When it comes to replicating the simple, intoxicating pleasure of driving, no game does it better right now.
Would you whine about the lack of a cup holder in a LaFerrari? There's little point griping over the absence of certain luxuries in Ferrari's most recent, most excessive hypercar, and - if you're ever lucky enough to find yourself in one of those exotic cockpits - your only concerns should be the 900bhp that's under your right foot and the suite of wonderful tools constructed in Maranello to help you apply all of that power to the tarmac. Different cars have different purposes, and it's often more enlightening to assess how well they fulfil their own goals than to attempt a dry appraisal of the whole package.
Assetto Corsa has been built to celebrate the joy of cars, and the fantasy of tossing them about with abandon; it's about the heart-in-mouth moment when an RUF Yellowbird steps its tail-end ludicrously out of line before it's wrestled back from the precipice, or the feeling of getting a BMW E30 M3's chassis stretching like putty in your hands as you playfully ply it from one extreme of a track to another.
It's worth bearing that in mind when it comes to this PC racing sim, constructed some 240 miles south of Maranello at Italian outfit Kunos Simulazioni. As a game, it so often falls flat, offering a bloodless lattice of events and a career mode that goes from zero to nowhere across a life-sapping crawl of hours. Its dressings are functional, its presentation stern and with few frills. None of that really matters, though, when the driving is this good.
That much has been obvious to the sizeable community Assetto Corsa has attracted since it went into Early Access well over a year ago, and it's just as true of the full and final release, the game ticking over into version 1.0 towards the tail-end of last year. Much has been added across those 12 months - though, to put it bluntly, the headline new features fail to make Assetto Corsa really sing.
The single-player campaign is a limp sprawl, starting you off in a lively if underpowered Abarth 500 before taking you through a thin medley of sports cars, hypercars and all the way up to single-seaters. Progression is unspectacular - earn the requisite amount of medals in one tier before unlocking the other - and it's only enlivened by some charmingly stilted flavour text threading together the time attacks, races and championships.
The moment-to-moment racing is adequate, if hardly inspired: AI can be adjusted from novice through to alien, and they're smart enough to get out of the way most of the time, even if there is the odd frustrating exception where they refuse to respect your track position. There's the potential, too, for multi-class racing, with huge swarming fields able to be composed of different GT machinery, though it's brutally compromised by the restriction to 10-lap races and the lack of a proper points-tallying championship system to support it.
These are problems that can be fixed by turning to the multiple mods that have been produced, and the greatest asset Assetto Corsa has acquired over the past year is most definitely its community. This is an eminently moddable game; one that invites you to tinker and adjust as much as you desire, either getting under the hood yourself with the tools provided by Kunos or strapping on a handful of after-market supplements created elsewhere. The tools and support lent by Kunos are enough to have attracted some of the best modders out there, and after the slow start of ISI's rFactor 2, there's been a shift towards Assetto Corsa in the virtual racing community which has made for a wealth of options. Want to hear the rotary whine of the Mazda 787B bounce around the houses that line Le Mans' Mulsanne straight? Of course you do. Want to take F-Zero's Blue Falcon around Brands Hatch's Indy circuit? Well, whyever not?
To put too much emphasis on the community is to do a disservice to the sterling foundation Kunos has supplied - and, the paucity of the single-player aside, those foundations are more than enough to recommend Assetto Corsa, even to those shy of modding. The driving is phenomenal, for sure, but it's the individual touches Kunos has brought to it that really make Assetto Corsa something special: little details that overhaul a legacy of error that's often blighted the driving genre.
Take, for example, the assists that smother other games. Gran Turismo 6 may well offer a fine simulation of what it's like to rag a Mercedes SLS AMG around the twisting layout of contemporary Silverstone; the sense of weight transfer is impeccable, the sensation of losing grip tangible, inviting you to coax it back into the realms of control. It's handicapped, though, by never being able to satisfyingly emulate the car as it would have rolled off the factory floor; the ABS and traction control settings that come as default in exchange for your Ł191,000 are simply ignored.
Kunos' solution is simple, elegant and - if there's any common sense knocking around other developers - surely a standard for all driving games that follow in its wake. You can load assists on the cars to aid you, but they're each presented with factory settings available - so you can feel the embrace of the traction control and ABS in a GT3 car that makes them so chuckable, or you can enjoy the poise of an Exige V6 Cup with some of the rough edges rounded off in the same way the Lotus engineers intended with its CPU-controlled systems.
It's a thoughtful touch that underlines how determined Kunos is to provide the best driving possible. Tires can be warmed up before hot lap sessions, negating the need to slither round for a couple of laps before going maximum attack, and settings for individual tracks are automatically loaded rather than you having to fumble with gear ratios each time you switch out venues. Assetto Corsa adapts itself well to most other situations, too: on a pad, the driving is approachable, the hard-edged simulation of other PC racers given a little of the flair and drama associated with console alternatives without ever compromising the experience.
On a wheel, it's astounding. 900-degree rotation is properly supported - and supplemented by a neat 1:1 animation when using the cockpit cam - as is clutch control that helps bring out the nuance of some of the cars. It's a nerdish feature, sure, but a much appreciated one when you're running down through the gate shift of an F40 and hopelessly trying to heel and toe, or when you're able to clutch-kick the rear end out of an E30 M3 in a vain attempt to play to the camera.
Assetto Corsa has limitations, undoubtedly. Its track-list carries a little too much of an Italian accent, with only the likes of Spa, Silverstone and Nurburgring (and, later this year, the Nordschleife, when the first paid expansion goes live) bolstering Kunos' local favourites. The car list, too, is hardly best in class, even if it displays impeccable taste. With the wealth of mods available, it hardly matters.
Even without turning to those updates and additions, there's enough to celebrate. You could put any car on any track and lose yourself in the simulation for hours, squinting through sun caught in the smeared perspex windscreen of a Z4 GT as it sets over Spa and you pick out entry, apex and exit points, or pawing an Elise this way and that through the swerves of Magione. Assetto Corsa's laser focus on the driving experience works wonders - and when it comes to replicating that simple, brilliant pleasure, there's no other game right now that does it better.
9 / 10