Assetto Corsa is one of the most highly-anticipated racing games ever made. Now, after three years of development on the PC, Assetto Corsa is bringing its winning combination of engaging gameplay and immersive sound to the PS4 and Xbox One in April. So is it a Project CARS and Forza killer? To find out, we were invited by 505 Games and Kunos Simlazioni for some pre-season hot laps on a preview build of the game.
From a car enthusiast's point of view, Assetto Corsa pushes all the right buttons before you even hit the track. There are over 100 high performance machines in total, including real classics like the Sauber C9, Ferrari 458 and the McLaren P1. There are also around 20 track configurations, but the AC team have included lesser known tracks, like Brands Hatch, alongside monsters like the Nordschleife. We pick the Ferrari 458 GT2 and select the mighty Spa-Francorchamps . It's a combination that we've played in more games than we care to think of, so it's good yardstick to begin with.
As the lights go out we accelerate to the first corner... and then leave the track in a cloud of tyre smoke. Awkward. Getting the car back on the track is just as ungraceful, and, after trying to tiptoe on to the Tarmac, our Ferrari decides to swap ends in even more embarrassment. After one attempt at a corner, it's already possible to get a glimpse of the Assetto Corsa feel.
Take two. Tentatively rounding the first corner, we pay more attention to the tiny signals coming from the car. The Thrustmaster 599XX EVO 30 wheel 505 Games and Kunos Simlazioni have provided seems to come to life, giving information about the surface of the track and the Ferrari's grip levels. we don't want to risk another spin, so after gradually feeding in the power, the 458 stretches its legs up the sweeping curves of Eau Rouge.
Despite being a three lap race of a twenty corner circuit, it feels like we've taken at least 100 separate corners. Unlike other racing games that make each corner feel like a practised routine, every corner in Assetto Corsa feels like a fresh, new challenge. As you enter each kink, corner and chicane, you're forced to muscle the car through, using the steering wheel and accelerator to navigate through it as fast as you possibly can.
After just a few laps it's easy to workout why Assetto Corsa has such a following on the PC, and the good news for console owners is that the physics models are identical on the PS4 and Xbox One versions.
"The first thing we wrote on console was the physics, in order to be 100 per cent sure that we've been able to create the same feeling that we have on PC," Marco Massarutto, co-founder and executive manager of Kunos Simulazioni, tells Red Bull. "We had to completely rebuild the graphics engine and also the physics engine to have it working in multi-thread, in order to use all the cores of the two consoles."
To nail the handling, Kunos Simlazioni wasn't content with just using specs and models, it also had to experience the cars first hand. "We personally drive a lot of, not the racing cars, but the street cars that are included in the game," says Massarutto. "And working directly with car manufacturers we've been able to create a very good suspension and tyre model."
But the handling is only part of the story. Assetto Corsa runs at 1080p and is capped to 60fps on the Playstation 4 (We asked about Xbox One framerate. "The team have been focusing on optimising both builds and we are working toward matching the PS4 as closely as possible," was all a spokesperson would tell us), and while it doesn't look as outright, control yourself, jaw-dropping as Project CARS, it's not an ugly game. What's more, the sound on Assetto Corsa is amazing. Racing is accompanied by a soundtrack of pure machinery; the whine of the transmission, the whistle of the turbo and the screeching of tyres are all thoroughly convincing. Such is the attention to detail, that you hear bits of gravel rattle around after you crash and rejoin the circuit.
And the secret behind the sound? A recording technique as detailed as the visuals.
"Starting last year, we used a device that allows us to record eight different channels at the same time, so that we can put different microphones into the cars," says Massarutto. "We can use all the different recordings to create the perfect Assetto sounds, and with our studio on a track [Kunos is based near the ACI Vallelunga Circuit in Rome], it's easy enough for us when a team come for a private test, or a race weekend, to ask them for permission to record the sounds."
But back to the track. After a few laps of Spa it feels like we've got the hang of the Ferrari, so we move to Brands Hatch, a track that's twisty and technical enough to test the handling of AC even further. However, after starting a race we soon realise we're massively off the pace. And that's when Assetto Corsa gets even better.
As we try to chase keep up with the swift AI, we take more risks: we brake later, flick the 458 through corners and hit the throttle even earlier. But instead of flying off, the car stays on track and rewards our confidence. Why? Because we're getting used to AC's predictable physics engine – and we're also warming up our Ferrari's racing slicks.
When we finally get into the groove, Assetto Corsa is unlike any other racing games on the PS4 or Xbox One. Taking a single corner at speed is a far more rewarding experience than usual, and requires adaptation, skill and patience. A typical corner goes like this: brake hard, keeping the steering wheel straight as your car sheds off speed. Aim for the apex and feel the the back of the car lose traction. The solution? Correct the slide with a few quick, small adjustments of the wheel. Once you're out of the corner, wait to feed in the power – too much too soon and the car begins to slide, too little too late and you'll find competitors breathing down your neck.
It might sound like hard work, but it's one of the purest driving experiences around. Thanks to great force feedback and physics, driving Assetto Corsa is like driving in HD, and stitching a perfect lap together is truly rewarding.
The AI seemed good too, and when combined with the handling you really do feel like a proper driver. Unlike the Gran Turismos of old, you can't carve your way through the field like a knife through butter. To get the better of your opponents you'll need to think several corners in advance, nail your exits perfectly and position your car on the optimum part of the track. Anything less and you're not getting by.
With a few race wins now in hand, it was time to change cars to the Mercedes-powered Sauber C9. As we rev on the grid, the Mercedes sounds vastly different to the Ferrari, and as we set off and round the first corner. we've spun again. That's the other thing about Assetto Corsa. Each car feels totally different, and after trying more cars it's clear just how unique the AC team has made each one. You actually have to learn how to drive each car individually.
If you're worried about just how difficult AC sounds, you're not alone – but Massarutto is adamant that Assetto Corsa didn't need to be watered down for console gamers. "We know that the PC version of AC has a very good reputation, so we believe that if we do something different now on console, we are going to disappoint a lot of people," he says.
Instead, by using the game's realistic physics engine, the cars are even more predictable and thus easier to drive. "Because [the physics engine is] realistic you can allow people to understand easily what the car is doing," adds Massarutto. "When they've got it they can understand also what they can do to stay on track."
Although we didn't get a chance to play the game with a controller, with a steering wheel at least, Assetto Corsa is a revolution. By embracing reality and modelling it perfectly, Assetto Corsa actually makes for a more entertaining game. Throw in super-realistic sound, solid AI and smooth graphics, and Assetto Corsa could well be the benchmark that Gran Turismo Sport, Project CARS 2 and Forza 7 will have to beat.