Putting the 'cor' in Corsa
I know what you're probably thinking: What the heck is Assetto Corsa? Sounds like a fancy ice cream. True, but it's actually a very fancy racing sim, previously only available on PC. Having won a lot of hardcore racing fans over the past couple of years, it's finally coming to console with a brand new interface. And, as it happens, I've just played an already impressive, pre-alpha version on PS4.
At risk of jumping the gun, if I had to say right now how good I think it is, I would say the simulation is the best I've ever experienced (though how it'll work as a long-term console game is something I'll reserve judgement on). So let me tell you why from a sim point of view at least, this could leave Gran Turismo and Forza sucking on its exhaust fumes.
It's got the best handling yet
The setup at the preview event had Thrustmaster 599XX EVO 30 wheels (the Alcantara Edition that's just like a real Ferrari wheel) plus huge great bucket-seated RSeat RS1s, which obviously helps the sense of immersion. But even just looking at the game on the screen, the movement is that of a real car. The level of grip feels perfect, with an incredible amount of feedback through the visuals and the motors pushing against you in the wheel itself. As a result, despite the massive realism, I didn't spend all my time falling off the road. I spent it driving around a racetrack. That's the difference. A massive, massive difference.
Ferrari used it as a sim before it was a game
Ferrari, Abarth and Dallara have used this tech to simulate cars in their own test facility. It's that realistic. The team is completely enveloped in racing - quite literally in that their office is in the middle of the Vallelunga circuit in Rome. The team can see cars driving down a straight right outside their window. Marco Massarutto, co-founder and executive producer at Kunos Simulazioni told me: "Being on track, we have the chance to stay in direct contact with racing teams, professional drivers and engineers." It shows.
The responsiveness is insane
This is the most responsive racing game I've ever seen. With the steering wheels set up in front of large, flat panel HD TVs and the game set to helmet cam, you could see journalists' hands on the wheel right underneath those same hands' virtual incarnations and they were almost perfectly in sync. A perfect 1:1 response is technically impossible due to processing in the console and the TV, but only the most violent see-saws are even slightly behind the real-world action here. Seeing as HD TVs have latency anyway, the game itself must be running like lightning. It's superb - the best I've ever seen.
3D VR is on the cards
Oculus Rift is already supported in Assetto Corsa, and Marco told me that they've had the 'Morpheus' (as it was then known) dev kit for over a year already. However, the team's priority right now is to get the console version finished and shipped, so VR compatibility is not something that will be supported at launch. After that, however, there's more than a good chance that it will be added in via a downloadable patch. But the effect is apparently so good, Marco says Oculus uses the game to demonstrate its technology at events. I don't doubt it.
You need to actually RACE the AI
This is one area that it's not easy to test in just a couple of hours with a game, but early signs are promising. For starters, after lowering the as-yet-unbalanced difficulty a little, I was just about able to keep up with the 4th-place car around Spa for a couple of laps, getting to within distance of thinking about an overtake, but then making a mistake at Eau Rouge and slamming into the wall. That may not sound fun to you, but for me it's very promising. I had to work very hard to reel in just one car something my list of 'What makes a good racing game?' made a big deal out of.
The cars bump into each other properly
Speaking of crashing into things, damage was switched off in this pre-alpha version, although the final game will feature both mechanical and cosmetic damage, with slider bars for how realistic you want it to be. Marco told me that the various manufacturers have varying levels of damage they are happy to be depicted on their cars, but it will have some. That's unavoidable. However, most importantly, collisions between vehicles feel weighty and solid here. Like you're actually hitting real cars. It's an incredible simulations of not just cars on a tracks, but cars on other cars.
The environments feel like they really exist
Assetto Corsa can't compete with Gran Turismo for the sheer number of tracks (or cars for that matter), but it can compete in terms of solidity. Its visual feel is like a new-gen version of Ferrari 355 Challenge that kind of solid, assured rendering, only in 1080p on PS4 (likely 900p on Xbox One according to Marco, though both will run at 60fps). Best of all, there's even a 1966 layout version of Monza that you can drive with vintage F1 cars. Where Forza 6 feels like a love-letter to cars, this feels like a love letter to motorsport.
So I'm excited
It's already very, very good. It feels like driving an actual car. Whether that's going to translate to standard PS4 and Xbox One control pads remains to be seen, but with a wheel and pedals, it's wonderful. It's unashamedly a simulation of cars, but that simulation is so impressive, I already want just that one Ferrari Fxx K hotlap around Spa in my house. If everything else can convinces console gamers as a video game and not just a technical reproduction of a car, this could be very special indeed when it hits consoles later this year. Keep an eye on it, this could be a real sleeper hit.