Last updated: May 8th, 2021
Since we usually focus on elements of sim racing such as gaming hardware, setup tutorials, and how-to guides here at SimRacingCockpit, I thought it would make a nice change of pace to discuss some of the best sim racing games for any beginners looking to dip their toe into the world of digital motorsport.
I’ve played many racing games over the last 20 years, resulting in an accumulation of experience and knowledge. Having already shared my advice on building a simulator from scratch, in this post I want to suggest five of the best games, that’ll get your sim racing career started, plus a few more honourable mentions thrown in for good measure.
Getting started: What to consider
When I consider what elements constitute making the best games, two critical factors immediately come to mind: physics and difficulty. Of course, these are not the only considerations to take into account, and it’s also essential to think about the cost, ease of installation, level of support available, and expertise level required. It’s important not to confuse realism in terms of physics and difficulty, because a realistic game could be easy, while a less realistic game could be challenging, and vice versa.
Before I mention any gaming titles, I want to point out that if you’re going to start your sim racing career seriously, it’s implicit you own a steering wheel, and preferably a set of pedals. Other peripherals will enhance your experience, but these two pieces of kit are fundamental to getting the most out of any driving game. Naturally, the next item on your list should be a sim racing rig of which there is a range to suit lots of different budgets.
First released in 2008, iRacing is the oldest racing game to feature in this guide. Despite that, the fanbase is stronger than ever, and many ingredients attribute to iRacing’s lasting success. The game is available on PC only, and notwithstanding its age, iRacing is updated continuously.
Without a doubt, it’s one of the most realistic racing simulations you can find on the market, and it’s used in most competitive eSports tournaments. Plus, there are a lot of sponsored championships where you can win real money.
Moreover, the community is probably the cleanest one on the track compared to other racing games, and there are a few reasons why. It’s partially due to the fact you have to pay a subscription to play the game, generally more than $10 per month. Adding to the subscription price, you need to pay for individual cars and tracks within the game itself for selected rounds. A plus point to this is that there are many tracks and cars to choose from, and the costs vary between $3-$15.
Another reason is that if you’re dirty on the track, or generally ignore the rules, you can be banned. There’s also a safety rating (SR) and iRating (iR) system that most drivers seek to improve to allow them access to bigger and better championships. So, if you don’t want to experience a significant loss of money, you have to be a careful and considerate driver. As a result, people playing the game tend to drive very cleanly on the track, which attracts many new people looking for somewhere to learn the ropes without getting rammed or punted into a barrier.
Of further interest to rookies, the game features many slow and comfortable cars to drive, as well as a lot of easy tracks to learn. However, one thing to keep in mind is that the only available view is from the cockpit. Furthermore, you can’t disable the damage, so if you crash your race is over which many new drivers might not find enjoyable, and for those reasons, I’ve placed it at number 5. Luckily in the last few updates, iRacing introduced artificial intelligence (AI), allowing you to practice in offline races. If you’re keen to get started, check out our guide to iRacing here.
Assetto Corsa Competizione
If it wasn’t for the fact it only features GT4 and GT3 championships, Assetto Corsa Competizione might have been my top recommendation. Anyway, these limitations take nothing away from what an epic game it is, and when you drive a GT4 car, which is, in my opinion, one of the best car classes to start with when you begin your sim racing career, you can learn the necessary skills involved in motorsports without too much difficulty.
GT4 cars have between 350-450 horsepower (hp), making them quite drivable and easy to control.
Additionally, Assetto Corsa Competizione evaluates your skills like car control, track knowledge, pace, etc., which is pretty useful to see how you’re progressing. The AI is highly customizable in terms of aggression and speed, plus for a safe learning environment, you can disable the car damage.
The game is available to play on PC, PS4, and Xbox One, and in my opinion, Assetto Corsa Competizione is the game with the best ratio between graphics and realism. That is to say, realism in terms of physics. Lastly, its community continues to grow well, so it earns a solid 4th place on my list.
RaceRoom is somewhat the hidden gem in the sim racing world, often overlooked or forgotten. However, it would be foolish not to consider this game as an entry into racing simulators, as it features a great variety of cars, including many front-wheel-drive cars which are easier to control than rear-wheel drive, and this allows new players a great choice to start with, but that’s not the best part; you can download the official game for free! Yes, you read that right.
Just head over to Steam and grab the game at no cost. That said, not all that glitters is gold, and there is a lot of downloadable content (DLC) you need to buy since the basic game features a limited number of cars and tracks. Of course, this also means the game is only available for PC users.
Released in 2013, it’s now one of the more mature titles on the market, but even though it’s an older game like iRacing, it too continues to be updated by its developers, although the community is far smaller. To build up a decent number of tracks and cars, you’ll probably need to spend anywhere from $20-$30, and there’s no need to pay to race online, in fact, there are no subscriptions at all.
The driving system is very simulative, and you need to spend a lot of time practising if you want to become competitive, but the cars, especially the less powerful ones, are relatively easy to drive. Of course, if you opt for highly powerful cars, RaceRoom can become very challenging, even for pro drivers. My advice for new drivers would be to stay under the 300 hp mark until you feel more confident. In terms of AI, you can only configure the opponents’ speed, meaning there is no option to tweak the aggression.
All-in-all, RaceRoom is an excellent alternative to the mainstream simulation options, even if the graphics are a bit outdated, putting it in 3rd place, and given that it’s free, why not give it a try!
Despite its release in 2012, Rfactor 2 is probably the most realistic game you can get today in terms of physics, and it earns a well-deserved 2nd in terms of the best simulation games available. Some of its features like tyre deformation and tyre damage are yet to be beaten by other gaming developers, and the way tyres behave in a racing simulator is a crucial factor in determining how realistic it feels. This is because it allows you to feel grip-loss, and it also lets you know when the car is at its limit when cornering. Rfactor 2 is also fantastic in how it relays force feedback to your steering wheel, giving you the feeling and information needed to get the best lap times.
The main difference with this game compared to the previous three I mentioned is mods. Mods make it easy to add tracks and cars, making the game perfect to learn the basics of car reactions. Basically, you can fully customize the game according to your needs; a huge element that beginners should consider. Also, the game features multiple weather conditions and continues to be regularly updated. The number of players falls somewhere between RaceRoom and iRacing, and similar to these two games, it’s for PC only.
But wait, why no Rally?
Before getting to my last entry in the top five games for sim racing, I want to point out why I’ve excluded games from my favourite driving discipline: rally. There are some great rally simulations on the market such as the World Rally Championship and Dirt Rally franchises, and Richard Burns Rally, which does a great job of teaching rally driving skills, but ultimately, I left these games out for a straightforward reason. Rally is hard. Before buying a full rally simulation, it’s better to learn the basics on a track.
So, you ask, why have I not included games from the Formula One franchise, given that they’re track-based games after all. Even though F1 is driven on a track, you mustn’t forget that F1 cars are mighty machines, with around 1000 hp, and before driving cars with such immense power I think it’s better to start with a slower one and develop your skills gradually. That’s what real race drivers do anyway.
My ultimate suggestion for any sim racer new to the party would be Assetto Corsa. The game is, of course, the older brother of the Competizione title I mentioned above. Released in 2014 on PC and in 2016 on PS4 and Xbox One, the PC version of Assetto Corsa is customizable like Rfactor 2, but with a more significant number of mods. The fact that is available across multiple platforms makes it slightly more beginner-friendly and therefore puts it into my number 1 spot.
The game can be extremely easy or extremely hard in terms of difficulty, depending on the car you want to drive, which makes it the perfect game for training and learning for beginners. The fanbase is more extensive than Rfactor 2, and it’s easier to find people at your skill level to compete against if you search in forums online.
What sets this game apart from its competitors is that it doesn’t only offer racing. You can also set up track days with your friends or drive on mountain roads. This simulation is almost a sandbox which you can customize according to your needs. So, if you want to start your sim racing career, you can’t go wrong with this game.
It wouldn’t be fair to write a post about the best racing games and skip some great titles like the legendary Grand Turismo series, Forza Motorsport, or the Project Cars franchise, although we’ll just pretend that Project Cars 3 never happened. While not precisely true simulations, these games are still fantastic ways to learn to drive and offer some truly stunning graphics to boot. These games also tend to cater more to the console-gamer market, where many sim racers find their love for the hobby.
Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to Automobilista, which like RaceRoom is considered a bit of an underdog. The title offers fantastic gameplay and has received an increase in attention thanks to praises from the growingly popular YouTube sim racer, Jimmy Broadbent.