With Project CARS already in the wild and Gran Turismo Sport on the way later this year, as well as other realistic and excellent racers of their own kind in DiRT Rally and F1 2016 already out, there's plenty of variation and choice in the racing simulator market on the PlayStation 4 right now. But having garnered a hefty following with the modding community on PC, Assetto Corsa finally makes its way to Sony's platform – albeit without the community of tinkerers that perhaps made the game really stand out in the first place.
That's not to say that Assetto Corsa lacks appeal by itself, but upon starting it up there's so little on offer here in terms of content that it's hard to find a place to fit it in alongside everything else. There are over 20 car manufacturers to choose from, but the number of cars from each is limited, with different versions of the same car making up the count. Likewise, we're told there are 26 different track variations included, but many of these are the same courses with slightly different layouts – or are simply reversed.
But where other racers might dazzle with their numbers, Assetto Corsa aims to deliver solely on the track. There may not be the embarrassment of riches regarding variation that you'll get from a Gran Turismo title, but what's included is relatively well optimised and individually tailored. This is evident in how each and every car feels and sounds entirely different from the last, lending a unique identity to each. Likewise, tracks are so accurately reproduced that even the bumps and dips in the road are felt in the shake of the controller as you gather speed – forcing you to adjust to accommodate them.
It's this sense of realism that the game is striving for – it wants to be a celebration of cars by putting them through their paces in a series of realistic scenarios. But while it strives to reach these ends, it also flounders. It fails to present the joy of cars or to put them on display in the way Gran Turismo does with its garage and showroom system. Here, the cars are designed with such attention to detail that you really want to just look at them and admire their beauty, but there's simply no way to do this away from the track.
And then, if you're one to watch replays and admire them as they thrash around a course at high speed, you're again let down by some poor graphical presentation. Sure, the tracks and cars look superb, but the buildings, trees, and onlookers by the side of the road are hideous and are made up of what appears to be two pieces of flat, blurry texture put together to make something akin to a 3D model. Y'know, like they used to do on the PlayStation 2! This is often so visibly poor – and in complete antithesis to the detailed, textured, and almost palpable car models – that you'll even notice it as you race by at 200mph, and it never fails to be an ugly distraction.
Away from the graphical presentation, however, Assetto Corsa also disappoints. This game is hard. Really hard. It's the kind of game that punishes you so severely that mistiming a corner by even a split second is enough to wreck an entire championship weekend – and this applies even to the slower starting cars which seem to take an age to come to a stop. While this kind of punishing gameplay is nothing new and has been well-implemented elsewhere (we're looking at you, DiRT Rally), it's made infuriating here because there are no tutorials whatsoever; you're simply plonked onto the track and away you go.
Couple this with the useless driving assists such as a non-dynamic driving line that seems to have been optimised for a Lamborghini and not a Fiat 500, and you're left wondering how the hell you're supposed to learn to play this game. Even the automatic gearbox is somehow awkward to use, making it so that you have to switch manually into reverse should you have an accident – a detail that's at no point explained, you're just left to figure it out. This is where mods might come in handy and make the game a little more palatable, but there's no word yet and whether this feature will make it to the PS4.
And since the game is so unforgiving, and it has no way of teaching you how to play effectively, it's also not a fulfilling experience. We never felt entirely comfortable with it, no matter how much we practised and played. Maybe a licensing system akin to Gran Turismo would have benefited the title here; it could even have been implemented within the game's career mode, which would have certainly fleshed out what is, in all honesty, a rather tedious main event.
Working your way through pre-made events to gather trophies to unlock new ones is nothing new (DriveClub did this relatively well), but it's the game's insistence – through both the career and special events modes – on forcing you through long, dull events in cars you couldn't care less about. Online modes seem to be just as limiting, although we had a hard time getting online for review because of the servers, so it's hard to really take this into account.
Assetto Corsa is a frustrating drive with a punishing learning curve that never truly pays you back for your time investment. It fails to provide an effective way to learn its complicated intricacies and lacks features that a game of its ilk requires. It's also simultaneously the best and worst presented racing game of the past few years, with superbly detailed cars and tracks hampered by awful long-distance scenery and ugly roadside textures. Ultimately, this is a disappointment that lacks the heart required to truly celebrate the cars it has so lovingly recreated.