You've all seen those goofy hypothetical questions: if you could only have one flavor of ice cream for the rest of your life, what would it be? If you were going to be marooned on a deserted island, what brand of toilet paper would you want to have with you? Well, no matter what the premise of the question, if it asks which PC-based racing simulation I would be willing to limit all future virtual racing to, it would be SimBin's GTR FIA GT Racing Game. In all of my years of virtual racing on the PC, I have never experienced anything even close to the realism, performance, and fun of GTR. GTR is hands-down the best racing simulator available today, and is likely to remain the best for quite awhile.
That's a pretty glowing testimonial, but it is quite easily defended. We'll go into quite a bit of detail as to why such a testimonial is well deserved, but first we should take a look at exactly what FIA GT Racing is, and what differentiates it from other series. The FIA GT Championship is described thusly on their web site:
Dream cars, dream locations GT cars are two-door sportscars, created for the road and adapted for the track. Running in two categories, GT1 and GT2, the cars competing in 2005 include the Corvette C5R, the Ferrari 550 and 575 Maranello cars, Maserati MC 12, Lister Storm, Lamborghini Murciélago and Saleen S7 in the top class, while cars such as the Porsche 996 GT3-RS, Ferrari 360 Modena, TVR T400R can compete in the lower class.
With three-hour, 500 km races held around the world, including Turkey, Zhuhai, Dubai and Bahrain, and a season highlight of the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, the Championship has a friendly, open paddock, excellent hospitality facilities and, for seven European races, an exciting combination with the new FIA World Touring Car Championship.
Exotic cars, exotic locations, and in some ways, pretty exotic rules. For example, to avoid having a single car dominate the entire season which often happens in other forms of international racing (cough - Formula 1 - cough), the winner of a championship race has to add ballast weight to the car for the next race. If the car wins again, more weight is added. The weight remains on the car until it loses a race. There are set amounts to be added for winning, and set amounts to be removed in following races. There is a finite limit as to how much ballast weight can be added. If a car still dominates with the full ballast weight added, other teams really have their work cut out for them! This is somewhat unlikely, though, as the maximum weight penalty of 80kg. is quite significant. That amount of extra weight takes a toll on tire wear, braking, and handling, not to mention raw acceleration. If the weight penalty seems like an artificial constraint to ensure that the championship remains close throughout the entire season, well, that's because it is. Having a tight championship battle forces a more strategic approach to any given race, particularly the 24-hour race at Spa.
The cars driven in the series are some of the most sophisticated and exotic street cars in the world. Some of that sophistication is not allowed in the series, though. Anti-lock brakes, traction control, or any kind of electronic suspension control must be disabled before the car can be raced. These are also not small cars: the minimum allowable weight of the car is 1100kg. The car must also be raced with the same make and type of engine available in the street version. These restrictions go towards making the series a true measure of driver ability to as much of a degree as possible when racing cars from various manufacturers. They also make the driving of a 600+ horsepower car on road courses a real challenge for those that think they can just jump in and smash the pedals to the floor. These are most definitely not "arrive and drive" cars - they require a level of finesse that will take quite a bit of practice to achieve.
So, what makes Simbin's GT Racing Game so good? To answer that we will have to look at a few different categories. The most logical place to start is with the physics modeling. It's not too hard these days to find racing games that have nearly photo-realistic graphics and incredible sounds. Neither of these matter much, however, if the simulated car doesn't "feel" and drive like a real car. And, to a large degree, a realistic feeling car doesn't do you much good if the racing is inferior, but it can still be quite fun to drive. So, we start with the physics.
We'll start by saying that the basic physics are fantastic. Every external and internal force that acts on the car at speed, under braking, or during accleration is modeled. Jump in and smash the accelerator to the floor and you'll be spinning the tires and out of control almost instantly. Get into a turn too hot and you'll either mush right off the track with the wheels turned as far as they'll go, or you'll spin. Which way you crash is dependent upon what you are doing with the throttle/brakes at the time. For example, if you panic and lift the throttle you'll probably spin as weight shifts to the front of the car. Too much throttle and the result will likely be the same as you break loose the back wheels. To get through a turn as quickly as possible requires a deft touch on the throttle. In fact, the physics are so accurate that you will actually use the throttle as you go through the turn to help you control the car. For example, if you find that you're too close to the edge of the track, a slight increase in throttle will help push the car to the outside of the turn. Reducing throttle has the opposite effect, acting to put a little more weight on the front wheels and moving the car towards the inside of the turn. These are very subtle movements of the throttle - too much throttle input can completely break the wheels loose and result in a spin or off-track excursion, neither of which will help you win races.
It's an absolute requirement that you be smooth on the controls, and that you understand the relationship between throttle, brake, and weight transfer. Another thing to be conscious of is down shifting. Downshifting without controlling the rpm of the engine is a recipe for a spin. You want to make sure that the rpm is nicely matched with the rpm you will be going to in the downshift. If you get it wrong, the downshift will act to lock up the rear wheels, almost guaranteeing a spin.
Simbin's GTR Racing is not the first or only PC-based simulator to model these effects, although it is the best implementation I've seen. What sets GTR apart from the pack is that it also models irregularities in the track surface itself. Does this matter? You bet it does! Consider the case of the Rivage turn on the Spa-Francorchamps course in Belgium. This is a 180 degree right turn, requiring strong braking and downshifting of at least a couple of gears. The braking area is a straight piece of track, so this should be pretty easy. What complicates matters is that it is also a very bumpy piece of track. As you get into the heavy braking zone, you will notice a distinct loss of braking efficiency and a skitterish steering feel as the tires and suspension deal with the bumps. This is a single example of a phenomenon you will find on every track in the series, and it adds a level of realism found in no other simulator. If that's not enough, GTR also models weather effects (rain!) and track surface degradation resulting from the rubber "marbles" that build up on the outside of the turns during a race. Oh, you think you will save some time cutting the corner and going across the curb and/or rumble strips? Careful there, fella. Get those wheels bouncing too much and your short cut will end up being the fastest way to lose the race. The surface of any given track and the cars reaction to bumps/curbs is something that has to be dealt with by both the driver and the technical team setting up the car.
Speaking of car setup, this is another area in which GTR shines. It seems that it if can be adjusted on the real car, it can be adjusted on the GTR simulated cars. Tire pressures, spring rates, wings, camber, toe-in, gear ratios, weight balance, brake bias, and many other aspects are fully adjustable. To aid the very knowledgeable car set-up folks, GTR uses the same MoTec data acquisition and analysis package used by real-world race teams. Fortunately, it is not required that you learn to use all of this stuff if you don't want to: the default set-ups are good enough to compete, albeit at a lower competitor skill setting. For those that choose to, though, there is enough complexity in this area of the game to satisfy any would-be crew chief. Personally, we found that minor adjustments to gear ratios, fuel load, and pit strategy were enough to get by and be at least somewhat competitive.
Competition is, of course, what it's all about. All the sophisticated car set-ups and physics in the world won't help if the computer AI racers are simple, mindless drones. Not to worry - the GTR computer racers are very good. They will do their best to pass you without wrecking you, and will also drive defensively when you're trying to pass them. They do, however, expect you to be at least somewhat competent. Brake too heavily at the end of a long, fast straight with a faster driver behind you and you will probably get rear-ended. This is as it should be. There is an expectation when racing that the guy in front of you is not going to park in the corner. Once you reach the skill level where you can race side by side with the other cars, GTR begins to demonstrate why it deserves the title of best racing sim ever, bar none. It is quite possible to swap positions with another car in turn after turn, often times going through turns two wide. The other car will give you racing room, and you will be expected to return the sportsmanship. Normal racing strategies such as late braking will work exactly as expected. Brake too soon, or get off line, and you can expect to be passed. The concentration required in close racing like this is unbelievable. One momentary distraction is enough to at best cause you to lose a position, and at worst put you off the track into the gravel.
That said, no matter how good the computer competitors are there is nothing like racing against other humans. For this, GTR offers a strong online multiplayer mode. Online multiplayer racing is only as good as the facility for finding races and racers, however, so SimBin has created RaceMore. This web site coordinates league racing, club racing, race events, and tracks hot lap times for the autocrossing crowd. The site is just getting started, but should help any racer looking for an online challenge to find something suitable.
At this point, you may be becoming a little intimidated. After all, all of these features are designed to make the whole thing much harder. This is a mistake developers have made before: tailoring a product to the hard-core racer can, and will, greatly reduce the market for the product. Fortunately, SimBin realizes this and has addressed it in two ways: fully configurable, highly granular difficulty settings, and the inclusion of an Arcade mode. The arcade mode offers a quick, get-in-the-car and drive mode, although even in this mode there is still quite a challenge involved in learning to race well. The difficulty settings allow customization of car behavior, various "helper" settings, and control over the capabilities of the computer opponents. For example, we've found that we are competitive with the computer drivers ability set to 95%, their aggression level set to "real," and the car configured to allow low anti-lock brakes and high traction control. With the granularity of the difficulty settings, anyone should be able to find a comfort level. This level of control over the difficulty of the game allows a novice racer to get started and progress up the difficulty scale as more experience is gained.
Now, a few words about graphics and sound. Actually, a single word would suffice: awesome! Full 3D cockpit interiors, distinct sounds sampled from each of the real-world cars, and detailed track modeling are all there. Leave a trail of skid marks into a turn? They'll still be there next time you go by. Lose control and hit the gravel trap? You'll hear the pebbles banging against the bottom and sides of the car as you emerge from the big cloud of dust. Downshift heavily into a turn? You'll hear the backfire from the engine. You'll also see the backfires from the cars in front of you. Transmission whine as you work your way up through the gears? Yep. It's all there. You'll want to really crank the speakers for this one! For a real treat, load up the night race at Spa. Headlights, taillights, lighting effects as you pass under the overhead lights - they're all in there. If you have the hardware to support unlimited graphics, you can even see the trees swaying in the breeze. For those of us with less capable machines, though, all of this is configurable.
Those with a bit more budget will also want to consider a good wheel and pedals set-up (we used the Logitech Momo Force Feedback wheel and were extremely satisfied with the level of control and the realistic force feedback effects) and possibly a TrackIR setup. The TrackIR with the new Vertex upgrade enables you to look around at the interior of the car, look to your sides to see if there are other cars in close proximity, and look to the apex of the turns simply by moving your head, just as you would in a real car. SimBin has built in support for the TrackIR, even going so far as to allow the mapping of a keyboard or controller button to the centering function. This is nice, considering that you will likely need to re-center the TrackIR during a long race, and reaching for the default F12 button to do so is a distraction you can do without. For those that don't want to spring for the TrackIR, SimBin has added a configuration setting that will turn the drivers eyes in the direction of steering input. Other head movement settings allow the driver to customize how much head movement results from G forces or bumps in the track.
So, what's next for SimBin? How do they improve on what is arguably the best racing sim ever? Concentrating on enhancements to the graphics and physics is likely to offer very little return as they have already reached the pinnacle of these aspects. So, this leaves expansion into other types of racing. Already available via their web site is a free download that will allow oval racing for those that don't like right turns. They have also announced the next title in what hopefully will be a long chain of new sims: GT Legends. This title will offer up 90+ cars from the glory days of GT racing. Mustangs, Coopers, Porsches, Corvettes, BMWs, and many other famous cars from the 60's, 70's and 80's will be available. I've always held out hope that a company like SimBin would deliver on what I consider to be the holy grail of racing sims: a full-blown SCCA simulator. Will it happen? I don't know, but I sure hope so. That would be the game that would replace GTR as the one game I would take with me if I were to be marooned on the planet Mars.
Realistic car performance, strong and competitive computer-driven racing opponents, and stunning graphics are all hallmarks of SimBinâ€™s amazing new racing simulator, GTR FIA GT Racing.