What are the best simulation games on PC? From the all-time greats that are still worth playing; the sims with modding communities who breathe eternal life into them; the facsimiles of an aspect of reality so niche you can barely fathom their existence, we have everything you need here.
Sims differ from other PC games in that their raison d'être isn’t necessarily to entertain, at least not primarily. You want fun and excitement? Tough. Operating a submarine is not that. It is, however, fascinating, terrifying, and hugely satisfying as a long-form experience.
Such is the nature of the genre that seeking out the best PC sims is like asking for the ‘special’ stock the shopkeeper keeps in the back room. They’re not all best-sellers, but these are the titles with dedicated communities offering deep tutorials and incredible mods, that let you get as close to hauling a trailer full of plumbing parts across Europe, driving an F1 car, or piloting a military aircraft as national security laws will permit.
The best simulation games on PC are:
This free-to-play multiplayer naval battler immerses players in the tides of WW2, where players can control ships in sea combat to take down opponents on a variety of maps. World of Warships continues to receive frequent updates that add to the already enormous fleet of cruisers, destroyers, battleships, and aircraft carriers that players can command on the waters – each with their own special abilities. You can now play World of Warships in your very own submarine complete with upgrades and unique combat roles, making this one of the best submarine games out there.
Perhaps the best thing about this free MMO is that it’s very easy to just plunge into it, get a decent idea of its systems and start having fun right away. Try saying that about Flight Simulator X with a straight face.
If you’re after sheer volume of machinery, War Thunder’s WW2/Korean War era roster exceeds 300 aircraft. Each can be piloted using arcade (boo!) or simulation physics models to blast away at airborne adversaries playing on both PC and consoles – its servers know no platform boundaries. Which, of course, means there’s usually plenty of easy meat for PC players to pick off.
If War Thunder’s skies offer an opportunity for a quick joyride and a bit of sightseeing, ground combat offers the exact opposite – the steel beasts in this tank game move at such a glacial pace that you’re constantly on high alert, scanning for enemies in the scrubland. Whoever fires first in this free Steam game almost always carries away the spoils.
The USA, Russia, Britain, Germany and Japan all wage war here, each with their own particular mechanical strengths (there’s a long-running argument concerning Soviet machinery bias in this area), weaknesses… and convoluted upgrade paths. If you’re averse to grinding, this might not be the simulation game for you. If you’re after a WW2 sim with an enormous community that you can start playing with no financial outlay, though… well, your demands are very specific, and War Thunder’s your sim.
You know a space flight simulator’s doing something right when NASA and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk start getting interested. Despite the cutesy appearance of its astronauts, Kerbal Space Program is an incredibly detailed physics-based space game which lets you design and construct your own spacecraft before launching it into orbit and then doing impossibly complicated things like docking with other vessels or landing your wobbly phallic construct on the moon.
Since the earliest version of KSP released in 2011, its community sprang into action with mods, written and video tutorials, a cornucopia of user-created spacecraft to try out for yourself, and a recreation of The Martian. Its popularity prompted NASA – as in actual NASA – to reach out to developers Squad and collaborate with them to create new in-game content based on real missions.
Is it 100% realistic? Given that it’s simulating one of the most complicated human endeavours ever undertaken and letting you have a go with your mouse and keyboard, there’s an element of creative licensing. However – it’s about as close as the medium has produced. Every physical object in the game abides by Newtonian dynamics, which is why that rocket you built to look like Gary Busey’s face collapsed and burned itself to cinders the second you hit the thrusters. Its model of orbital mechanics has also been praised by those in a position to assess that sort of thing.
Railway Empire is a train sim with a difference – it’s a historical one, focused on the early days of train travel across the United States, during the tumultuous years of the Wild West era. You have the whole of North America to build on, and the goal of leading your company into the 20th century.
Railway Empire isn’t just a train game, it also simulates the management side of the job, too, making it a spiritual successor to the classic Railroad Tycoon series. The game’s got dozens of accurately-modelled trains from that era, and you can ride and control any of them. The real joy of the game is in handling the company, from laying down tracks and building stations, to managing the workforce and researching new technologies.
Railway Empire is a realistic management game though, so don’t expect to just plop these things down Theme Park-style – you have to consider switches, terrain, water, and many other factors if you’re going to be successful. Like any simulation game there’s a lot of detail to take in at first, but once you get going it’s a lot of fun.
The humble train simulator has been around for almost as long as there’s been PC simulation games, and while the latest iteration of Train Simulator is the traditional choice, Train Sim World offers something a mite more ambitious – and it’s by the same developer, Dovetail Games, so fans of one should appreciate the other.
Well trained: The best train games on PC
It’s certainly the most realistic train sim game around – for example, you can’t even leave the station without priming the battery first. The whole game’s played in first-person, so all the driving, management, and upkeep is done from the ground level – just as if you were serving and running the train yourself. The whole point of simulation games is to make you feel like you’re actually doing the job, and Train Sim World does that better than any other – as we found while documenting our Train Sim World travel diary adventures.
While it started off a little bare-bones when it released, Dovetail has consistently updated the game with new features, trains, routes, weather, and more. There’s also an array of DLC packs, too. It may all be a bit pricey for some, but the option to expand is there if you find yourself tiring of the same routes, and you certainly won’t be able to find a more in-depth and realistic train sim for your money.
When it comes to farming simulator games, look no further than, er, Farming Simulator 19. The clue’s in the name, frankly. Please excuse our facetiousness, but believe us when we say that if you’re looking for the closest one-to-one recreation of truly living off the land, Giants Software’s latest agricultural outing is for you. And we’re experts, as our Farming Simulator 19 diary eloquently (read: sort of) shows.
Considering you’ll most likely be losing many hours to tending your crops and livestock, it’s great that Farming Simulator gives us a graphical overhaul. That doesn’t help the smell of the manure, though. With more vehicles and detail than ever before, Farming Simulator is the kind of management title that teaches you new skills as you get away from the big smoke. Or just lets you make creepy crop circles.
Microsoft Flight Simulator recreates every aspect of flying down to the last sublime detail: the hot air from the engines rippling over the wing as you begin your charge down the runway, and the streaks of rain across your windshield as you descend through the clouds. This spectacular attention to detail becomes more astonishing – every single square inch of our planet Earth is mapped out in MFS, ready for you to soar overhead.
Read more: Our guide to the best airplane and flying games on PC
The flying itself is also meticulously simulated, with detailed aerodynamic modeling, fully detailed cockpits and instrumentation, and real time weather conditions – so you can experience the precise wind speed and direction outside your window right now as you crash into your own house.
If you’re a fan of F1 games, you should already be aware of the official F1 series from Codemasters and the studio’s annual entries. The pinnacle of Formula One simulation racers gets as close to the experience as you’re likely to get without actually being there, and the latest entry is the best yet
The handling model in the F1 series is the best around and this is the finest iteration yet – accurately and perfectly conveying the sense of driving one of these ridiculously fast beasts. Tiny changes in traction, feeling the back twitch out in the rain, and that unmistakable bobble as you hit full speed; it’s all there, whether you’re haring around the Côte d’Azur in modern or classic vehicles. You don’t just have to manage your (officially licensed) vehicles either, instead you have to interact with the pit crew, and gain their trust, which translates to better morale, and more efficient car servicing on the track. It’s a small touch, but – combined with the realistic feel of the cars, tracks, and F1 world – it all adds up to what is still the greatest F1 sim around.
New to F1 2020 is the ability to create and manage your own F1 team down to the last detail. You can recruit actual F1 drivers to your team, who each have various different ratings based on real life data.
While the likes of Project CARS and Grid Autosport may offer a more coherent driving game experience, with a sense of career progression and other such bells and whistles, Assetto Corsa Competizione recreates the sensation of driving a fast car better than any other. It’s simply magnificent in its purity, delivering an all-encompassing sense of realism and immersion with stellar sound design and a physics model that justifies that £300 you spent on a force feedback wheel while your children starved.
It’s even more breathtakingly accurate than its predecessor, Assetto Corsa, with new aerodynamics and tyre modelling, and multi-channel audio sampling of real GT cars so they even sound perfect. Each track is a laser-scanned reproduction of its real life counterpart, so you can get as close as possible to your dream of throwing your car round the Nürburgring without the risk of losing control on the Karussell.
An oft-vented argument about Euro Truck Sim is that it isn’t aspirational; people play flight simulators because it’s incredibly difficult and financially prohibitive to become a pilot, and relatively easy to get a job driving lorries by contrast. The counter argument? Euro Truck Simulator 2 exists so you don’t have to get a job driving lorries.
On one hand, it’s therapeutic. Cruising the dual carriageways of Northern Italy at just below the legal speed limit while a local radio station plays unintelligibly is pure nourishment for the soul. On the other, it’s a supreme challenge. Defeated the Fume Knight in Dark Souls II, have you? Come back when you’ve parallel-parked a Scania R Highline carrying a yacht after a night drive from Luxembourg to Budapest.
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Perhaps the most compelling aspect of SCS Software’s simulation is that it is ostensibly driving, but not quite as you know it. Forget everything racing games taught you about turning circles. Forget what they taught you about mirrors, too – no longer do they exist simply to illustrate the crash you caused with your reckless weaving. Now they’re an essential component of your driving experience, crucial to turning any corner greater than 10 degrees without scraping thousands off your salary.
As with any sim worth its salt, Euro Truck Simulator 2 has a considerable haul of mods, crafted by the loving hands of its community. The base game offers thousands of kilometres of real estate and no shortage of vehicles, but there’s a wealth of additional trucks, maps, liveries and sound packs out there.
Contrary to their depiction in film, submarines aren’t sleek, agile instruments of death. They’re vulnerable at sea level, and all but blind below it. They hunt for freighters in the incomprehensibly vast ocean for days at a time, and when they do engage in combat it moves at a kind of perpetual bullet time. If ever a subject matter didn’t lend itself to videogames, submarine combat is it.
But Silent Hunter 4 isn’t a videogame. It’s a ruthlessly realistic WW2 game for only the most sun-averse naval commanders, complete with a control room full of unfriendly dials and crew members whose admiration for their superior prohibits them from emitting as much as a whimper when you guide your sub towards certain death. Mother nature’s just as deadly as your Axis opponents down here at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Related: Check out the best submarine games on PC
Released way back in 2007 when YouTube was in nappies, SH4 almost eligible for a state pension at this point. Although later iterations have modernised its visuals, they haven’t bested its atmosphere and tension, and its freeform career mode, played from the Allied perspective in the Pacific theatre of war, is still the best simulated submariner experience on offer.
Codemasters’ first foray into early access development has proved fruitful: DIRT Rally currently has 136,000 players and a Steam user score of 92%, and that’s thanks in no small part to a renewed focus on the actual driving and a shift away from console-style presentation.
Like F1 2015, it’s the proud owner of an all-new handling model which feels infinitely more granular and weighty than the quasi-arcade physics of previous DIRT games, and it brings the best out of a good force feedback wheel.
The UK studio’s always been adept at bringing the knife-edge balancing act of rally driving to sim racing – let’s not forget it was they who developed Colin McRae Rally back in 1998 – but not until now have they been able to strip away all the interactive motorhome menus and Californian voiceovers to concentrate on simply delivering the best all-terrain driving model since Richard Burns Rally.
There’s no doubt those among you who’d report that RBR is still the superior rally simulation game, enriched by some 14 years of mod development. And while it’s true that the sheer volume and quality of user-generated content is beyond formidable at this point, there’s a lot of hoop-jumping involved to get RBR running properly, with mods, on a modern PC at 1080p and above. It’s time to move on and accept that DIRT Rally is the future of low-traction motoring mayhem.
There are two very distinct schools of thought when it comes to commercial flight simulator games. Some prefer Flight Sim X’s all-you-can-eat buffet of add-on content, other swear Laminar’s blade element theory-based flight model (which actually simulates air) makes for a livelier, more realistic journey. Trying to ascertain superiority between the two is a fool’s errand, really. It’s a matter of personal taste.
X-Plane 10’s physics model definitely feels different. Wings bend more visibly and weight is conveyed more tangibly than in FSX, thanks to an underpinning system that calculates a plane’s behaviour according to its 3D model and engine output, then simulates the air’s behaviour as that model tears through it.
While its ATC and traffic AI are often derided in comparison for guiding you into suicidal manoeuvres, its helicopters are regarded as much more convincing by those in the know.
Its chief drawback is the low-detail landscape textures you’ll find in the base game, drawn by an autogen system that can leave some areas disconcertingly unpopulated and big cities/airports lacking realistic details. However, it makes for much more spectacular night-time flying, cities glimmering on your windshield as you descend through the clouds.
The second Insurgency game wonderfully straddles the line between hardcore soldier simulator and arcade multiplayer games. Anyone can pop in a game and have fun, but try to play Insurgency Sandstorm like Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike and you won’t advance very far.
Instead, Sandstorm is more like a condensed version of ARMA 3. Sure, there may be capture points and XP, but at its heart this war game is all about simulating the ferociousness of modern conflict. A couple of gunshots will down any enemy, although aiming and actually hitting them is far more difficult. There’s a large range of realistic guns to choose from, and they all feel distinct, especially once you start modding them with attachments like new barrels, grips, and scopes, which can completely change the feel of the weapon.
There are no grenade warning flashes, reloading changes the whole magazine, you have to take weight into account when managing loadouts, and there’s no scoreboard for tracking kills. When it comes to UI and on-screen distractions Insurgency: Sandstorm keeps things simple – as we found in our Insurgency: Sandstorm review – it’s all the better for it.
Cliffs Of Dover wasn’t anything like the supreme fight-and-flight extraordinaire it is today when it first rumbled apologetically down the runway in 2011, but a series of staggeringly high-quality patches from Norway-based collective Team Fusion now leave it worthy of its IL-2 Sturmovik moniker. Performance issues have been ironed out, and the original, notoriously dodging AI fixed with more sensible routines.
There are new aircraft variants in the modern-day Cliffs Of Dover, too, and the original planes enjoy a physics rework that improves ground handling (much more challenging than in 1C’s base game, but much more realistic). Airborne manoeuvrability has been tweaked for realism and more engaging dogfights, too. In short, it’s an immeasurably better game than the one that appeared, sniffling and coughing, four years ago – all thanks to Team Fusion. Their patch is now up to version 4.312, and you should definitely download it before playing.
ARMA 3 doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care if you’re having fun, and it doesn’t care about your k:d in Call Of Duty. ARMA 3 cares about one thing, and one thing only: realism. So much so that it was once accidentally used in place of real warzone footage.
As we found in our ARMA 2 launch impressions, It’s the kind of shooter in which you spend more time looking at your map and compass than down the ironsights of your TRG assault rifle, and gunfights play out with hundreds of metres separating combatants – this is the thinking person’s sniper game, in other words. When you see a tank, your first instinct is to pull out your radio, not an RPG launcher. Every single key on your keyboard has its own unique function. It’s basically terrifying.
But from your first petrified footsteps through its enormous theatres of war, when you see the chopper in the sky above you and realise someone’s flying that, ARMA 3’s hardcore appeal permeates. There’s a reason so many of its Steam reviews come from players with thousand of hours of play time.
Those reviewers will mention its myriad annoying bugs, and they’ll also all agree that they don’t ruin Bohemia’s fantastically large-scale combat simulation game. There is a solo campaign, but it’s in the multiplayer sandbox that the real long game lies. It’s here, under the scrutiny of dozens of other players, that you’ll try to pilot a helicopter for the first time and take to the skies with the finesse of a daddy long legs. It’s here you’ll learn to move as one infantry unity, and use voice comms not for blaring Belgian techno or schoolyard insults, but useful, concise communication. On the internet. That’s ARMA 3’s power.
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And there you have it, the best simulation games on PC. We hope that over the course of your pilot, driver, or roller coaster architect training that you’ve learned a thing or two, and had just as much fun in the process. But, if the World War 2 games on this list have given you a taste for boots-on-the-ground action, check out our list of the best FPS games on PC or for more relaxing games, our list of the best truck games on PC is worth checking out. In the meantime, we’re on the lookout for a games media simulation game, since we absolutely don’t have enough to be getting on with already.