Racing games which lean towards the sim end of the spectrum are, every so often, taken to task for being a little dry. For driving game fans who aren’t happy unless they’re sideways in a bright red car - sliding under the flight path of a helicopter as fireworks explode around it in the permanently blue sky - worrying about camber, late apex lines, and throttle control, is anathema to fun.
For car bores like me, however, the romance of racing isn’t to be found in azure firmaments, impossibly shiny hypercars, and exotic locations. It is, instead, in the heart-pounding violence of wrestling a snarling saloon around Brands Hatch, in the drizzle, with all the driving aids off.
Want even more opportunities to hit the tarmac? Here's our list of the best racing games on PC.
The Forza series has always served as a kind of safe space for these two tribes, somewhere that they can intersect and both come away smiling. Turn 10 Studios’ delicate yet robust balancing act caters equally to the kinds of people who think that playing in chase cam is acceptable (it isn’t, by the way), and those of us who wouldn’t even bother installing a game if it lacked an option for manual gears. Forza is bright and colourful, yet somehow also authentic. Its real-world tracks are just the right shade of utilitarian and gnarly, while the studio’s fictional efforts are histrionic and enjoyably contrived - yes, there are helicopters and fireworks.
Forza Motorsport 7 looks set to be the series’ most extravagant contortion of these contrasting ideas yet. The game’s arcade racer credentials are quickly established when I take a 911 GT2 RS out onto the sun-bleached tarmac of Turn 10’s reimagining of Dubai’s Hafeet Mountain Pass - and this despite the pleasant sense of weight the Porsche is imbued with - as I tear past extravagant hotels, sand dunes, and dip into a tunnel that takes me beneath an airport.
In contrast, California’s Sonoma Raceway is far less grand, but all the more appealing - to me, at least - for it. Hooning a Radical RXC around the sinuous circuit - without impolite interruptions from busybody systems like ABS or traction control - is a delight.
Turn 10 ensure that the ludicrous amounts of downforce generated by the mid-engined RXC don’t translate into what feels like the digital equivalent of a Scalextric car - squeeze the throttle a little more and apply some counter steer, and you can still tighten up lines and/or muck about - and the danger of hustling a small steel and carbon box around a tight track at speed is underscored by some excellent audio work, the vehicle popping, sputtering, clanking, and creaking in response to my inputs. There’s something for everybody here, and Forza manages to make both sides of its personality equally as thrilling.
Of course, another way to make a game less dry is to literally add moisture. Forza Motorsport 6 dabbled with 3D puddles and wet conditions (as did Forza Horizons 2 and 3, to varying extents), but 7 dials things up a weather warning or two, and is the first game in the main series to feature dynamic conditions. I experience this for the first time on the Nurburgring GP circuit, in a Nissan GT-R - somehow both brutish and precise - as a storm rolls in.
Of course, for the purposes of showcasing the results of a downpour in my demo, it isn’t strictly dynamic here, but the preordained gale still demonstrates the game’s new organically pooling puddles. It makes for treacherous, ever-changing conditions, and while the resultant bodies of water don’t feel as threatening (Forza 6’s deep puddles really thumped when you drove into them, a sensation that was absent during my time with 7), their unpredictability makes them a far greater driving challenge.
It’s all rather splendid, actually. But the sodden elephant in the room is Project Cars 2, which already offers a more detailed weather simulation and a wider range of conditions. It has a more flexible career mode, too, and its development is very much PC, rather than Xbox, led (that might explain all the launch bugs…).
If you truly love the smell of petrol and alcantara, then it might just be possible to justify owning two sprawling racing games with a lot of circuit and vehicle crossover. But for many, it will come down to a choice of one or the other. Forza’s slick presentation, exuberant personality, and the fact that Project Cars 2 isn’t half as welcoming to less serious racing fans, could yet find it a large audience on PC. But it is unlikely that hardcore players will choose Forza over Slightly Mad’s opus. There is a risk, then, that Forza’s noble commitment to providing something for every type of driving game fan may, ironically, be the very thing that divides players.
You can download a demo of Forza Motorsport 7 now, and our full review will be up on the site when the game launches on October 3.