My bum hurts. Well, I can barely feel the thing, but there is something of a numb discomfort in both cheeks. My lower back aches too, the undersides of both thumbs seem to be demonstrating that slightly painful tingle indicative of the early onset of an emerging blister, and my eyes are stinging. The backs of my thighs aren’t feeling too great either. My senses feel a bit off too, come to think of it; my hands seem to be half stuck in a crab-like clawing shape and my sense of touch seems disconnected from the things around me I am trying to grasp. My eyes and ears appear rather out of tune with my surroundings, and my head is buzzing.
It is half past ten at night, and for the last three and a bit hours I haven’t moved from my race frame. Rewind four hours or so and I was just getting in from eight hours of work, sitting staring at a computer. I hastily threw something together that those of particularly low standards might term food, and gazed at my neglected race frame. The piles of clothes, children’s toys and those random carrier bags filled with “stuff” that have a habit of accumulating offered a strong hint as to the fate that had befallen my once prized rig.
Whilst over the last few months I have often looked to that side of the room, thought for a second about clearing some space and turning some laps, before shrugging my shoulders and emitting a silent, apathetic “meh”. A few hours ago there was no such struggle to muster the motivation required to emancipate my rig from its new found role of dumping area and fire up the old beast.
This past weekend saw the long anticipated release of Assetto Corsa (in Steam “Early Access” guise, at least), and there really weren’t many things that could stop me immersing myself in the world Stefano Casillo and his band of merry (and, no doubt, slightly tired) men have spent the last few years crafting. A steady stream of slick screenshots, not-so-slick-but-equally-tantalising videos, and content announcements has kept the unwashed masses abreast of developments. Plus, of course, the previously released “Tech Demo” showcased a glimpse of what Assetto Corsa (AC) had to offer as it stood back in February, and gave many their first opportunity for some hands-on seat time with this much sought after title.
Lately I have been aware that AC’s arrival was imminent, but frankly, I’d tried to forget about it. I am all too aware of what can, and often does, befall the best laid plans of mice and men, so the easiest way to avoid disappointment, I felt, was to just take a step back and try to temper my hopes and expectations. But there I was, dubious foodstuffs consumed, and there was AC, downloaded and ready to run. To those who know me, it will be no surprise that my first port of call was the BMW E30 M3. When I heard the news that this car was to be included in AC, my excitement was palpable. When I learned it would be included in the Early Access build, the excitement went up a notch. Here I was choosing my paint scheme and finally ready to drive. Then I lost three hours.
In total I have run AC for about eight hours now, and apart from about five laps or so across a couple of other cars, that time has been spent exclusively in the E30 at the Magione circuit. This release might currently offer up what some would term a fairly meagre selection of content, but, in fact, the number of cars and tracks only tells you a small part of what AC offers. It hammers home how absolutely ridiculous the willy waving one-upmanship of the GT and Forza car catalogues are, and how utterly unnecessary such content lists are to boot.
The road-going E30 may be just one car, but it offers up a wealth of experiences in AC. I have yet to touch any of its adjustable aero parts or even tyre pressures, but have run a good hour or more on each of the three selectable tyre compounds. Such is the deftness and subtlety of the model and implementation, that the variation in experience provided by swapping the black round things eclipses that offered in some lesser titles between different cars. Along the gradient of successive tyre upgrades, the character of the car subtly yet, conversely, massively shifts.
On the default “90’s street tyres”, the car feels relatively supple and soft. Whilst the S14 unit under the hood has never been particularly revered for its torque, its peaky power delivery makes short work of overwhelming the rear tyres and inducing oversteer. It is easy to look at the raw numbers for the car and think it might not be particularly fast (indeed, it is probably the slowest car on offer here), but remember that this car is well over 20 years old and comes from a time when tyres were, by today’s standards, rather shit. On the original rubber, with the exception of the longer straights, the power of the S14 feels ample and a significant degree of discipline is required with the loud pedal. Whilst the relative lack of traction can be the source of huge quantities of fun, it can also see time ebb away as you wait for everything to straighten up and settle before getting on the power hard. The final section of the lap, balancing the car through a series of switchbacks, has one’s right foot leaping from throttle to brake and back again so deftly that it begins to transcend thought and move into the realms of pure instinct.
Slapping on a set of the (I assume contemporary) “street tyres” drastically alters the performance of the car and accordingly how it can/should be driven. On the face of it, you now have more grip, and with it more speed can be carried through the corners and the throttle can be applied that much sooner. The confidence of the increased grip can lull you into a false sense of security, and the engine still has enough bite to break traction and kick the rear end out when provoked. When this occurs, the tyre can sometimes feel on something more of a knife edge than before, but yet easy to handle if you are quick enough to react, with more response and control available. The car is unmistakably the same machine, but the experience of driving it is transformed considerably.
Go one step further to the semi-slick tyres, and again the car pushes on into new realms of capability and response. The increase in grip allows one to take liberties with the throttle, and only going over a bump or a concerted effort to unsettle the car will see the rear wheels spinning up, causing gains of forward momentum to be replaced with rapid accumulation of yaw angle. Where I feel the biggest difference in the relative abilities of the tyres lies is in high speed turns. In quicker corners the car is wonderfully sharp and it takes only a little effort to get the nose pointing where you want it to go. With the increased grip and stability now on offer, you can really start to lean on the car. The feeling of loading up the outside tyres and the transition from within to beyond the tyres’ capabilities are as naturally and effortlessly enacted by AC’s physics engine, as they are enjoyable and addictive for the driver. As is to be expected, that knife-edge characteristic is now even more apparent, but so too is a further increase in the immediacy, control, and the feeling of a connection with the car.
As the lateral loads become too great for the 90’s street tyres to handle, the grip just fades away and the car begins to slide. With the semi-slick, however, you feel the car beginning to struggle to handle the loads, with the chassis roll building those washed out slides are replaced with the chirruping of tyres beginning to hop and skip across the surface. Driving in these situations, the feelings immediately invoked in my mind are the sight of early 90’s touring cars skipping about and rolling up onto their outer wheels under extreme duress (the thought of the DTM version of the E30 yet to come really does set my mind boggling).
Much of this is to be expected, or at the very least hoped for; after all tyres are tyres, and physics is physics, and a lot of people know, or feel they know, how something should behave and respond in various situations. What stands out in AC for me, and the above tests with the different tyres really brings this to the fore, is how much feeling there appears to be. Through subtle cues formed from the FFB, sound, graphical representation of the world and, of course, the physical behaviour and response of the car to driver inputs, a huge sense of tactile integration with the experience is conveyed. As the grip levels increase with the different tyres, accordingly the feeling of growing stress and strain in the suspension and chassis seems to be communicated to the driver. Instead of washing out at a given load limit, with increased purchase between road and rubber the loads can keep on building, and you “feel” and sense this through all of the above outputs from the sim. I have no idea quite what is going on in my head when I am playing, but I am guessing it is a step towards what it must be like to drive a sim with an Oculus Rift and full motion platform; the brain being tricked into believing an entirely artificial experience.
When you read/watch/listen to the work of the better motoring journalists out there (the likes of Chris Harris, Harry Metcalfe, Steve Sutcliffe and Richard Meaden spring to mind), a common theme is that they often seem to get very caught up in the details. As well as appreciating the car as a whole, they will go into great detail singing the praises or admonishing the characteristics of different tyres. Given the chance like this to drive a car hard, back to back, on different rubber amply demonstrates why they often fix their attention to this area. Similarly, terminology such as “load up”, “lean on” and the like seem to take on an added meaning and pertinence with AC. You know in all titles these things are going on within the physics engine, but somehow AC makes these things that bit more tangible. Be it pushing hard on the brake pedal and feeling the car almost squash under pressure as the tyres squirm and struggle to balance the retardation of the car against its momentum, or tipping it in at speed to a fast corner and the weight transferring to the outer wheels, loading the suspension and tyres with increased forces to handle; whatever you’re doing, in AC you seem to feel it all.
In a lot of ways I find it quite hard to talk about AC; what it is, what it does, how well it does it. What I mean is, any attempt right now by me at a “review” of AC (in its current form) would effectively just read as a review of the E30, with a few additional comments strewn around the place. That isn’t just because it is the only car I’ve given proper seat time to, it is because AC does such a wonderful job that you feel it is just you and the car. It doesn’t feel like a perceivable filter. It isn’t “Game X’s version of car Y”; it is that car. The E30 is legendary as a driver’s car, known for its glorious chassis and involving driving experience, and boy does that come across in AC.
But let me try and put together some quick thoughts about AC itself. As I sit here and write this, AC for me is something of a collection of contradictions, paradoxes and dichotomies. In some respects, AC is a soulless affair. It is a shiny transparent veneer wrapped around its content. It is so unobtrusive in much of what it does so as to be almost unnoticeable, unremarkable. AC makes the car the star, the soul and the character that come through are those of the locations and machinery it contains. And yet AC very much has an identity and a persona, and it is one of stylish, confident competence and perfectionism.
It feels a lot like evolution and not revolution, and in many ways “just” another sim title, and yet conversely it feels, for want of a better word, revolutionary. For example, the inclusion of in game “apps” (or widgets, or whatever buzzword you’re meant to use to describe them) and the way in which they operate and the user interacts with them, are so simple and sublime and seem such an obvious solution that it begs the question why such an approach has never been offered up before. And this is indicative of what AC does and how it goes about it: it addresses the things that need to be done, and does so in an elegant, efficient and highly accomplished manner. If this description sounds like the stereotype of a German accountant then that is really not what I am saying. AC is flashy and striking in all the right places, but more often than not it’s as if it isn’t really there. The menus and UI are glorious to my eyes, yet they work so well that I’ve barely had to spend any time within them. And when you are absorbed in the process, it is just you, the car and the track. It looks lovely, some of audio (especially the burbles and overrun sounds) are delightful and, to drive, it has yet to feel anything less than consistent, fair, utterly convincing and believable; testament to all of this is that you can just forget the rest of the package and just be consumed by the sheer joy of the driving experience. The guys at Kunos clearly know when less is more, and it all conspires to let you get on and just drive.
Stefano Casillo will likely, and deservedly, receive much of the kudos for AC, the abilities of the core physics and graphics engines are clear for all to see; but I think the community, and Kunos Simulazioni, are very lucky to have the likes of Aris Vasilakos among their ranks. It is the fastidious attention to detail matched by an understanding and appreciation of what really defines a car and gives it its character that shines through in AC as loudly and clearly as the stunning graphics, lively sounds, beautiful UI and rock solid physics engine. Much as Niels Heusinkveld has demonstrated with the aging rF1 engine, it is these slightly nutty, obsessive characters that are able to work the magic that turns the raw numbers and data into the magical finished result, and on first evidence the results in AC are truly magnificent. All of Aris’ time spent with his head buried in books or fiddling with his micrometer and digital calipers appear to have been more than worth it.
It is easy to get carried away and throw around hyperbole and praise, but the fact is AC (albeit in somewhat limited form) just seems to do pretty much everything, when it comes to the driving experience and some other areas, that little bit better than anything I can think of right now. It would be churlish and meaningless to describe AC as perfect, and what’s more it surely isn’t, but the bottom line is that on present form, AC is just really, really fucking good to drive.
This is all sounding remarkably, almost sickeningly, positive. Surely there must be something to grumble about, something that is wrong with AC? For what it’s worth, as it stands my list of niggles is as follows:
- I’d like it if when you exited and returned to the same car/venue it would as default remember the last setup used (specifically tyre selection in my case)
- I don’t like the penalty system when you go off track, if for no other reason than by suddenly sapping your power and flashing up a warning it shatters the sense of immersion and often removes the only control you have to avoid a spin or crash
- I wish the sounds had a bit more ooomph at the top end. They sound great, they just need a bit more volume as you push hard up the rev range
- It would be nice if the clock worked in the E30 (not to mention the temperature and oil pressure gauges)
- Loose surfaces would be a welcome addition… (Come on guys!) (Ed – Oh Simon, every time!)
That is it. That is all I can really think of to criticise, if you can even call it that. There will undoubtedly be bugs to be squashed, flaws to be ironed out and some quirks to be resolved, but in its current state AC is already mightily impressive. When you look at how some titles appear to hide behind the “It’s not finished yet” explanation for shortcomings and failings, it is refreshing to be playing a title which can legitimately claim to be a work in progress yet be so bloody good and accomplished.
Having said that, it is worth taking a cautionary step back and acknowledging that AC can obviously only be judged on what is available currently to the end user, and it remains to be seen how long the title remains in Early Access form before we get a proper release. There has been something of a trend of late for titles to reside in a perma-state of Greek-letter-prefixed release forms, and it would be refreshing to see AC push on through this temporary state with a little more gusto than some of its contemporaries. Whether or not something akin to ISI’s live track technology makes it in remains to be seen (the track does look beautiful as it rubbers in, mind), and there are a lot of things that AC isn’t doing now that I really hope at some point it does. Perhaps the biggest question mark hanging over AC’s future is that of netcode. Its predecessor’s failings in this department are well documented and left something of a sour taste in the mouth for many, but speculating about how AC will measure up in this department is pointless. Likewise, AI remains very much an unknown quantity. But the guys at Kunos know where performance has fallen short in the past and what is expected for the future, and the rest of us can but wait and see how it all pans out.
In so many ways AC follows the well-worn path of its ancestors, and does a lot of things that previous titles have done and does them well. But for whatever reason, whatever it is that implicitly makes AC what it is, for me it genuinely does feel like something of a paradigm shift in the genre. I am resigned to the fact that AC is going to have a monopoly on my seat time for quite a while to come. Right now, sore buttocks (and all the rest) seem more than a reasonable price to pay.
To all at Kunos Simulazioni: Bravo!