Sim of the Year, part deux

It’s that time of the year once again when PC Gamer divvies out well-deserved plaudits in every genre of computer gaming. The racing category—which previously focused on driving games with broader appeal while serious racing simulations were considered in a separate sim category—is now unified, so earning the 2008 nod carries even more weight than previous years.

You’ve likely already read that this year’s winner is GRID, a graphically sumptuous—albeit arcadish—multiplatform racing game from Codemasters that single-handedly injects more fun into the act of digital driving than any PC racer from the past several years. Full credit to Codemasters for the honor (GRID is a terrific game from top to bottom), but hardcore sim racers probably won’t buy into the selection as long as continues to thrive.

Dave Kaemmer’s online racing magnum opus opened its servers to the public last August (with some financial help from Boston Red Sox owner John Henry) and quickly developed into the go-to place for serious sim racers. The pay-to-play service—which features stunningly accurate laser scanned tracks like Laguna Seca, Daytona, and Sebring—attracts legions of dedicated sim racing hobbyists driving alongside a who’s who of real world racing luminaries like NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr., F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve, and IndyCar racer Justin Wilson.

Sanctioned races, licensed cars and tracks, and hyper realistic physics modeling instantly separate from the rest of the sim racing pack is much more than just an online racing game. A paid subscription (ranging from $13 to $20 a month) delivers up officially sanctioned racing series in varied oval and road racing classes that are carefully regulated to ensure that yahoos and boneheads never make it out of pregrid. Complete a series of clean, incident-free races and you’ll qualify for license upgrades for faster cars and newer, more challenging series. iRacing currently boasts nine licensed vehicles (including a showroom stock Pontiac Solstice, five oval racing machines, a Radical sports racer, and two spec formula car classes) as well as 26 licensed race tracks with 62 unique layout configurations.

The monthly subscription format prompted a lot of bitching from sim fans when Kaemmer and company first announced in late 2004 but the unqualified success of the service—from its sophisticated physics modeling and unparalleled track accuracy to its growing sense of community and fair play—has since silenced the critics. After all, it’s hard to grouse about a game that delivers serious real-world racing dynamics and accurate-to-the-millimeter motorsport venues without the attendant five- or six-figure costs an honest-to-god SCCA or short-track racing machine would generate each year.

Once you’ve proved yourself in the novice classes, you can upgrade to faster cars like the Radical SR8 sports racer

So, with all of this wheel-spinning righteousness, why isn’t a massive hit with PC gamers? Perhaps we played a small role here, because we never actually gave the game a proper review in the magazine’s pages. Kaemmer’s simulation-cum-MMORG didn’t receive an official PC Gamer final verdict in 2008 (or an accompanying percentage rating), which in my estimation was a bit of an oversight.

No sense crying foul about the omission. Sh–t often happens in the publishing business where space constraints and editorial deadlines don’t always permit us to review every game on the marketplace. Such was the case with and the express purpose of this column is to redress that oversight.

I have no wish to malign Codemasters’ or GRID’s achievement but, speaking on behalf of all hardcore sim racers with a force feedback wheel and pedal setup permanently attached to their desktops, I hereby award an alternate Best Racing medal to for its invaluable and unrivaled contribution to sport of PC sim racing. 

January 27, 2009 

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