Racing games for PC: 10 of the best for 2016

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What is the best PC racing game? So many elements contribute: they’re not just about graphical fidelity and hair-raising sound design - though both certainly help - they’re 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, these are the best racing games to play right now.

The most realistic PC racing games

Dirt Rally

Dirt Rally screenshot

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 sideways slidey driving, but that you're actually taking part in the kind of endurance racing that rallying is all about. You’ll 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 awhile, Dirt Rally has also accrued a dedicated and meticulous modding community who 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

Best Racing Games Shift 2

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 just 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 

Best Racing Games Project Cars

Project CARS is not without its issues, and a plethora of minor but noticeable bugs have definitely dampened enthusiasm for what was one of the PC's most exciting racers. Still, it's one of the best racing packages on offer, with tons of rarely-seen racing series and UK circuits that set it apart from its competition.

Project CARS is not just beautiful, but its vehicles and tracks are lovingly recreated and wonderfully diverse. You can drive classic F1 deathtraps around modern race courses, or take a LeMans car around the dazzling and under-utilized Watkins Glen race track (which rivals Spa for hilly grandeur). Or you can say to hell with all that noise and hop into a kart. Just nobody mention Project Cars 2

The best PC arcade racers

TrackMania 2: Canyon

trackmania 2 canyon

Any genre veteran will tell you that good track design is an essential part of any quality racing title. While in most games a hairpin bend, g-force-laden camber or high speed straight might suffice, for TrackMania 2: Canyon track design takes on a terrifying, Hot Wheels-inspired new meaning. Sweeping barrel-rolls, nigh-impossible jumps and floating platforms that give two fingers to physics are what set the TrackMania series apart from other arcade racers.

The real heart of TrackMania 2 can be found online, where the ingenious, convoluted creations of others take centre stage. The competition is fierce and frantic. A race can quickly devolve into a hilarious highlight reel of missed jumps and unforeseen corners. The racing mechanics make for an ideal pick-up-and-play title that you can lose hours to without noticing. That’s largely because of how easy the cars are to drive, and yet, once you hit the (often ludicrous) tracks, it’s anyone’s bet who’ll take first place.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted

Best Racing Games Need for Speed Most Wanted

Add the thrilling chases of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit to the sandbox elements of Burnout: Paradise and you get Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Putting players behind the wheel in the gorgeously detailed city of Fairhaven and offering them instant access - provided you can locate them - to a roster of 31 cars, as well as 10 additional cars, which can be unlocked by beating challenges.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted’s greatest strength is its variety of challenge types, races and freeroam objectives to complete. You can spend hours drifting, speeding or crashing through Fairhaven without having to do the same type of challenge twice. Moreover, the versatility of Most Wanted’s driving mechanics allow for newcomers to feel immediately at home, despite the surprising amount of depth and precision that can be found after a spending a considerable amount of time with the game.

Driver: San Francisco

Best Racing Games Driver San Francisco

Every arcade racer should be as cool as this game. If Steve McQueen were digitized and turned into a videogame, he would be Driver: San Francisco.

While Driver: SF features cars and influences from a variety of eras, it approaches everything with a 70’s style. It loves American muscle, roaring engines, squealing tires, and the impossibly steep hills and twisting roads of San Francisco. It may have the single greatest soundtrack of any racing game, and some of the best event variety.

It also has one of the most novel conceits in the genre. Rather than be bound to one vehicle, you can freely swap your car for any other on the road with a push of a button. So in many races, the car you finish in might not be the one you started with, and in car chases, you’ll quickly learn to teleport through traffic to engineer a variety of automotive catastrophes just to screw with opponents. It’s bizarre, original, and perpetually delightful. 

The best PC racing simulations

F1 2013

Best Racing Games Driver F1 2013

Purists may raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of Codemasters' F1 series in the simulation group, but F1 2013 is definitely more demanding than the games listed above. Even a slightly tamed rendition of an F1 car still has more torque and oversteer than most of what you’ll find above, and it demands expert-knowledge to guide these around F1’s tracks at competitive speeds.

As a whole, the F1 series suffers from a lack of innovation and ambition, but as an individual value, F1 2013 is excellent. It synthesizes all the lessons of the previous games, then adds some great touches like more granular assist settings. Plus, its terrific support for TrackIR and force feedback steering wheels ensure that serious sim racers will have no trouble imagining themselves in the cockpit.

Race: Injection

Best Racing Games Driver Race Injection

You can’t put together a list of great simulation racing games without having something from SimBin. While the studio appears to have lost its way a bit with the dubious free-to-play RaceRoom Racing Experience, SimBin were sim racing royalty during the mid-2000s. Race: Injection is their capstone game, the package that combines just about everything they accomplished with the GTR series and Race 07.

These are hard games, but the race-modified sedans of the World Touring Car Cup should ease your transition into serious racing. Even a racing Honda Accord is still a Honda Accord, and the slightly more manageable speed and difficulty of the WTCC is a great place to learn the tracks and SimBin’s superb physics.

But there are muscle cars, endurance cars, and open-wheel racers to choose from in this package, all of them brilliantly recreated and offering unique driving challenges. For the money, you probably can’t do better than Race: Injection for sim racing.

Unfortunately, the Race series was also long in the tooth even as Injection was released, and there’s no concealing the old tech it's built on. Don’t let the flat lighting and dull graphics throw you off, though. A few minutes with these cars, especially if you have a quality force feedback wheel, and you won’t even notice the aged appearance.

Assetto Corsa

French mini-sedan racing

Less a great racing game and more a great handling model with a game built-up around it, Assetto Corsa feels like driving a real car around a real track, to the point of being uncanny at times.

The presentation is kind of crude outside the races themselves, but on the track it's exaclty what it needs to be... right down to some terrific AI driving. These aren't slot-car drivers, but convincing opponents who will overcook it going into a turn, lose control as they try to get back onto the track, and even give you a love-tap as your race side-by-side through a turn. It's definitely a great option for people who need something that combines modern, attractive graphics and good AI with high-fidelity simulation. 

iRacing

Best Racing Games Driver iracing

Welp, here we go. The Grand Poobah of simulation racing.

iRacing blurs the line between play and work. Its cars and tracks are recreated with a fanatical attention to detail, and its league racing rules are about as serious as you’ll find in any racing club or at any track event in the world. This is a racing game for people who want the real thing and are willing to spend hours training for it. It is perhaps the pinnacle of Papyrus legend David Kaemmer’s career. For those of us who cut our teeth on the IndyCar and Grand Prix Legends game, that name alone is recommendation enough.

iRacing is not cheap, though at $50 a year, it’s a better value than many an MMO. Nor is its emphasis on graphics. But its rewards are aimed a specific and demanding group of players. When you’ve outgrown the Codemasters games and even stuff like Race: Injection is wearing a little thin, this is where you go.

That's our starting grid, but what do you think? Let us know your picks below.

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Dog Pants avatarChris Evans avatarAnakhoresis avatarKamel avatarSaiph avatarNitrophos avatar+12
Dog Pants Avatar
1385
2 Years ago

I love Burnout Paradise. I wouldn't have even considered playing it were it not for pulling some very boring shifts at work, which had an X-Box. I did though, and I bought an X-Box controller for it. Then I convinced my mates to buy it and multiplayer brought a whole new meaning to the game. Six of us angrily trying to complete the jump challenge through the suspended concrete pipe at the airfield, then cackling with delight at the rage induced when we nudged other people off their run. The highlight for me though was my defence against such underhanded tactics. When you got taken out by an opponent it sent a reaction shot of you to them from your webcam. At first I wore different hats or held things up to the camera, but that only encouraged them. So I got naked. Suddenly I could drive unmolested, and Naked Burnout was born.

4
Saiph Avatar
23
2 Years ago

I'm playing Grand Prix Legends on Windows 8.1 64-bit. What's the problem? It's still the best and most challenging sim out there, and with all the free mods and tracks there's something for everyone. Can't be beaten.

Update: If you want to get GPL installed on Windows 8.1, simply go to "Sim Racing Mirror Zone" at SRMZ.NET, download the all-in-one installer, use it in conjunction with your original GPL CD, and you get a fully-updated sim with modern rasterizers and a whole host of improved add-ons. There are now over 500 tracks available for free at the track database (gpltd.bcsims.com), and I challenge anyone to find any historical track which isn't included there! Have fun!

4
Drum-God  Adam Deitch Avatar
2

Saiph... Great post. I was a big fan of GPL back in the day, and I still have it. I had no idea I could run it on Windows 7 64 bit.

I may re-install... prob is I can't leave my wheel/pedals set up... so that is a huge PITA.

2
Saiph Avatar
23
1 Year ago

Adam, it's great to hear from another GPL fan. If you want to try re-installing GPL, just follow my advice, and if you get any problems there are loads of helpful people at srmz.net who can answer questions and give advice. I recently bought a Logitech G27 wheel which was reduced at PC World/Curries, and I'm finding it really interesting trying to re-learn how to drive with the "proper" controls - I was using a stubby joystick before (CH Mach 2, with my thumb on top). The "GPLShift" utility is great for getting the gearstick to work with the game.

1
Drum-God  Adam Deitch Avatar
2
7 Months ago

Saiph... Thx for post about GPL... just found my disk but no serial # > can't find... will DL what you mentioned and see if I can get it to run on Win 10 .... Brian in RI/USA

0
Kamel Avatar
3
Kamel(4 hours played)
2 Years ago

er... Project CARS = Community Assisted Racing Sim, so why put it into the non-sim list? It's hell of a lot more demanding than F1 2013.

3
Reikhardt Avatar
131
1 Year ago

Agreed, there seems to be a lot of misconceptions about PC due to some of the initial screaming about the (admitedly terrible) default FFB settings in the game. After an hour or two of tweaking it all it's a damn good sim. Not quite the physical clarity of Assetto Corsa, but packaged in delightful wrapping with great weather effects and night racing to boot.

2
Chris Evans Avatar
121
2 Years ago

Oh how I would love to see some of Geoff Crammond's titles re-born through GoG or such like. I used to spend hours and hours playing Grand Prix 2...though admittedly most of the time I was just driving in reverse and knocking other cars off the track. Apart from that I did love the realistic mechanical failures and tracks that you don't often see these days like the original Hockenheim.

Another retro classic realistic racer was rally title, Network Q RAC Rally Championship (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_Q_RAC_Rally_Championship) which had the full 28 stages of the 1996 Rally GB along with day and night stages along with a handful of snow stages. It was a true rallying title.

As for retro arcade titles, I give that to Screamer, glorious fun!

Bringing things up to date, I would love to see Forza Horizon appear on PC. That game is great fun, closest match to Burnout Paradise in my book.

2
Anakhoresis Avatar
373
2 Years ago

Hnnngh! I would LOVE Forza Horizon on PC. Or something similar. Or even Forza 4/5. I haven't actually tried Project Cars, but it kind of bothers me that it's sold as a Forza-like game when it doesn't look like it's anything near what I like about Forza, being lots of cars including cars that aren't necessarily performance but can be messed with. I like to drive cars that are realistic to -me-. It's nice to drive a Lambo once in a while but really I like to drive and mess with cars I could realistically own in a few years.

4
Nitrophos Avatar
3
1 Year ago

I completely second this! I miss being able to to buy old japanese cars and tune them up like in gran turismo 2,3,n 4. If i wanted to drive a super fast car in a simulator I want to feel like I earned it thru winning races with lesser cars. starting off with a lambo and getting a ferrari after a couple races seems so arcade no matter how real the racing is plus theres no scale of what makes a super car better than any other car

3
Reikhardt Avatar
131
1 Year ago

In fairness Project Cars does have a smattering of road cars that are in no way in the hypercars category. I've had some good fun races in both the Ford Focus and Renault Clio.

2
Shriven Avatar
3178
1 Year ago

Grand Prix 2. Never before could you record a Lap or even an accident and Replay it from many, many angles over and over again just like TV. The realistic Damage physics took my breath away at the time.

1
SamRothstein Avatar
44
SamRothstein(20 minutes played)
1 Year ago

The one thing I dislike about PC racing games is that none of them have the amount of cars that Forza or Gran Turismo have. I love realism, but I still need a deep car roster.

Which of these realistic car games has that?

1
trotskiii3 Avatar
4
trotskiii3(4 days 12 hours played)
1 Year ago

nice to see shift 2 unleashed in there. i dont see dirt 2 thou. dirt 2 had some of the best force feedback effects ive ever played in a racing game. also. raceroomracing. a great simulation racing game. very realistic. also. auto club revolution.

1
jon_hill987 Avatar
135
jon_hill987(1 day 2 hours played)
1 Year ago

No honourable mention for Fuel?

1
hahnchen Avatar
73
1 Year ago

Burnout Paradise completely lacks Burnout's purity of purpose.

You'll realise this when you get into your very first car, riding the boost all the way to the end, only to be rewarded with no-burnouts, because the burnout has been relegated to only the "speed" subset of cars available.

It's the best Burnout game for people who don't like Burnout.

1
jztemple Avatar
7
jztemple(1 day 21 hours played)
10 Months ago

What, no love for Stock Car Extreme? OK, stupid name, but look it up on Steam. It's an excellent racing game with lots of different series and tracks. Most of them are in Brazil, but when you have everything from karts to formula racers to stock cars to prototypes, there's a lot of content and it's very good.

1
ThunderBoyDavid Avatar
1
9 Months ago

All the games in the above article are Great.. all of them in their own special way. But i am tired of Tracks.. round & round & round..

Is there just a Driving across America game... see the Grand Canyon.. Drive past Hoover Damn... See the Hollywood sign...?????

i want a plain ole Driving game... seems like there was one way back in the early 90s... maybe i am thinking of Hot Pursuit.. Thanks, David, ThunderBoyDavid

1
Flappers Avatar
282
8 Months ago

There is The Crew

I played the beta, and found it to be boring. And certainly not without it's issues (handling is awful).

But it does map out the United States. Whether or not you can do what you want by driving past these landmarks, I'm not sure, but maybe you can? Might be worth a look

0
NixxSpeed Avatar
1
7 Months ago

The most realistic PC racing games : sure for people that never drove a car before and have no idea what one drives like. All the other ones are very bland...the only one that stands out is iRacing...that is if you want a sim that will kick your ass and remind you that you can't actually drive a racecar at speed. Should have had Live for speed in there, sure it's very dated, but for realism it's just as good as Iracing, plus the servers are still going strong after 10+ years. I understand people that makes these articles are granturismo fanatics, but if you're going to act like you know it all, might as well put some real sims on here, the rest is crap. And Dirt Rally was awful, thank god I didn't pay for that and downloaded the torrent.

PS assetto corsa is pretty cool...but after you get over it you start to realize all the cars drive and feel basically the same. BTW taking the cars on the high speed straight you find out that the top speeds are all wrong, so yeah fail. Some are faster and more grippy but that's about it. Iracing is the only sim I've played aside from LFS that you actually have a feeling like every car is different from every aspect.

All these other ones are trash and seriously are one step away from being full on arcade racers....where they have tons of assists even if you do turn it all off.

1
haanswors Avatar
1
haanswors(6 hours played)
3 Days ago

Shift 2 is in the wrong Category

1