simulation software, a team who have their office based at an actual racetrack, is wrapped in a half-finished, unpolished gaming experience. The hardcore among you will cry “Forget that! It’s the simulation that counts!” But the truth is, any feeling of being in a real car is ripped from you whenever you’re not driving. A lot more care and attention is needed to add atmosphere to the game, beyond the confines of an excellently recreated cockpit. For it to truly be ‘your racing simulator’, as Kunos Simulazioni bill it to be, you need to feel like a racing driver from the moment you drive your first lap until you take the championship. Without that cohesion between the simulation and the game surrounding it, you don’t get that, and it is, truly, a great shame. But the driving? Oh, the driving… It makes the rest of Assetto Corsa’s fallacies almost forgivable, and the fact the developers intend to support the title with both free and paid content post-launch is something to look forward to. To top that off, the game is fifteen pounds cheaper than other new releases at launch. These factors help Assetto Corsa to become a very good game in my opinion, which simulation enthusiasts will ‘lap’ up. Ahem.
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