They don’t make racing games like Assetto Corsa Competizione anymore.
If it’s open-world, arcade thrills you want, there’s Forza Horizon 4. If you’d rather flog a given car around a given circuit somewhere in the world in a reasonably realistic setting, there’s GT Sport or Forza Motorsport 7. And if you’d like to do that, but with a more serious, track-day veneer, there’s Project Cars 2.
But Assetto Corsa Competizione, which has fully launched after emerging from Steam Early Access last week, is different. It doesn’t jumble together cars of disparate generations while fruitlessly trying to enforce a fair race. It makes no attempt, unlike Codemasters’ upcoming Grid reboot, to cater to all kinds of racing fans by offering a number of different disciplines, from open-wheelers to muscle cars.
No, Assetto Corsa is about one thing and one thing only: GT racing. More specifically, it’s about the Blancpain GT Series, which sees upwards of 40 teams, operating cars built by manufacturers ranging from Ferrari to Nissan, Porsche and Aston Martin, competing for supremacy in short sprint races and grueling endurance events.
This is the only style of racing available in Assetto Corsa Competizione, and the game is better for it. Centering on the Blancpain GT Series and nothing else makes for a more focused — dare I say curated — experience, one that prioritizes quality over quantity. Oh, it’s an occasionally punishing one, too.
Learning the ropes
Your career in Assetto Corsa Competizione starts as a member of Lamborghini’s young driver program engaging in a three-day test at the famed Monza circuit in Italy. Of course, you want to set the fastest lap you can and outperform your rivals, but the real objective here is to get around the track in one piece. Once you’ve accomplished that, you have to learn consistency. If you get both of those essential skills under your belt, only then can you really challenge for the best lap times.
In any other game, the learning curve wouldn’t be so drawn out. But Assetto Corsa Competizione is as realistic as racing simulators get these days. Because the game concerns itself only with GT3-class machines, there’s a depth and attention to detail within the physics model that you rarely find in even the best-handling racing games.
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For far too long, simulators have reinforced a misguided philosophy that realism and difficulty are directly proportional. Assetto Corsa Competizione rallies against this assumption. GT3 cars are widely considered some of the purest, simplest and easiest-to-drive race cars out there; they’re popular with amateurs, they have traction control (which many forms of motorsport prohibit), and the various models themselves are performance-balanced, so that one particular automaker’s machinery isn’t significantly faster than another’s. Fittingly, all of these principles bear true in Assetto Corsa Competizione.
This game is hard, but not because the cars are hard to drive. In fact, I was surprised how quickly I was able to circle Monza without putting a wheel into the gravel, or swapping ends after a back-breaking shunt across the curbs. It's relatively straightforward to hop into a new car and get a feel for the fundamentals; the real challenge lies in maximizing its potential.
To do that, you’ll need to be mindful of things other racing games don’t ask you to think about. Tire pressures and brake temperatures are key — when you leave the pits, you’ll have markedly less grip and stopping power than you will once you’ve put in a flying lap or two. The racing line, which is the most direct, optimized route around the course, has more rubber laid down on it, so it offers the most traction. Veer off of it, and you’ll be riding on a sea of marbles — tire detritus discarded by passing cars. And once the rain starts falling, the precipice of grip off the beaten path is even steeper.
Being that the Blancpain GT Series incorporates endurance races, ranging from three to 24 hours in duration, you also have night driving to contend with. After the sun goes down, everything becomes exponentially more frustrating. Judging braking distance alone is a challenge. Your opponents become harder to see, and can’t telegraph their moves as clearly. It’s a whole different ball game.
I completed my young driver test in the dry, wet and at night, notching some of the worst times of the session in each instance. This is normal, though — Assetto Corsa Competizione needs to break you down before it can build you up.
From zero to hero
The first race of my first season was at Zolder — a long-standing Belgian venue probably most infamous for being the circuit where Canadian Formula 1 legend Gilles Villeneuve was killed during a horrific accident in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Although some of the track’s faster sections were slowed in the aftermath of that tragedy, it’s still a somewhat intimidating circuit, with undulating hills concealing blind corners and unexpected hazards.
My first practice sessions there went about as poorly as you’d expect, given my terrible performance in the driver test at Monza. I was seconds off the pace, struggling to find the optimal line through the circuit’s myriad chicanes.
But then, something clicked. By the time I could string together a quick lap without pushing wide off the asphalt and invalidating my time, I qualified sixth of 20 entrants. I wouldn’t end up winning the race, though I did have some electrifying skirmishes on my way to a podium finish. (Perhaps I could’ve finished higher if I didn’t accidentally miss my pit box during the mandatory stop.)
What I love about Assetto Corsa Competizione, though, is that I didn’t have to finish first to feel that I had a successful race. Much like actual motorsport, a victory every weekend plainly isn’t realistic.
Games have conditioned us to settle for nothing less than the best possible result. While everyone obviously wants to win, swapping a bit of paint with the middle of the pack — fending off opponents that are formidable but ultimately beatable and fair — is so much more fun than coasting to the lead in Gran Turismo.
Needs some tuning
Granted, developer Kunos Simulazioni will have to iron out a few kinks in the post-release cycle, kinks that do break the immersion. When I dove into the pits for a tire change and a splash of fuel halfway through my subsequent race, I spun my tires on the exit and was immediately disqualified for breaking the pit-lane speed limit — even though I barely moved five feet.
You also won’t find the kind of conveniences and comforts other slightly more polished racing games provide. For example, you can’t skip to the end of a session without withdrawing from the event entirely. So when I was disqualified from that last race, I had to wait 10 minutes for the checkered flag to wave before I could save, quit and continue my career.
On another note, I’m pleased to report that the game handles surprisingly well with a Sony DualShock 4 controller, but at the moment you can’t re-map functions to other buttons outside the default configuration. (To its credit, Kunoz says it’ll address this in a future update.)
Assetto Corsa Competizione is only available on PC for the time being. That might change eventually, given that the original Assetto Corsa saw a PS4 and Xbox One release some months after it debuted on Steam.
If you have a PC, though, and you love your sim racing or happen to be just a massive motorsports fan in general, you won’t want to sleep on Assetto Corsa Competizione. At a time when the racing genre is getting broader and broader, it feels like a perfectly concentrated shot of adrenaline.