After a couple of rather lean years for racing game fans at the outset of this console generation, there’s now a wealth of games to choose from, covering all angles of the genre. Having released on PC back in 2014, Assetto Corsa comes to home console as one of the most exacting simulations we’ve ever seen on console so far.
That simple thrill of driving cars is really the beating heart of Assetto Corsa, almost at the expense of everything else. Admittedly, the selection of cars is small, but each feels unique, has its own particular quirks and its own challenges to overcome while trying to drive as fast as possible around each circuit.
Of course, some are bound to be more challenging than others. After wrestling with a KTM X-Bow round Brands Hatch, which might as well be a jet engine strapped to a shopping trolley with a wobbly wheel, as far as my ability to drive it is concerned, stepping into a McLaren MP4-12C GT3 is a sheer joy. Cars like the Lamborghini Countach make me wonder what all the fuss about is about ABS and Traction Control, only for me to be reminded as soon as the Ferrari FXX K tries to get away from me, despite having both of these electronic assists enabled!
There’s a good selection of over 90 cars in the main game – not including the pre-order DLC cars and those in the season pass – they cover a wide range of contrasting vehicles, from road cars to modern super and hypercars, and back to classic racing cars from the past F1 glories of Lotus and Ferrari. They all look quite fantastic and sound it as well, though not quite up to Driveclub’s exceedingly high standards as you only have two audio profiles – one for front/inside and one for the chase camera.
With such a wide range of handling characteristics, there’s a learning process for many of the cars that you step into. Some are easy to drive, despite having ludicrous amounts of power under the bonnet, others are a real handful. One of my favourite features in the game is having factory settings for each car’s ABS and Traction Control, though you can force these on or off should you desire. Automatic gearbox, clutch, downshift blip, having a racing line and stability control are all fairly standard options, but you can also turn on fuel consumption, tyre wear and whether or not you have tyre blankets, and therefore pre-warmed tyres as you leave the pit lane.
Even with assists on, this is a game that will be best played with a racing wheel. Playing with a controller, the experience is just that little bit different. You don’t have the same precise motion of the wheel when flicking the analogue stick, with more noticeable tyre squeal as the cars can be put on edge much quicker. The need for ABS and TC is more pressing, but even then, I can only vaguely keep pace with my ghosts set using a wheel, always a couple of seconds behind from losing time in some corner or braking zone.
The small selection of cars at hand can be driven round a relatively small selection of tracks. Though there’s 26 variations, there’s only really a dozen actual tracks. You’ve got regulars such as Spa-Francorchamps, Nurburgring, Silverstone, Catelunya and Brands Hatch, but there’s a particular Italian twist to having Mugello, Imola, Magione, Vallelunga and bother modern and historic versions of Monza.
All of this has made the jump nicely to PlayStation 4, and while the game restricts itself to dry weather and daylight hours, it can look particularly striking at times. It doesn’t quite manage to stick to 60 frames per second though, and there’s tearing or frame rate judder at times, which is particularly noticeable if you go into a spin or kick up a lot of dust from going off track.
For all that Assetto Corsa does right with the actual cars – their handling and the driving – it barely manages to masquerade as an actual game. A lack of tutorials or attempts to teach the player how to drive well within the simulation is followed up by a career and special events that are just stupidly difficult.
Take, for example, the Novice 2 tier of the career. Of the six events, four of these are races round various forms of the Nurburgring circuit, going through four different BMW road cars. You’re always tasked with stepping on the podium to earn a medal, but the M3 E30 is three decades old, and the Z4 is underpowered compared to the two cars I could compete in, the 1M and M3 E92. The AI does a good job of mixing things up at the start of a race, and tries to avoid unnecessary contact when going head to head, but I struggled to keep pace even on lower difficulties as the lead cars scamper off into the distance.
Alongside the career, you have special events that combine specific vehicles, tracks and event types, each with medals to earn. I try drift events, and instantly dislike trying to do something that I’ve never been good at in any sim racing game, I try to beat the hot lap times and can’t even get within a second of the bronze medal, let alone the gold, and I feel like I need a few hours of practice before I can even vaguely hope to race in a Ferrari 312T F1 car around Zandvoort.
I know that I’m not the fastest driver out there, but anecdotally, I know other, faster drivers who struggle to get over the line. The difficulty level mixed with playing on hot August evenings managed to drain a lot of my enjoyment early on, and it wasn’t until I recognised this and moved on to racing hot laps and just trying out new cars that I started to enjoy myself once more.
The online seems to be a much better fit for the game. It’s based on dedicated servers, with a browser letting you scroll through to find a particular track or car you want to drive. You get to pick from a selection of available cars when you join a server, and then drop into practice, qualifying and race sessions. The main downside is the inability to create private lobbies and set all of the rules for yourself.
Across the game, there’s unusual or poorly thought out user interface choices. You have to back out to the main menu to make control set up changes, including having to manually switch between controller and wheel, you can’t modify your assists while a track is loaded, you have to wait in the pits for all racers to finish before getting to see the finish times, even when playing solo. Oh, and there’s an annoying bug where a racing wheel will lose all force feedback when waking your console from rest and resuming the game.
While the car handling and actual driving is excellent, Kunos Simulazioni don’t successfully turn this into an enjoyable game, stuffing it with single player events and a career that are both frustrating rather than fun. At its best, Assetto Corsa is quite simply a sublime driving sim. I just wish I could say that without caveats.
Version tested: PlayStation 4