With the dust well and truly settled on Project CARS, the delay of Gran Turismo Sport and with no Forza Motorsport sequel until late next year, Assetto Corsa currently has the sim racing spotlight on the consoles all to itself. The title, which is the product of Italian development team Kunos Simulazioni, is well praised among the sim racing community and is one of the most respected racing simulations currently on the PC. When it was first revealed that it would be heading to the console market, it certainly raised an eyebrow or two.
In all probability, we have titles such as Project CARS and DiRT Rally to thank for the release of Assetto Corsa on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Indeed it's hard to imagine the racing sim ever gracing Sony's and Microsoft's consoles had Slightly Mad Studios not have dipped their toes into the simulation market first. Since the release of Project CARS in May 2015, Slightly Mad Studios' success is clear to see with the recent multi-million sales milestone. No doubt a large percentage of these sales belong to the consoles which have now thankfully become a viable platform for the sim racing genre.
However, much like Project CARS, Assetto Corsa unfortunately launched on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with a bevy of bugs and issues. Because of this, we've decided to wait until the game was sufficiently patched before diving into its world of uncompromising simulation racing to get a truer picture of Kunos' vision for the console versions.
The real driving simulator
First things first, in terms of replicating real world driving physics, Assetto Corsa is second to none on the console market. You really feel like Assetto Corsa is very accurately simulating what it would be like to drive these incredible machines that most of us will never get to drive for real, thanks to a phenomenal physics package and great audio design.
It goes without saying that Assetto Corsa is best played using a racing wheel which of course gives extra precision, not to mention the fantastic force feedback which is probably the best on the consoles. You could argue that Assetto Corsa deserves Gran Turismo's tag line of “The real driving simulator” - I'm sure many would agree.
With the fantastic handling model and authentic engine sounds, Assetto Corsa becomes the thing of dreams for petrolheads worldwide. You can take any of the vast range of high-powered monsters to a number of tracks to play out your car fantasies. Driving the beautiful but menacing Ferrari 458 Italia was a sheer pleasure to behold with its high revving engine, as was sampling the incredible grip and stopping power of the BMW Z4 GT3. I had a great time with the superbly balanced Ferrari 599XX EVO and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the nervous and twitchy 312T from the same Italian powerhouse. Keeping the Ford Escort RS 1600's back end in check was a fun experience and don't get me started on the Ferrari LaFerrari which felt like a big go-kart.
Assetto Corsa also grants you the opportunity to drive the cars which may have adorned your bedroom wall. They say you shouldn't meet your heroes, but I would certainly recommend it. One such hero for me is the Ferrari F40 which fortunately sounds as good as it looks in this simulator and is a real handful. Perhaps your bedroom wall poster was the beautiful Shelby Cobra or the Lamborghini Countach: whichever the case, Assetto Corsa has you covered with supercars across a multitude of decades just waiting in the virtual garage for you to take them by the scruff of the neck. Be warned, though: these cars can bite should you take any liberties.
Assetto Corsa certainly cannot compete with the likes of Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport in terms of sheer car numbers, but this is largely forgiven when you consider how spot on the physics are. You're bound to at least find some of your favourites from the selection of just under 100 examples. The likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren are all included, as are most European household names with the exception of Aston Martin, sadly. Also, if you're a fan of American or Japanese cars you are left out in the cold with just a few models on offer which is rather disappointing.
Each car is lovingly recreated with a clear passion and an attention to detail which can embarrass the juggernauts of the industry. You have to consider that the development team of Kunos Simulazioni only consists of around 20-30 people, so it's very impressive indeed. Graphically, Assetto Corsa may not be leading the pack of console racers either, but it's fair to say it's not too far behind. It certainly doesn't embarrass itself when compared against its larger neighbours.
The audio is also at a very decent standard, which is something we cannot say about a certain huge long-running franchise from Tokyo, Japan. For the most part, cars sound aggressive and powerful much like the real thing. It's certainly a title that is best played through a decent sound system for that extra level of immersion. Some of those engine notes never fail to get my heart racing.
As the physics and audio are at such a high standard, it's all the more disappointing that the physical damage model is not quite up to par. Ramming your car purposely into the barriers and other AI opponents reveals a disappointing level of physical damage. Crashing head-on into a barrier at over 100 mph should result in a huge amount of physical damage, but this is not the case with Assetto Corsa. Instead, you'll get those all-too familiar dented panels and scratched bodywork. A crashing simulator, Assetto Corsa is not. It's fortunate, then, that the mechanical damage is much better simulated, as that aforementioned crash will render you car undriveable just as it should.
The tracks in Assetto Corsa, most of which are laser-scanned, all originate from Europe with the exception of the fictional Black Cat County environment which is set in the US. Despite the absence of non-European tracks, you do get the likes of the Nurburgring, Barcelona, Brands Hatch, Imola, Monza, Silverstone and Spa to keep you busy for now, often in multiple versions. Hopefully as the title developers further we'll see more non-European tracks added, because Assetto Corsa is certainly crying out for them.
Assetto Corsa is split between three main modes: Special Events, Drive and Career. The career mode consists of a series of tiles each with between four and eight events or a championship series. Initially, only the first tile is unlocked so you'll need to work through events systematically which is a far cry from the choice of different motorsport discipline offerings Project CARS provides you with from the outset. Each series tasks you to achieve a number of gold, silver and bronze medals before letting you progress to the next set of events.
Assetto Corsa gently eases you in to its hardcore nature by giving you low-powered marques from manufacturers like Abarth and Alfa Romeo. However, don't expect the easy introduction to last for long as you'll soon be behind the wheel of lightweight KTM and Lotus models which can be a real handful. Surprisingly, there's a distinct lack of qualifying in the career mode. Couple this with the fact that you'll often start towards the back of the pack and usually only have three to five laps to obtain a podium finish, and Assetto Corsa feels more like Gran Turismo and less like real-life racing. I found that my AI opponents would run quicker at some tracks and slower in others which involved me shuffling the difficulty around quite a bit. I never felt satisfied with one particular setting for my skill level which was frustrating.
Playing through the career mode sadly feels more like you're ticking off a checklist rather than experiencing any career progression of a real-world racing driver - something that Project CARS does very well for instance. Sure, you'll unlock the faster cars and racing machines as you progress, but when you consider these cars are all available from the off in the title's drive mode it doesn't provide nearly as much satisfaction as it should.
Entering the drive mode will greet you with several different modes. Here you can compete in a practice session, quick race, hotlap, time attack and drift modes. You can also opt into a full race weekend (complete with practice, qualifying and race sessions) or delve into the online multiplayer portion. Sadly, at the time of review, there is no option to participate in a private online session (although this update will be coming soon). Currently you have to make do with public lobbies instead which, as you might imagine, can be quite chaotic. Competing in races online is an interesting experience: you'll see players spin out frequently often bumping other players off the track and into walls (especially when the lobby disables assists). This leads to several players disconnecting before the race is over. In short. it can be a mess.
The special events mode consists of a plethora of events which restrict you to a particular car. Each event has its own conditions for success to keep things somewhat interesting, but unfortunately it feels far too similar to the career mode (albeit you can choose whichever event you want from the off) and offers little that's new.
Assetto Corsa really lacks in presentation: there are no cut scenes or even any text between races which could show your progression or attempt to weave some kind of story into proceedings. Worse still, the moment you cross the finish line there is no fanfare or spinning trophies or podium scenes whatsoever. Instead, you are magically teleported to the pit lane before viewing a dull classification screen. To call it anti-climatic would be an understatement.
Before you start a race you can customise your Assetto Corsa experience to suit you. The sim racer offers players the option to turn on assists such as racing lines, stability control and whether tyre wear and fuel depletion should be on or off. You can also opt for “factory” settings for both the traction control and ABS if you wish: doing so will give your chosen car these aids only if the real world version has them which I highly recommend if you want to feel how these cars would really drive in the real world.
At the race screen you can tinker with the setup of your car to extract further performance if you are so inclined. Brake bias, fuel, gear ratios, tyre pressures, camber, toe, springs and more are all available for you to adjust. Setups can then be saved and then loaded as and when needed. No doubt hardcore sim racers will get a lot out of these options and spend countless hours fine-tuning and perfecting their setups. Although there are a decent amount of options, don't go expecting a wealth of options on the level of the PC version as you may be disappointed.
There's no doubt that Assetto Corsa is best played with a racing wheel and manual gears. However, with Assetto Corsa arriving on the console we of course have to consider the fact that the majority of players will be using the controller with automatic gears and herein lies a massive problem. Although the default controller setup feels more refined and intuitive than Project CARS, Assetto Corsa really breaks down when using automatic gears.
The simulation of automatic gears in Assetto Corsa is simply unacceptable; under braking the automatic gearbox does not change down quickly enough. If you're braking for a third gear bend Assetto Corsa will often only give you fourth or possibly fifth gear. This results in sluggish acceleration once you power out of the turn as you'll be out of the power band which is infuriating. It is perhaps the biggest flaw currently in the sim racer. With this in mind it's hard to actually recommend Assetto Corsa exclusively for controller users - at least for those that don't use manual gears.
How much you get out of Assetto Corsa largely depends on how you intend to approach the sim. If you are a stickler for hot lapping cars around your favourite tracks using a racing wheel then I can completely recommend Assetto Corsa. It's a no-brainer - go out and get it now.
However, if you are fresh from titles such as Project CARS or Forza Motorsport, the lack of presentation and any fanfare after completing events, not to mention the automatic gears issue, will be jolting to most. There simply isn't enough game here thanks to a distinct lack of any satisfying progression or rewards.
As a pure driving simulator using a racing wheel, it becomes extremely hard to find faults with the title. However, as a racing and gaming experience, especially for the console market, Assetto Corsa has some rather large missteps and oversights which mar an otherwise brilliant experience.