Updated: January 9, 2016
Once upon a time, I used to be a fanboy for Live For Speed, a supremely cool and realistic racing simulator. Despite its age and humble graphics, I still merrily play the game quite often, enjoying the plethora of physics it offers. But then, quite recently, I discovered a new simulator called Assetto Corsa, and now I've become a fresh new fanboy yet again.
Why you ask? Because I've just cashed in USD300 dollars for a Logitech G27 steering wheel and pedals for a game that costs roughly USD50. This is equivalent to installing a 3K boombox in a 1994 Fiat Panda. I'm that much of a fanboy. And for a good reason, because Assetto Corsa is a blast.
Strap in, turn the ignition on
After grabbing some 15GB worth of Steam data, I launched the game. The interface is somewhat less than intuitive, and the red-and-black motifs can be slightly tiring, but once you get past the logistics, you're in for a proper treat. Best of all, Assetto Corsa runs fine with Ultra settings and 4K resolution on my Lenovo Y50-70 laptop, which I've purchased last year as a gaming rig. Its Nvidia card is good enough for the best of the best.
You can use mouse steering, just like Live For Speed, because it does not make sense using the keyboard for any serious kind of driving. Furthermore, you can and should use a steering wheel and pedal set if you're even remotely serious about it. Unfortunately, my Speedlink Drift O.Z. didn't work. The game recognized the steering but not the pedals. Trying to cheat and use one of the pre-configured profiles for G25 or G27 helped a little and I managed to gain the throttle, but no brake, which can be tricky on the racing track. I decided to practice using the mouse first, and if things worked out fine, buy a new set. Within about half an hour, I had a brand new G27 on order.
The fun parts
Assetto Corsa is an Italian game, which already sounds intriguing, because its non-mainstream origin means it probably comes without all that blockbuster flash. Then, it also looks rather cool. But can it drive? Well, no point prolonging unnecessary suspense and drama. Yes, it can.
To see how realistic the game really is, I chose Spa-Francorchamps as the first track. I'm familiar with this fine track, as I've driven Renault Megane RS 265 around it in 2014, as you've had the pleasure to both read and witness in video. As a test car, I selected Fiat 500 Abarth and then Alfa Romeo Mito QV. Both front-wheel cars, both humbly powered. Then again, you never start your track experience with supercars. That's a rookie mistake. You learn all you can from small, simple, tame cars.
Within seconds, I knew Assetto Corsa was a delightful, otherworldly experience. Or rather, a realistic one. The quality of graphics and sounds is phenomenal. The track is extremely accurate. But much more importantly, even playing with the mouse, you can feel the car. It sounds utterly fanboyish claiming that digital input can be somehow translated into analog one, but Assetto Corsa does it.
Mindboggling, but I was laughing with delight while playing. I set the game to its most realistic level right away, turning ABS, TC and Stability off, and using tire wear, full mechanical damage, and other fancy bits, and this made the experience all the more pleasant. Knowing the risk and dangers, I zoned in, just like the real thing, and I was doing my best to keep a steady, clear racing line, to avoid wheel lock or spin or drift, to avoid hearing the rubber squeal, all the while hearing my Spa racing instructor Gabriele telling me, throttle, brake, smoothly and gently, roll the power.
Bloody hell, much like when you do it in real life, 80-90 km/h isn't shabby for most turns, and flat out, my two test cars were doing 180-190 km/h in fifth on Kemmel, Courbe and Blanchimont. Just like Spa in real life. Trying to go any faster, the cars would protest, oversteer, and lose precious time. Soon enough, I knew exactly what my tires were doing, even when using the mouse. I could feel and anticipate loss of control, body roll, slides, everything. It does not compute, and yet, it was happening.
I added some opponents for fun, and things got even more serious. Try to be overzealous, and you will crash. Let your cockiness best you, and you will eat gravel. There are no two ways about it. If you want to play Assetto like it's meant to be played, then you must obey the rules of physics. And they are uncannily like real life. Gentle throttle and braking, gentle steering, clean lines, moderate speed. It's about precision first and foremost.
Speed comes later, much later. But hey, I finally won my first race against a bunch of Mitos some five or six hours into the game. Just out of curiosity, my best time for Spa in a Mito was 3:24.9 during that first day of racing practice, in perfect dry conditions. If you look at my Megane video, I was doing something like 3:58 in the wet. Bloody damn accurate.
I then tried some other, more powerful cars, like the olden BMW M3 and the new M235i. The results were less than spectacular. With Alfa Giulietta, I was able to clock under three minutes on Silverstone National, but I never did that in M235i, despite it being a much faster, racier car. Because I still haven't mastered its power properly, and you need a steering wheel for a rear-wheel vehicle. No easy way about it. This game is not a game.
To top it off, you get stunning graphics. Even in 4K, the game is more than playable, with a solid steady 40 FPS on the IdeaPad. This means most people with decent mid-range spec will be able to enjoy at least Ultra on 1080p, and possibly even higher. The cars are beautifully styled, and the tracks are immaculate. Amazing.
You can also use display filters, which change how the game is projected. Yes, you can use 70s color or Sepia or any one of 20 odd filters to sort of enhance your driving experience. Sounds crazy, but it can help you zone in. Then, once you're done racing, you can use replays to watch your performance. This includes the ability to use varying depth FOV, roll, sun angle, blur, focus, camera, and other parameters. Almost like watching a race and then cropping the best bits. Really helps create some stunning footage.
I did encounter some issues, mostly related to the display and screen resolution. Remember, this is my very first review, and there will be many more coming. For now, the game does suffer from the 1080p to 2160p transition. In other words, if your desktop is set to less than the full 4K resolution, like in my case, then you face two possible scenarios:
If you are using 1080p desktop and 2K game action, then the actual race will launch in a small rectangle in the center of the screen, as it will assume you have the full 4K screen at your disposal. You will have to use Alt-Tab to get it to display at 1080p.
The other is, if you're using 4K game action, the game will launch normally, but if you step out of it to your desktop or the main menu, when you come back, you will only have the top-left quadrant displayed in 1080p, and the rest of the 4K action will be gone from your screen, and completely inaccessible. This means that you should match your system native resolution to the game, or play on a resolution that does not exceed your desktop resolution to avoid issues.
Then, you may also realize that your mouse pointer is not always reacting properly. This can happen when using mouse steering, and you must use the Ctrl + M combo to release the mouse pointer and then be able to operate the game menus or the replay controls. Quite annoying, but the workaround does the job. Then, Assetto Corsa is under continuous development. I had three large updates in less than a week, so it's quite likely you will get new features and see old bugs squashed by the time you read this review.
What can I say. Assetto Corsa is the perfect racing simulator. It somehow magically captures reality and teleports it into the game engine, allowing you to feel the cars as if you're actually driving them. And believe me, you feel them just like real cars. Everything. You can actually sense the body roll, the weight distribution, the loss of traction, the acceleration, the resistance of the steering wheel, every little bit. I don't know how they've done it, but somehow, the game developers have tapped into devilry and delivered a sublime experience.
It is frightening, uncanny, meta-physical, call it whatever you want it. Assetto Corsa manages something that no other game can, not on this level. The only way for you to know you're not actually at the race track is to look away from the screen and see your home, or wherever you live and game. Plus, you get amazing audio and video, the game runs beautifully on its highest settings even on mid-range hardware, it's constantly improved and tweaked, and I've just touched the tip of the iceberg. Tons more to come for sure, especially once my Logitech G27 arrives. Who knows, I might redo my Spa video, only it's going to be in-game action. Either way, it's going to be ultimate fun. If you even remotely care about cars, get this title now. 9,000/10. There.