Asseto Corsa (AC) continues to be the hot topic of discussion at RAVSIM HQ. This past month has given me lots of seat time with AC, and lots to reflect on. The other night I was listening to a recent episode of the rather excellent PC gaming podcast The Crate & Crowbar. The discussion moved to the subject of the latest Assassin’s Creed (AC… Hmmm, let’s just call it Assassin’s Creed) game, and the difference in experience that some of the team had enjoyed. In a previous episode, the game had received high praise and was noted for a number of accomplishments and for generally excelling. One of the areas of praise was that of the effortless movement of the character; the fluidity with which sequences of moves and actions could be strung together with a few mere button presses, and how a sense of empowerment was granted to the player as the game’s mechanics allowed for control of these wonderful on screen acrobatic heroics. However, in this latest episode, one of the team was recounting a somewhat different experience. He’d seen the GIFs and Youtube videos demonstrating these wonderful theatrical flurries but, he said, in reality that is rarely how the game pans out. You find your character instead just walking into objects, or clumsily jumping in the wrong direction, and generally just destroying any sense of being this skilled, no-nonsense protagonist. The conversation came to the conclusion that you need to understand the rules of the game, and play accordingly. You need to realise the patterns that emerge in structures and level design, and really you need to look at the game as it wants to be played, in order to then be able to play it as intended. There are bounds, there are rules, and there are constraints, and it is only when you accept these and adhere to them that, slightly paradoxically, you are then rewarded with (at least the impression of) the freedom to explore and make your way around unimpeded and with elegance and aplomb.
All games to some degree are subject to this, but certain titles and, at the broader level, genres are more susceptible than others. It could perhaps be argued that simulations should not be too heavily affected in this area; although each title will offer up its own selection of content and associated experiences, surely the “rules” of the simulation should largely adhere to the rules of the reality which it is simulating? For a driving sim, the laws of automotive engineering (or more broadly, simply physics) should dictate what can and can’t be done, and consequently what the relevant consequences are for each and every action. But of course life isn’t quite so simple, and because life isn’t so simple, nor is simulating it. From the off, all sims constrain what you can do through sheer necessity. If they didn’t, they would end up nearer GTA than the titles they are; they would be sandbox titles that happened to feature cars and tracks. But this isn’t the type of constraint I am thinking of here. The reason the Assassin’s Creed discussion really struck a chord with me and my experiences with AC was something much subtler. It’s not limited to, but is epitomised by, one simple thing: kerbs.
Driving AC I have made a number of observations. Firstly, I don’t think I have ever happily sat down and as effortlessly racked up so many hours and laps with a title. It never feels an effort to play it, and I actively want to play it more. The reasons for this lie beyond it simply being a good title with content that appeals to me. Rather, it lies in the details and the depth of the experience, and in some ways as much the experience and feelings it doesn’t give me as those it does. I’m not talking about constraints or a removal of freedom here, I’m talking about a lack of a sense of unfairness. AC not only gives you control of the car, but it gives you a fair arena in which to use it. You don’t find yourself questioning what just happened or why; if you had a hairy moment, you know why you had that moment. When things get out of shape and you end up pointing the wrong way, you know it was your fault. Without naming names, some other sim titles have consistently left me feeling a sense of frustration, a feeling of “That wasn’t my fault” and “That wasn’t fair”. For sure there is likely a bit of ego creeping in there at times, but I can be open and honest about my limitations of reflexes and car control without diminishing the point: some titles do things to the player that the player’s actions did not deserve. Whether it be a funky quirk in the modelling that sees an odd and unpredictable (to the real world) phenomenon in the vehicle dynamics and response, or some shortfall that rewards doing things you really shouldn’t be doing, just as Assassin’s Creed’s limitations can quickly evaporate any sense of control and proficiency, so too caveats and pitfalls in simulations can quickly lesson the experience. But whilst in a game like Assassin’s Creed the player controls an on screen avatar who ends up looking like a stumbling drunk, in a race sim there is not that degree of separation between the player and on screen action. It is the player who is directly affected by strange behaviour, and the player whom all of the failure is projected onto. This can lead to a particularly dissatisfying and, ultimately, unenjoyable experience.
AC does not give you a sense of immortality and superhuman abilities, but rather it gives you a fair shot at doing your best. In tens of hours and hundreds of laps, I have driven over the kerbs at a few of AC’s tracks probably thousands of times. Not in one single instance (I mean that, literally not once) has something happened where I’ve been left baffled or confused. Not once have I been, in my eyes, unfairly spun around or thrown off the track through no fault of my own. Don’t get me wrong, those kerbs have spun me around and thrown me off track a fair few times, but each and every time it has felt… right. I’ve sat there saying “Fuck!” and shaking my head, but my temptation has never been to rip my wheel from it’s frame and force it through the monitor; rather it has been to raise a hand and give myself a smack across the head (I’m speaking figuratively here; I don’t have a problem). I also don’t mean to say that every time is has happened I knew it was coming, that I’ve never been caught by surprise, because I have. The difference here is that whilst only experience will tell you quite what the limits are and where they lie, in AC you can feel yourself reaching and crossing those limits. Whilst I’ve never deliberately thrown a car off track, I do know when I’m pushing hard, when I’m getting a bit out of shape, when I’m heading to the kerbs with a bit more speed and a bit more load than I did the previous lap. And when the moment happens, when the limits get crossed and something gives, I might not necessarily have seen it coming, but it was never a surprise in hindsight.
Every sim out there has its wonderful looking promo and/or fan-made videos, showing the cars doing this or that. But just like with a well executed maneuver in Assassin’s Creed, the reality of playing some titles often seems to be a somewhat different experience. I’m not saying driving at the limit in reality is easy, or that it is in AC. But I feel I should be able to confidently approach a kerb and know, provided I’m not on the ragged edge, it will present no danger. AC has given me plenty of sphincter-clenching moments, but it is when I know I’m getting into that hazy area towards the edge of the car’s, the tires’ and, just as importantly, my own limits, not every time I enter a corner, wondering “What’s going to happen this time?”.
I’m loathe to start making direct comparisons between different sims because, whilst in some respects they are intrinsically the most worthwhile benchmarks, it just all seems a little… unproductive. So instead, I am going to draw comparison with a different game entirely: Super Mario World (SMW) on the SNES. They might seem somewhat disparate bedfellows, but stick with me. As with most of the Italian plumber’s outings, SMW is instinctive and utterly accessible. For large portions, it is generally a fairly “easy” game (though by today’s Playstation standards it actually probably presents quite a challenge), and progress is fairly swift and wholly rewarding. But how challenging a title it can be depends largely on how you approach it. Enter with a mindset of simply wishing to see the end, and it can be accomplished by most experienced gamers without working up too much of a sweat. However, delve deeper, and try and play with personal targets in mind (speed runs, collect all coins, avoid losing any lives, complete all 96 levels etc.) and, well, it can be just about as challenging as you desire (some of the later secret levels are ingeniously fiendish…). However you play it, whatever your standards, ability, or goals, one thing SMW always seemed to get exactly right was that it gave you perfect control, and consequently if you died, missed something, failed a level, whatever, frustration and anger could only ever be directed in one direction: at yourself. SMW can be incredibly challenging and difficult, but it always feels completely fair with it. This is my “Super Mario World test” by which all games I play are ultimately judged.
In this respect, AC haunts much common ground. Go at it eight-tenths and only a severe lack of concentration or a mistimed stretch for that alluring can of beer will see things going horribly wrong. You can head straight for those kerbs lap after lap, clip every apex, nail every exit, hit your braking marks… It’s really not very challenging and, well, why on Earth should it be? Start turning the wick up, and accordingly the challenge climbs to meet you head on. Start exploring the limits of adhesion and you’ll be approaching those kerbs with a good chunk more pace, and with the tyres under a good deal more duress. Sooner or later you’ll find those limits, and go past them. But whilst in the past this has often meant insta-spin, here it typically means a bit of a moment (on track or on the grass), a loss of momentum, and on you carry, lesson learned (and possibly tyres needing a little breather). Nudge that dial to the Spinal Tap setting, and things will typically go wrong pretty quickly and you simply won’t be able to sustain it. Be it exploring the limits of the car, the tyres or the driver, it all just feels a very natural, organic process and, as a simulation, just as it should be. You don’t have to learn how AC does these things; it doesn’t put you on a ledge with a blind leap of faith to see what lies below. Instead it gives you a fair and consistent world in which the same action, all things being equal, will get the same reaction; where appropriate inputs are seemingly always rewarded with the right outcome, be it success or failure. The focus doesn’t fall on AC to see what it does; the onus lies with you, to see what you do and how you do it. To see if you can do it.
Braking zones aren’t something to fear, but something to savour; the car squirming under a firm foot, loose and on the edge, but controllable. Throttling out of a turn on the limit is not a case of rolling the dice; it’s a judgement call, with an unsaveable spin rarely the outcome for a slight misjudgement, but rather just some lost time. And the kerbs are not something to approach with caution; they are something to attack with respect, to be used to your advantage and to be exploited. Getting it wrong means you got it wrong, which in turn means you can do something about it to get it right. And when you do get it right, it’s down to you, not luck. Getting it wrong drives and motivates you to correct your mistakes, getting it right rewards and drives you on to do it again, only better, and faster.
As I made pains to stress in my initial words on AC, it isn’t perfect, and I predicted that undoubtedly bugs and problems would arise. Just as night follows day, so they have, and a number of issues have been found, reported, and a large number dealt with. I personally have been affected by two issues in particular: the E30 M3’s apparent lack of low end torque (yet to be resolved, but duly noted by Prof. Aris), and throttle response curves that put ~80% of the effective throttle range in the final ~20% of the throttle pedal input (note: numbers plucked from my rectum), which were promptly adjusted in v0.3.1. Having decided 10 hours in the E30 at Magione was quite enough, I moved onto Mugello (big congratulations to the Kunos guys there: it is fucking wonderful), where these issues really started to show themselves and compound one another. The long straights and significant elevation changes forced the E30 to be down shifted like an old Volvo towing a caravan up a steep Yorkshire hillside road (there’s always one…), where suddenly you’re in the peaky top end of the power band with very little throttle modulation to play with. I did eventually put the E30 to one side for a bit and switched to the Exige Scura (utterly brilliant) where the semi-slick tyres and incredible chassis meant the throttle range presented less of an issue. It was inevitable that such problems would arise, and there is encouragement to be taken from them: the team have been very quick to verify and respond, either with explanations of observed behaviour or, when necessary, fixes. But also, so far I am not aware of any real issues with the core engine and physics model. Driving the E30 down on grunt and with a dodgy throttle just felt like, well, driving an E30 down on grunt with a dodgy throttle. It will be interesting to return to it with the amended throttle response and see how it affects, if at all, the feeling of a torque curve made of Swiss cheese.
Over the past month a number of patches (bringing both content and fixes) have been released which have seen AC slowly grow and further refined. I think about my 40+ hours logged on Steam and the fact I have only 3 lap times set in the profile, and just how much I have left to discover and explore. Yet I am as excited to get back into the M3 (after its visit to Aris’ garage for an engine refresh) as I am to jump to anything newer or faster. I’m following a natural (for me) path through the content, and making my way through AC the way I want to. I’m choosing my challenges, and right now I’ve barely scratched the surface. I feel I’m still only a few levels into World 1, albeit with all coins collected and my speed run times getting there. What’s more, I’m loving every minute; successes and failures. I should probably try losing a few less lives though…