Past decade has been exciting for software developers. We witnessed the rise of modern smartphone with iOS and Android. We saw the transition to 64 bit computing and enjoyed great advancements in computer graphics, HD, 4K, stereoscopic 3D, and first proper virtual reality systems.
Unfortunately, not all branches of software industry enjoyed the same amount of innovation and support. For each PC simracer there are 20 casuals craving nothing more than a simple need-for-speed experience. Building a niche product like driving sim is definitely not something that a young, entrepreneurial software engineer would consider as a get-rich opportunity, and it is not where a big software company would see potential for good return on investment.
Because of all this pessimism, the very lengthy Assetto Corsa development and beta testing phase slipped past my radar. I didn't bother downloading any of the early builds, in fact I didn't even know AC existed at all.
When I finally got around to trying out one of the early access builds in late 2014, I instantly knew this was no ordinary failed attempt at a brand new driving simulator. I knew it was going to be big. It was going to be one of those "once or twice in a decade" titles that change the industry.
AC prides itself as "your driving simulator" and, even if it's not yours yet, I can assure you that it, indeed, it is a simulator.
The suspension model is good. You can see weight transfer, wheel movement and body lean in corners. Tyre model is equally good. Individual tyres can lock up under braking, and car reacts accordingly. You can "feel" the slip on braking and ease the pedal before it's too late.
Front wheel drive cars have understeer when applying throttle mid corner, and the opposite effect on lift-off, which is also noticeable for rear wheel drive cars.
For some cars, like the BMW M3 e30 DTM, careless downshifting mid-corner can result in momentary rear-wheel lockup and, often, a visit to the run-off area. This suggests that the entire drive-train, from engine to gearbox to rear differential, is included in the pysics model.
The level of sophistication in AC physics is best represented by the vast array of options in car setup page. All the settings you have come to know and love from sims like rFactor or GTR Evolution are there.
Perhaps the single coolest feature in AC physics is turbo simulation. I am not sure how deep or accurate this simulation is, but I can certainly notice turbo lag in cars like Ferrari F40 or RUF CTR.
Turbo simulation allows to dynamically adjust boost and simulate a turbo failure, which was not possible with static torque curves. It also allows for much more realistic turbo lag and encourages use of left foot braking to sustain boost pressure.
Physical crash damage is good but not great. You can severely damage suspension and end up having to turn the wheel on one side just to go straight. Damaged suspension also adversely impacts stability.
Damage model applies to drive-train as well. You can damage the engine by over-revving or over-boosting.
Unfortunately, AC does not have weather effects and there is no rain in this sim. Implementing rain in physics may mean major changes in the physics model, but it is something that could be added in future releases, unlike night driving, which we definitely wont see in AC for years, if ever (read more about that in "graphics" section further below).
AC is no longer in Beta stage, but physics model is still subject to constant tweaks and refinements, based on community feedback and in-house testing. As such, it is not perfect, and, in certain scenarios, is bested by the very competent rFactor 2 physics engine.
Compared to rFactor 2, open wheelers and some lightweight racecars feel somewhat vague and "floaty". Perhaps AC tyre model breaks down as weight drops below a certain level. On contrast, rFactor 2 feels very sharp and extremely realistic with the Formula Renault 3.5 open-wheeler, available in the demo version.
Graphics set AC apart from any other sim ever released for the PC platform. We have had a lot of great looking PC driving games, but none in the pure simulation category.
AC brings the latest generation DirectX 11 graphics technology from console titles like Gran Turismo or Forza and adds improvements which are only possible in the more powerful PC platform.
Car reflection model (RM) is like nothing you have ever seen in any real-time graphics engine. The realism in RM is so immense, I often find it hard to believe that something like this, which doesn't look much worse than nVidia ray-tracing tech demos, can run at 60 frames per second on an average gaming PC.
Crank the RM settings to the max and you will get severe fps drop and quickly realise that maximum settings are only meant for hard-core graphics enthusiast systems.
Luckily, you don't have to max the settings for AC to look great. Even on my old AMD Phenom II system with AMD Radeon R9 270, I was able to find a stable 60fps sweet-spot, with graphics quality far exceeding anything I had ever seen before.
Perhaps even more important than the breathtaking reflection model, is the level of detail you get in car interiors. AC has the most detailed, most realistic looking car interiors I have ever seen in any game across all platforms.
Most simracers race from within the cockpit, so it is crucial that sense of immersion does not stop as soon as you switch to cockpit view and see a poorly modelled dashboard.
For AC, great interiors have special importance, because AC is the first driving sim with full virtual reality (VR) support. This is another cornerstone feature of the AC graphics engine - the support for Oculus VR.
VR support is a big deal and quantum leap in driving simulation. Simulation and virtual reality are like two sides of the same coin, and with AC we finally get that coin.
The only downside with AC graphics engine is that it does not support multiple light sources. Single source lighting (SSL) means that lighting, for the most part, is static. No working headlights, no night driving.
This is a serious shortcoming, as night driving is integral part of racing experience. You will not see any 24 hour racing in AC, and racing at early dawn or late dusk can be difficult due to lack of any light from the headlights.
SSL was a concious design decision by Kunos. It is a compromise decision and one I fully understand and am willing to take.
Multiple source lighting (MSL) model would vastly increase the computational requirements, and Kunos would be forced to scale back on some of the more beautiful features which make AC look so special.
Since most racing happens in daytime, when headlights have no effect anyway, the sacrifice in performance wound not be worth it.
Low computational requirements are especially vital for 3D and VR. If 60 fps is the target, graphics card in 3D mode has to render twice as many frames to make the 3D work. Multiple source lighting model with 120 fps is simply too much to ask for.
Another area where AC annihilates its competition is post-processing and effects. There is choice of 19 post processing pre-sets, each altering color palette, depth-of-field (DOF) and various other filters.
DOF makes watching replays and using photo mode especially enjoyable. Cars in front or behind the subject melt into a pleasing blur (bokeh). You can manually adjust focus length and DOF in photo mode, as well as the position and orientation of camera. You can also adjust the width of field-of-view, and even the time of day, for different lighting and shadows.
With all those settings at my fingertips, I almost felt like a magic photographer from a different dimension, with infinite amount of lenses and ability to go back in time and freeze action whenever I wanted.
The only problem with replays is that, because they record every little movement of suspension and driver input for every car, they take up a lot of disk space and RAM. This will be addressed in future releases, with the ability to select replay recording quality.
Another shortcoming of the AC graphics engine is the lack of weather. As I mentioned in physics review, there is no rain in AC. I believe this is largely due to physics implications rather than inherent limitations in graphics engine.
AC has physical crash damage and it also has visual or "cosmetic" damage. The visual damage in AC is good but not outstanding. I did not notice any parts flying off the car, even on hardest collisions. However, body panels will get dented, paintwork will get skratched and, after a scrappy race, your car will certainly look a lot worse than it did on the starting grid.
Even if you race clean and never collide with other cars, your car will not remain in showroom condition after the race. In AC cars get dirty from road dust, and, after a long race, end up having dirty rear bumpers, side-skirts and other prone areas.
Bad sound can be a deal-breaker. Driving game or sim can look as good as reality itself, but, as long as it does not have decent engine sounds, I will never buy it and I won't even bother download it from a torrent site for free.
Thankfully, sound in AC does not ruin the graphics and is not bad at all. The only franchise which may have better engine sounds is Forza Motorsports.
All cars have their appropriate engine note based on engine type - Inline 6 sounds like inline 6, V12 sounds like V12 etc. Turbo sounds on cars like RUF CTR or F40 are there, and for cars with variable boost, they even increase depending on how much boost you are running.
Sound changes depending on throttle position and, for some cars like the F40, I even noticed a slight change in sound depending on how abruptly I apply the throttle.
The sound in AC is on par with the best of what PC has to offer. It may not be the quantum leap that graphics are, but it certainly is good enough to be enjoyable and never bothered me with wrong engine note or poorly blended samples.
Sound has also received many improvements since the early access builds and may receive further updates still.
I have 90 hours of AC under my belt already, and I expect this number to multiple several times during this year. For any simracing enthusiast, AC is an absolute must-have.
Throughout my experience with AC, I felt like it was developed by people who share the same passion for cars that I have. AC embraces diverse car selection and encourages cross-comparison between different street and race car classes.
It is a car-centric simulator. Your best times are recorded on per-car basis, you can specify exactly which cars your opponents will have in single player mode, and define specific model and skin for each slot in multi player server.
For someone who used to try out different cars in other sims and write down best times for each car on a piece of paper, this is very nice to see.
With a good steering wheel, pedals and large monitor setup (triple monitor surround setup or even VR), AC pushes the circuit racing simulation experience closer to reality than ever. As I was unaware of the early development and early AC builds, this sim really surprised me.
Just when I was starting to loose all my faith in innovation in PC simracing, out came Assetto Corsa and struck me like a lightning from a clear blue sky. Simracing had changed forever.
- Very small track selection
- Car selection not nearly as large as in Forza or Gran Turismo
- No night driving, no light from headlights
- No weather, no rain
- Handling can feel vague and slightly "floaty" for very light weight cars
- Some features, such as drag racing or hillclimb stage are incomplete (as of version 1.0.4)
- Realistic physics with turbo simulation (variable boost)
- Stunning graphics, incredibly detailed car interiors
- Laser-scanned, accurate tracks
- Virtual reality and triple monitor support
- Good force feedback with good device support
- Good, accurate sound
- Huge community support and many future modding projects
- Excellent value for money
Review score: 10/10.