"Racing" is less a genre than it is a feeling. The ultra-realism of a game like iRacing and the cartoonish chaos of Burnout: Paradise have nothing in common except this: when you're racing to the final corner, wheel-to-wheel with your last rival, you are utterly lost in that moment. That moment is why we play racing games. It's the high that racing fans are always chasing. The great racing games take you there again and again.
This list tries to strike a balance between high-fidelity racing sims, "sim-lite" racing games that balance realism with approachability, and action-oriented arcade racers. It's biased towards games that offer a lot of variety of experience in one package, as well as toward more recent games that will work with a minimum of fuss.
Forza Horizon 3
Developer: Playground Games, Turn 10
Released: September 2016
In our review of Forza Horizon 3, Phil thinks calling it a racing game is reductive. "It's a huge, varied playground full of things to do in cars." And he's right. You're rewarded equally for completing a race through the tight corners of urban Australia and driving a max speed through a farmer's property. It has enough switches to turn on or off that can make it play like chewy arcade racer or like a realistic sim. You can outfit any of over 300 photorealistic cars with any dumb livery you like, or you can fine tune the suspension. The DJs will play special songs that give you bonus points for driving like a smooth operator or a damn maniac. The list goes on and on, but best of all, you can do everything with friends in a fairly seamless cooperative mode.
Our recommendation is caveated with a warning that Forza is not an easy game to run, and some performance issues are still getting ironed out, but none of them are enough to pull us out of its gorgeous, playful open world.
Released: August 2016
In our review of F1 2016, Sam White called it "the most well-featured, authentic recreation of Formula One ever created, and it’s a genuinely good PC port."
There's a massive checklist of new features that make F1 2016 the most immersive it's ever been. With manual starts, every race begins as a tense technical exercise. And a new R&D system doles out points that let you develop a specific car over the course of a season.
But most importantly, small refinements to the racing round out the sim, including "the slide of the car as you over-accelerate out of a turn; the gentle squeeze of the brakes so you don’t slide into a smoke-billowing, tire-ruining lock-up; the aquaplaning as you stray away from the safety of the racing line in a monsoon downpour—every lap is a joyous exercise in taming a ludicrously overpowered beast. "
Released: August 2011
Trackmania 2 is split into three different games, Stadium, Valley, and Canyon. You don't need the complete collection to enjoy TrackMania's gleefully uninhibited F-Zero meets Sonic the Hedgehog racing action. With endless levels thanks to the powerful level editor, and tracks more improbable than Escher architecture, TrackMania 2 is the most classically PC of the arcade racers.
Developer: Image Space Incorporated
Released: January 2012
rFactor is still rough around the edges, but it's the heir to one one of the PC's great racing games and one of the most impressive modding communities in the world. rFactor 2, like its predecessor, just keeps growing after launch as new car and track packs come out across all kinds of different series. It's not a cheap habit, but it will please serious racers.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
Developer: Criterion Games
Released: November 2010
The purest essence of Need for Speed before the series went all open-world, all the time. It delivers exactly what the title promises, in race after race, with no downtime. Enjoy the simple life as you aim a European exotic down a stretch of hauntingly beautiful Pacific coast highway with a train of police cars following in your wake.
RaceRoom Racing Experience
Developer: Sector3 Studios
Released: February 2013
This is the descendant of SimBin's once-mighty racing empire. Think of it as GTR Online: it's the ruthlessly-authentic car sim you remember, but retooled for online free-to-play.
That's also its weakness. Once you get the cars on the track, it's all terrific and familiar. But off-track, RaceRoom is all about selling you bits and pieces of the game. Pick a series you want to race and buying the whole pack: that gets you all the cars and tracks you need to enjoy it.
Released: June 2014
Codemasters' easiest, most entry-level game. The car handling is very forgiving, but with just enough fight in it to teach you the basics of corner-braking and throttle-control. It's got full-race weekends, strong opponent AI, and tons of variety in its racing formats. It's a great point-of-entry for people curious about sim-style racing, and fun for more hardcore drivers who just want to relax.
Developer: Ghost Games
Released: November 2013
Rivals is probably the best of EA's open-world racing games right now. With parallel career tracks for playing as both the cops and street racers, and tons of online features that put you neck-and-neck with human opponents, Rivals makes a strong case for combining Burnout: Paradise-style open-world racing with online connectivity. At least until EA turns the servers off…
Developer: Codemasters Southam
Released: May 2011
Rally racing is a contest between driver and a narrow, twisting ribbon of country road that is doing its best to kill the driver.
Dirt 3 brings it to life in all its stomach-churning glory. It feels faster than any other game on this list, because skidding sideways and 50 MPH through a dirt-and-gravel hairpin, just inches away from a wall of a Finnish birch, proves to be more intense than taking an F1 car through Eau Rouge at Spa.
Developer: iRacing Motorsport Simulations
Released: August 2008
With its regular online racing leagues and meticulous car and track modeling, iRacing is as close to real racing as you can get on the PC.
That also means iRacing is something you need to work up to. It has no meaningful single-player component and, with its subscription fees and live tournament scheduling, it requires significant investment. But for a certain class of sim racing fan, there is nothing that compares.
Driver: San Francisco
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
Released: September 2011
With a retro-chic ‘70s vibe, one of the best soundtracks in games, and a truly original twist on the open world racer, Driver: San Francisco just radiates style and cool in a way that no other game on this list can match.
With the ability to "shift" between NPC cars at-will, Driver:SF is one of the only post-Paradise open-world racers to think of something fresh and new to do with the freedom of the open world.
Split / Second
Developer: Black Rock Studio
Released: May 2010
Welcome to the Michael Bay Motorsports Hour, where fake sports cars will rocket through desolate, orange-filtered urban wastelands at blinding speed while drivers accumulate enough energy to trigger bomb-drops from overhead helicopters, vicious sweeps from out-of-control cranes, and even the odd explosion of an entire city block.
It's the perfect chaser to a lot of open-world arcade racers: Split / Second is laser-focused on absurd automotive chaos and increasingly improbable tableaus of bloodless mechanical carnage.
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Released: March 2011
For a game that is ostensibly all about striking a compromise between realistic sim racing and edge-of-your-seat arcade action, Shift 2 feels totally uncompromised. It channels the violence and barely restrained power of high-end sports cars with the brilliant touch of an ace driver like a Senna or a Niki Lauda. The cars twitch and buck under acceleration, the tires shriek around the corners, your vision is twisted and distorted by the speed and the G-forces… but somehow you're in control.
That's the illusion that Shift 2 crafts. It always feels like you have a tiger by the tail… but somehow you keep the car on the road, and keep clawing your way through the field. The thrill and the terror never quite go away, though, thanks to Slightly Mad's outstanding use of camera effects, sound, and a deceptively twitchy handling model.
Shift 2 strikes a perfect balance. It's the game I go to when I want a ridiculously intense and demanding racing experience… but I don't want to work as hard as a game like iRacing or RaceRoom tries to make me.
Developer: Criterion Games
Released: January 2008
Burnout Paradise is seven years old. Seven years old! Seven years of being the most imitated racing game in history.
And yet the original model still surpasses its imitators. It's so much purer and more exciting than the games it inspired. It doesn't have any licensed cars, so instead it features car-archetypes that crumple into gut-wrenchingly violent wrecks. Compare those to the fender-benders that wipe you out in Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Criterion's attempt at topping themselves and where you get the sense that just depicting a shattered headlight would have entailed hundreds of meetings with Lamborghini's lawyers.
Paradise isn't an online "social" experience. It's not all about collectibles and unlocks. You get new cars, but they're not the point of the game. It's about driving around a city populated entirely by cars, listening to a drivetime DJ spin classic and pop rock tracks while you drive hell-for-leather through twisting city streets, mountain passes, and idyllic farmland. It's violent, blindingly fast, and endlessly entertaining. It's created the modern arcade racing genre, but the joke is on us, because all we've done ever since is try to get back to Paradise.
Developer: Kunos Simulazioni
Released: December 2014
Assetto Corsa might be the finest driving simulator in the world right now. Its handling model is incredibly convincing and challenging, without ever feeling exaggerated for effect. It's also got a satisfying career mode that throws a nice array of challenges at you across a wide variety of disciplines. Each new stage helps you develop the skills needed to drive Assetto Corsa's most demanding cars at the highest levels of racing.
It's also a slightly bare-bones game off-track. Its UI looks more like engineering software than a game, and there isn't much flavor. The track list is a little small for my liking, though the extensive car-list makes up for it.
Still, the minimalism suits Assetto Corsa's mission: it's about driving as cleanly and skillfully as possible on the very outside edge of performance. At a certain point in your racing life, that's all you want to do.
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Released: May 2015
Project CARS is an easy pick by being the "desert island" racing game. If I could only take one of these games with me to a permanent gaming exile, Project CARS would be the one I choose.
It's gorgeous, with some the most vivid weather and lighting conditions I've ever seen in a racing game. It's got all the variety you could want, from classic F1 racers to old 1970s touring cars to modern Le Mans Prototypes. Each car is unique and challenging, placing new demands on your skills and rewarding you in new ways. It's got great tracks, with special love and attention lavished on some of the lesser-known UK racing circuits, and might feature the most exciting version of Laguna Seca's Corkscrew turn in the history of the genre.
Project CARS requires a lot of forgiveness and DIY tweaking. AI drivers are too "on-rails", but patches have made them far less accident-prone. It takes a lot of fiddling to find the exact difficulty and realism settings that are right for you, and the career mode isn't much to write home about. It's not the greatest racing game ever made, but right now it is the most essential racing game around.
Its fiddly customizability ultimately works in its favor as it becomes a game that will grow alongside your skills. Bit by bit, I find myself turning off driver aids, getting more ambitious with my car setups, and bumping-up the AI difficulty. Project CARS has served up a lot of great races but, most importantly, it is always an amazing drive.