What are the best racing games? So many elements contribute: the genre’s not only about graphical fidelity and hair-raising sound design – though both certainly help – it’s also about pulling you into the action as if you’re there in the driver’s seat, eyes strained as the asphalt whips past at 240kph. From honing your timing for a perfect gear shift to kicking out the back-end for a sublime drift, a quality racing game just feels right.
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Don’t go asking, “How could you forget about Grand Prix Legends! Where’s Geoff Crammond?!” When versions of those games surface on Steam or GOG, we’ll be the first in line to play them again… and inevitably find they haven’t aged as well as we hoped. So for those of you who are just looking to hop in and fire up the engine of a superb racer, whether that’s an intricate sim or an arcade thriller, we’ve got some breakneck PC racers for you.
Codemasters’ Dirt Rally has surpassed its predecessor, Dirt 3, and is arguably the best game Codemasters have made in years. With a far more authentic handling model, Dirt Rally does away with many of the arcadey touches that continue to persist in the core series.
That also makes it a proper rally game in a way gamers haven’t seen in a long while. It’s not just that these races happen to be set on dirt tracks with loads and loads of slidey sideways driving, but that you’re actually taking part in the kind of endurance racing that rallying is all about. You have to take care of your car through every race stage, which introduces an element of strategy and resource management that’s all too rare in sim-racing.
Now that it’s been out a while, Dirt Rally has also accrued a dedicated and meticulous modding community that regularly put out tweaks and fixes that massively improve the core game, especially for rally aficionados. Everything from gorgeously rendered car skins to the most subtle of weather and lighting changes are available to elevate the core game just that little bit higher.
Want more? Here’s our Dirt Rally review.
Shift 2 might be the best compromise between realism and accessibility of any game on this list. It’s not just the ways the car handle – menacing, but capable – but the way it consistently thinks about what players need to perform at a high level. Rather than lock your view gazing out over the hood, or ask you to spring for TrackIR to let you turn your head, Shift 2 has a dynamic view that subtly changes based on context.
Coming up on a gentle right-hand corner, your view shifts a bit as your driver avatar looks right into the apex. For a sharper corner, your view swings a bit more so you have a sense of what you’re driving into, yet it doesn’t feel disorienting at all. It feels natural.
The thoughtfulness even extends to depth-of-field. This is a wildly overused visual effect but Shift 2 uses it to highlight where your attention should be. When someone is coming up fast on your tail, objects farther away get a bit fuzzier while your mirrors sharpen to razor clarity. As you move around in dense traffic, your cockpit gets indistinct while the cars around you come into focus. It sounds gimmicky, but it all feels as natural as driving a car in real life. Shift 2 is really dedicated to communicating the fun and accomplishment of performance driving, and it succeeds admirably.
Project CARS 2
Real cars, you might have noticed, rarely cartwheel into the verge the moment you dare to mix steering and acceleration inputs. In fact, they’re quite good at going round corners – it is almost like an engineer has given the problem some thought during the design process. Performance cars, while certainly more liable to bite back, are even better at the whole turning thing. Throw a Ferrari or Lamborghini around the track (as we have done on a number of occasions) and you’ll probably spend more time having fun than fretting about the absence of a rewind button in real life.