"We don't have a thousand cars, tracks or a career where you can collect cars." Marco Massarutto, co-founder of Assetto Corsa developer Kunos Simulazioni, knows he can't play the numbers game, especially now the lauded simulator is on the cusp of coming to a competitive console market. "[In Assetto Corsa] you don't collect cars. You drive cars."
And what glorious driving it is. Kunos Simulazioni has placed a premium on the handling, and it's paid off handsomely. Assetto Corsa has been gathering devotees ever since it was one of the very first games in Steam's Early Access programme, working towards a full release towards the tail-end of 2014 and building in stature ever since. I count myself as one of its fans, having been won over by Kunos' remarkable achievement early on in Assetto Corsa's lifespan.
Handling models are always a matter of taste - you can debate endlessly whether Gran Turismo or Forza offers more authenticity, but they'll always be interpretations of the real thing that are, in their own way, equally valid - and there's something about Assetto Corsa that's in tune with mine. It's something about the pliability of its tire model, and the generous window you're given to play with between the limit of adhesion and the messy abyss beyond it. It's something about how readable the cars are, and the way each one talks back to you through impressive feedback - with some cars more talkative than others.
It's also about the common sense that's found its way into Assetto Corsa, and now I've met the endearingly pragmatic Massaruto it's a prudence seemingly common to Kunos itself. Details like the ability to drive with any given car as it rolled off the factory floor with whatever assists the manufacturer enabled rather than smothering everything with the developer's own (I've gone on about this before, and I'll keep on going on about it until the people at Polyphony and Turn 10 see sense and include a similar feature of their own.) Or the ability to drive each car on rubber analogous to that which the original car would have rolled on. Even small things like how the steering animation is mapped 1:1 with your own movements if you're playing on a wheel.
They're all details that conspire to make Assetto Corsa a driving experience like no other; hardcore simulators like rFactor 2 may have claim to more exacting physics, but they're no way near as much fun. And, while the specifics of its authenticity will always be up for debate, no other game I've played feels so much like driving a car. Playing the console build on a PlayStation 4, I'm delighted to say that's all still true of a game that impressively doesn't seem to have changed a jot in the porting process. This is driving that's pliable, playful and fun, complete with a depth that should distinguish it on console: if you've only ever played the likes of Forza and Project Cars, Assetto Corsa may prove a pleasant surprise.
"There are a lot of very good racing games on console," says Massarutto. "We believe that the experience you get in Assetto Corsa is different to other games. I'm not saying better or worse - it's different. Other racing games are something you can play, Assetto Corsa is something you can drive. Even if you use the gamepad, you can understand what the car's doing. We think if we're doing something less than we're doing on PC, the game would lose its interest."
Assetto Corsa can't compete when it comes to features. Its car and track selection are relatively slim (although the console version will benefit from all the content that's come to Assetto Corsa since its PC release, so Brands Hatch, Spa Francorchamps and the Nordschleife will all feature.) There's no variable weather, no night racing and not much to speak of when it comes to a career. In all my hours spent playing on PC I've rarely bothered going up against the fairly shambolic AI, preferring to indulge in hotlapping - and yet it says something of Assetto Corsa's handling that in the simple alchemy of a single car and one of its laser-scanned tracks it's the measure of any other driving game I've played in recent memory.
"We need to make the difference where the budget isn't the key. If we had the budget to make a game with 1000 cars, well, there are two games that do that - Forza and Gran Turismo - and we think we can make the difference with the driving experience. If we lose that, we don't make anyone happy. Since the reputation of Assetto Corsa is very good - people want that on console, and we can't disappoint them."
Coming to Assetto Corsa's alpha build on PS4 fresh from dozens of hours on PC, it's far from disappointing. It's tough to tell the two apart, aside from an all-new UI and an all-new launcher that's more console friendly - on PlayStation 4 the alpha build is hitting a consistent 60fps at 1080p, while the Xbox One version won't be too far behind. "Performance on Xbox One is a little bit lower, because it's less powerful," Massarutto explains. "But we hope to have a constant 60fps. It's full HD on PS4, 900 on Xbox One. Like any other game! We fought a lot to have full HD also on Xbox One, but there's no way for us to do it. Forza did a very good job - but they have dedicated libraries. Regardless, they did a really good job. When I played the game, I thought 'wow'. They've done such a good job with the visuals.
"We don't feel competition with them," Massarutto continues, recounting the camaraderie between the two developers after Turn 10 happily invited the small team at Kunos to sample Forza Motorsport 6 at last year's E3. "It's like Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed in the first Rocky. You know you can have the chance to face them, but to win. We are a company with 27 people now. They are 450. When they ask about how many people we are now - they think we're crazy."The weird world of 80s computer books Learning BASIC in the shadow of the bomb.
Slightly crazy, too, is the idea of having parity between the PC and console versions once Assetto Corsa is out on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in April, but that's what Kunos is aiming for - once it's released, the two will be worked on in tandem and will, in effect, be one and the same game bar the inevitable small delay for updates that get caught up in Sony and Microsoft's submission process. It means all the new features Kunos is working on will quickly make their way to console.
"The first thing we'd like to include is championships," says Massarutto. "We'd like to give people a chance to choose one car and create one championship from the first race to the final one, for any car you want to. This is something we've not done yet, it won't be in the 1.0 on console, but it's one of the first steps we want to make."
Beyond that, Kunos has plenty of other plans for the future of Assetto Corsa. "We want to continue to improve the AI. That's a holy grail for any developer. Yesterday someone told me we have a good margin of improvement. But if you think that Polyphony made six Gran Turismos in 20 years and they're still fighting with it... We can do it!"
I've no doubt that they can. Having seen Assetto Corsa blossom into one of the most exquisite driving games on PC, I can't wait to see how this plucky privateer fares against the more established names on console. They could well be in for quite a shock.