Have your gaming tastes changed as you age? Mine have. Back in the early days, before starting an accidental love affair with the car, I’d play anything.
In fact, I don’t even remember my first racing game, although is probably a safe guess considering my age and where I grew up. But as I’ve gotten older and time for gaming has become scarce, that’s all gone, and I exist on a diet that’s almost exclusively racing. Console racing at that. Blame fear of having to learn something new if you like.
So when I was asked to write something for Ars Gaming Week, it seemed like a good opportunity to make a list—in this case, the ten best console racing games of all time. There is no scientific method behind my ranking. We did not assemble a crack panel of industry experts to stank-rank the field. I don’t have celebrity anecdotes. And if a particular game was on a platform I never had, it won’t be on the list, either.
It’s just me, my memory, and a lifetime looking for lap times with a controller (or more recently a wheel). As ever, the comments are open for people to vehemently disagree—gentle readers, let’s start those digital engines.
To me, was the first truly spectacular rally game. OK, for the original Playstation was good, but simulating a rally car as its studded tires interact with a loose surface of gravel of varying depth and grip in the rain or maybe the snow takes muscles that simply hadn’t been invented in the late 1990s. Developed by Codemasters, morphed into , a series of games that were well-reviewed but which always left me cold.
When arrived in 2016, it did so with a new game engine under the skin and a back-to-basics approach with the gameplay. Instead of chasing a mainstream audience with gameplay that involved a lot of different challenges, this was just hardcore rallying on stages around the world used by the World Rally Championship. There was Pikes Peak, that terrifying ribbon of road in Colorado that runs up above 14,000 feet. The last time I remember Pikes Peak being in a video game was in . And back then, it was all dirt to the top, but by 2013 it had been entirely paved. Helpfully (and perhaps ironically given its name), gave you the option of running it completely paved, partially paved (as it was until the tarmac was complete), or completely on dirt.
was punishingly hard, but that made it wonderfully rewarding.
We had to wait until 2017 for to make it to Sony’s latest console—Polyphony Digital (the developer) has always had even more trouble with deadlines than I have. One of the more recent titles to make this shortlist, is a game I keep coming back to. Its long-term appeal was by no means a sure thing, for the game met with a mixed reception at launch. Many fans of the series were disappointed by the news that would feature many fewer cars and tracks than had become the norm. And there were more grumbles from those who didn’t like that this game so whole-heartedly embraced esports and multiplayer online racing.
Don’t listen to the haters. For one thing, it’s got the best tire physics of any game, hands down. And in the cars sound better than they ever have in previous installments of this legendary franchise. So as it turns out in retrospect, all those pre-launch fears were ill-founded. Polyphony Digital has kept up a steady tempo of free DLC, adding new tracks and new cars. And the single player game has expanded to include the new content; you can let your Playstation membership lapse and still get plenty of enjoyment from this one. But in the rare occasion when you do feel like being social and racing other humans, this remains probably the best online racing experience in console land, thanks to in-game etiquette rules that enforce driving standards.
Two years later, carries on as my current go-to for a quick pickup race.
The original was an ambitious multi-platform title that aimed to be much more of a hardcore simulation than the console racing games that preceded it. Mastering it was certainly hardcore, thanks to a wonky physics model that made the cars impossible to control once the tires started to slide. The followup, , arrived in 2017 and solved that problem.
“If you look at sim racing as a whole, there’s this misconception that it needs to be really, really difficult, or it’s not a sim,” said Rod Chong, who led the development team at Simply Mad Studios. Like any tool, a good race car should be easy to use, and while that doesn’t describe all of the 200-odd cars in the game, you’re bound to find some that fit that description. (The Porsche Cayman GT4 is a good place to start.) features a brilliant selection of tracks, including those lost to the mists of time like the old Hockenheimring or the scary eight mile long version of Spa-Francorchamps.
And how’s this for an endorsement? Although I was sent a review copy of I actually went and paid money for a PS4 copy recently.