The sim also boasts the most accurate circuits we’ve ever seen in a PC racer – the dev team’s proprietary laser scanning system does an incredible job, and you’ll discover bumps and undulations that simply aren’t there in sims using handcrafted tracks. For example, I came hammering out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s pitlane at top speed in an IndyCar and caught a wicked bump that very nearly chewed me up and spat me into the infield. Trying to keep control of a 230mph racing car when it’s behaving badly is a combination of restrained precision and blind panic. It was only after I’d rescued the wayward rear wheels that I realised I’d been holding my breath.
The upshot of all this realism is that the game is extremely difficult. There are none of the mollycoddling driver aids you find in the majority of sims – the only concession is an automatic clutch, and that’s begrudgingly included because some PC steering wheels don’t come with a separate clutch pedal. If you’re overenthusiastic with your right toe, you’re going to spend an awful lot of time facing backwards.
A licence system prevents you from racing in the most powerful cars straight away, and with good reason. The slower ones are less terrifying to drive and are as close to an easy ride as you’ll get in iRacing. Even these require hours of solo testing for all but the most naturally talented drivers before you’ll be in a position to finish mid-pack, let alone win. With my standing in the community on the line as well, I found it so much easier to crack under pressure during races and make head-slappingly moronic mistakes – this is as hardcore as sim racing gets.
Sadly it’s not comprehensive, and there are certain features that have been present in other sims for years that aren’t part of iRacing. The most obvious one is different weather conditions – every iRacing event happens in blazing sunshine, a hangover from its NASCAR roots, where at the merest hint of rain the entire travelling circus packs up for the day. Fine for the oval portion of the game, but for the road courses, it’s not really on in this day and age. The other omission is a dynamic track surface, which has been a feature of racing sims for years now. Failing to simulate the changing grip level of the track as it ‘rubbers in’ to an extent undermines all the laser scanning surface work.
The biggest sticking point for most people though, in spite of the recent drop in fees, is still going to be the pricing. While the subscription model is tolerably cheap, what you get for that is only a handful of circuits and three vehicles. If you want anything beyond that, including the British tracks, you need to shell out an extra fee. With rFactor offering hundreds of cars and circuits, albeit community-created, for a one-off fee that amounts to about three months’ iRacing subscription, the latter is a much more expensive option. I can’t help but think that axing one or other of the two fees would result in a huge influx of sim racers who, like me, couldn’t quite justify the expenditure for a hobby that’s a subset of a wider interest in games. With rFactor 2 lurking threateningly over the horizon, packed with features that iRacing is currently missing, it’s only going to become more of a battle. What iRacing does have in its favour are a couple of impressive licences in the shape of NASCAR and IndyCar. Both of these championships are recreated in the most detail they have ever been, and oval racing becomes infinitely more interesting when you’re expending most of your brain’s capacity on keeping the car facing in the right direction.
Of course the team at iRacing would argue you’re paying as much for the professional atmosphere and community as you are for the engine – the premium pricing results in a better calibre of racing than the usual crash-fests. What’s more, with the challenge attached to mastering every circuit and vehicle to the point where you’re competitive and the fact you can’t race the more powerful cars without the appropriate licence, the early content should keep you busy for several weeks, if not months.
In spite of all the positive aspects of iRacing, it’s impossible to recommend to anyone other than dedicated sim racers. Not only are the hardcore the only ones who could justify the expenditure, they’re the ones who would benefit most from such a specialised community and fierce competition.
An impressive game, but not one that will be to everyone’s tastes, especially not those after a quick thrill.