More than five years after its initial release, I feel it’s finally time to give iRacing the professional review treatment. Five years is more than enough time for one game to sort out all of its issues, the game costs several times more than your traditional boxed PC game available on the shelves at Best Buy, and deciding whether to take the plunge based on biased forum ramblings is never a good idea. Six hundred million laps later, it’s time to finally take a look at iRacing, and determine if it’s indeed worth all the hype.
For the uninformed readers, iRacing is a subscription-based online-only racing game that advertises itself as a “world class racing simulation” used primarily by auto racing enthusiasts and real world drivers during their off-days. Brought to you by the guys formerly known as “Papyrus”, who created landmark racing sims such as Grand Prix Legends, IndyCar Racing 2, and the fabled NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, iRacing is an experiment in hyper-realistic, organized online racing featuring a variety of cars and tracks from around the world. In short, iRacing was promised to be the Michael Jordan of racing sims; blowing all challengers away with unprecedented realism, organization, structure, and competition.
When it works, there is simply no equivalent. iRacing provides the most competitive and clean online racing seen in any video game to date. When even the most insignificant flaws are exposed, you’ll be overwhelmed with buyer’s remorse. There is NO middle ground.
And that’s because of the pricing model. iRacing is ridiculously expensive compared to any other racing game on the market. A yearly subscription is a pricey one hundred dollars, with additional content costing anywhere from eleven to fifteen dollars. The basic subscription DOES contain a handful of cars and tracks (none of them being particularly exciting), but with iRacing offering such a wide variety of content, a lot of money inevitably ends up being spent experimenting with the different cars and tracks available for purchase. Promo codes are offered to new members that significantly lower the initial subscription price, and buying content in bundles is a handy way to keep costs appealing to existing members, but fifteen dollars per car and track is nothing short of insanity in today’s DLC-ridden online market.
This is enough to put off most people, and that’s completely understandable. Getting started in iRacing costs just as much as buying a new video game console, if not more, and some people just aren’t financially stable enough for that kind of investment. Especially when the content is only licensed to you. You’re not actually BUYING anything on iRacing.com, you’re simply paying for the right to drive it within their game. If iRacing were to close up shop tomorrow, there goes your money. This alone doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.
For those of us who are financially secure enough to bust out the credit card and give iRacing our personal information, we are instantly greeted by a very slick and functional “Member’s Page” used to launch the game after registration. I use the word “functional”, because for the first week you’re on iRacing, the number of buttons to click and things to explore is impossible to count. Being a member for around fifteen months, navigating the member’s section of iRacing is second nature, but the learning curve associated with navigating and signing up for races causes a few headaches to even the most experienced internet browser.
Fortunately, buried in the thousands of leaderboards, graphs, results, propaganda, and your own personalized profile page, is the “driving school section,” featuring over ten detailed YouTube videos explaining the basics of using the website, and your standard racing techniques. Slowly, the layout of the member’s site will begin to seem familiar, and you begin to realize that everything is organized in a format that makes sense. In an age where even the Xbox 360 has been given its own version of Windows 8’s “Metro” theme, iRacing throws any concept of user friendliness out the window in favor of sheer functionality. It’s cluttered, but it works, and I pray to Lance Gomez Jr every night that the developers never change it.
Your standard subscription comes with seven cars and ten tracks, each with multiple layouts. If you’ve chosen one of the shorter subscriptions, thirty dollars for several entry level cars and tracks is a solid deal. But as you launch the game for the first time to go into a private test session for the all-important configuration phase, iRacing immediately turns into a monster that is completely different from all other racing sims on the market today.
Running on the same engine that powered the mighty Grand Prix Legends, as well as NASCAR Racing 2003, iRacing has great visuals that easily surpass all other modern racing sims, without the use of excessive HDR or other lighting tricks to paint the world in a bizarre coat of brown and yellow. This game, in short, looks fantastic, and is relatively easy on most computers. I honestly can’t name a single time where my framerate dropped below sixty, or where I was making compromises in the graphics settings screen. Setting up your wheel is relatively easy, as almost everything under the sun is supported, and there are more than enough sliders and percentages offered to get everything just the way you want it.
On-track, I’ll use one word to describe iRacing: photorealistic. The amount of detail in both the environment and cars is insane, something that even the best rFactor mods will not come close to achieving. Hot Dog stands two miles away from any grandstand are replicated with stunning accuracy, the racing surface is accurate down to the millimeter, and cars are gorgeous all on their own. All while maintaining a steady framerate that rarely, if ever, drops.
Unfortunately, this is not an Xbox 360 game, and we’re not here to obsess about over-done HDR effects. We’re here to race. And this is where iRacing pushes the bar and innovates beyond anything ever seen in a racing game before.
Users coming over from the console side of things are immediately caught off guard by scheduled start times and race lengths. Every race on iRacing is part of a twelve week season that has its own championship series. Gone are the days of players piling into a lobby and all yelling at each other to click the “ready” button or vote for a particular car/track combination. Most series have races that begin every hour, with the “higher” series racing once every two hours, and qualifying sessions being completely optional. Races aren’t short, either, with even the introductory tiers putting you on track for twenty minutes at a time; the longest being a little over three hours. For a quick and easy comparison to other racing games, it’s entirely possible to cover as much ground in one race on iRacing, as it is in an entire career mode on games like Need for Speed: Carbon. Just think about that for a second.
Starting out from scratch on iRacing is a real pain in the ass, but the series format works in a fairly straightforward format. Each race is part of a “week” in a season for that series (following a strict track schedule that alternates each week), you get points depending on where you finish, and the highest amount of points you earned in one race that week is what appears in the standings. The better the drivers in your session or “split” are, the more points are given out. It’s a simple concept that works incredibly well both in theory & execution, and I haven’t seen a single person complain about the format. It’s nice to be able to race in an organized season, without the need to join a private league.
For those worried about their wallets, the standard content has a huge following and it’s entirely possible to stay racing on the bottom end of the spectrum for your entire “career” on iRacing. While you won’t be pushing interstate speeds in a Mazda Miata, or blowing past the 200mph mark in an entry level stock car that looks awfully like a 1970’s Chevrolet Camaro, the bottom tiers offer a ton of diverse competition at all hours, and the only indication that you might be up way past your bedtime, is that the room is suddenly full of Australians (or vice versa).
For those wanting to move up in the virtual auto racing world, iRacing’s groundbreaking “Safety Rating” system comes into play.
While iRacing uses a fluctuating skill ranking system similar to ELO to put users in sessions among drivers of a similar skill level, the way to progress to faster cars and more challenging tracks isn’t by winning, but by being a clean driver. To put it simply, “Safety Rating” is a number that increases with every clean lap you make, and decreases with every spin-out, blown corner, or wreck with another car. The higher that number gets, the more series are unlocked for you to participate in, provided you own the content.
It’s another feature that works surprisingly well, most of the time. One of the biggest complaints about the entire safety rating system, is that there is zero coding to determine who is at fault during an accident involving two or more cars. If you are the victim of someone else’s inability to slow down for a corner, you won’t be compensated. In the lower series, among inexperienced drivers, this can cause more than a few headaches, but it’s safe to say that if the developers would have found a way for the game to determine who was “at fault”, it would have been implemented already. And it hasn’t. But the entire concept of being rewarded for driving in a safe manner is awesome and should be implemented across all future racing games.
On paper, iRacing sounds absolutely glorious. A hardcore racing sim built on the NASCAR Racing 2003 Season source code, long races, a wide variety of road course & oval content to choose from, a price range that weeds out little kids and trolls, organized racing without the need for private leagues, and a progression system that values sportsmanship over results.
None of this matters if the actual racing isn’t the “world class” experience that’s been advertised. If iRacing is supposedly the Michael Jordan of racing sims, its physics are its “gambling problem.”
Despite the numerous exciting road racing cars that iRacing offers, such as the McLaren MP4-12c GT3, the 2009 Williams FW31, the Riley Daytona Prototype, the Lotus 79, or the Ford Falcon V8 Supercar, there are amateur rFactor mods that offer much more realistic driving experiences. In short, if you’re a road racing fan, there is zero point in even trying iRacing.
The problem lies within two main factors: the underlying physics engine being adjusted primarily to suit asymmetrical setup American stock cars, and the tire model that is still largely in development.
All road racing cars on iRacing have a tendency to spin wildly out of control in between the speeds of 60mph and 125mph, or, for a much friendlier description, any low to mid speed corner. The sensation is like hitting a patch of ice, and most cars just can’t be saved once this slide starts. On top of this ice patch effect that pops up twice every lap (or more, depending on the track), iRacing tires don’t actually have the proper grip arc that they do in the real world. Tires don’t actually heat up and gain grip on iRacing after X amount of time, but instead provide max grip during the first lap, and then become exponentially more awful for every lap that follows. These are two problems that have plagued all road racing cars to some extent since the introduction of iRacing’s “new tire model” upgrade a few years ago, and entire road racing series have been abandoned because of it. Every road car is skittish and damn near uncontrollable, with even the top ranked drivers complaining about cars being downright awful.
Some people like to hide behind the argument that “the harder it is to drive, the more realistic it is”, but in the case of the newest road car iRacing offers, the GT3 flavored McLaren MP4-12c, in real life, that car is sold to millionaires driving in an “every-man’s” racing league for people who sort of know what they’re doing. If iRacing’s McLaren MP4-12c GT3 is 100% correct, why are people not DYING in GT3 races, and instead the on-boards of these races portray the cars as stable and enjoyable to drive? Now, I don’t claim to be Canada’s Next Top Race Car Driver, but I highly doubt that in the year 2012, McLaren sold a GT3-spec car to consumers that could hit 170mph with ease, but is a literal deathtrap when gently accelerating out of a corner. This kind of seemingly blatant sarcasm can be applied to every road car on the service, sadly.
With no real trial period available for any piece of content on iRacing, it’s entirely possible to buy a road racing car, only to find out that people stopped driving it over a year ago, or that the car is impossible to drive consistently near the limit, which is possible in all other modern racing sims. This isn’t cool to just piss fifteen dollars away and find out that nobody has driven the car you just bought in two months, aside from eight European guys who run races at three in the morning, once a week.
However, if you even have a passing interest in oval racing, iRacing is THE PLACE to be.
The selection of oval racing cars and tracks on iRacing is nothing short of incredible. It is entirely possible to replicate a real NASCAR career path in iRacing’s virtual environments, starting in Street Stocks & Late Models, rolling through the K&N Series (my personal favorite), and eventually finding yourself in iRacing’s equivalent of the Camping World Truck Series, the Nationwide Series, or the Sprint Cup Series.
Oval racing on iRacing is the closest you can get to NASCAR from the comfort of your own home. There is really nothing more that needs to be said to reinforce this. Any serious NASCAR fan should be outright ignoring Eutechnyx’s disgraceful console NASCAR series and heading straight to iRacing for their NASCAR fix; it’s honestly that good. While the road cars are an exercise in frustration, oval racing on iRacing features the absolute best force feedback effects in any racing sim to date, near-perfect netcode, and none of the “gimmicks” that real-life NASCAR has implemented to increase TV ratings, such as the “lucky dog” and “green-white-checkered” rules.
NASCAR fans, this is the game you’ve been waiting for. This is 1-to-1 with the real thing.
But it’s not without its flaws.
For every iRacing fanboy who has his custom car as his avatar on facebook and spams his real life friends with notifications of his eighth place finish at three in the morning, there is another former iRacing member who is spewing his secrets about the darker side of the game on other racing game message boards, and has evidence of shadiness going on behind-the-scenes backed up on his computer, just in case. Because of how expensive iRacing is compared to any other video game on the market, readers deserve to know about the glaring negatives that plague the sim and prevent it from being the “Michael Jordan” of racing sims.
After all, this IS a game company that attempted to sue its own fan base just ten years ago.
First and foremost, is the fact that iRacing’s physics are still very much an on-going project, five years after initial release. Updates are frequent and on a planned schedule, but very rarely is anything earth-shattering included in them. The “new tire model” that is constantly talked about is still not in a form where natural heating & cooling occurs, leading to some bizarre racing tactics to arise out of exploiting certain grip tendencies that would never occur in real life, and some cars driving nowhere close to their real-world counterparts. While other developers hide behind the “open beta” tag, advertising yourself as a “world class racing sim” and suggesting that simple things such as proper tire wear or non-static weather might be included in the future isn’t cool when every other sim on the market already has those features, and they cost a whole lot less for the complete package.
The second major issue is the blatant NASCAR favoritism. While iRacing, formerly Papyrus, was a NASCAR-oriented video game company, it is disappointing to see iRacing’s passion for motorsports only applies to the NASCAR crowd. It seems every other week that small aero or setup changes to oval cars are made at a moment’s notice, yet road cars that are horribly broken are completely ignored for weeks, sometimes months at a time, and everything from touch screen controls to entirely new cars are added before the “broken” car’s issues get fixed. It also doesn’t help that the new Generation 6 NASCAR models were added into the game, complete with updated physics, within a week of their on-track debut, while the Dallara DW12 has ran an entire IndyCar season without even a mention from iRacing staff that it will appear in the game in the foreseeable future. The bias towards NASCAR is quite unfortunate, as many people were hoping iRacing would be an all-encompassing motorsports simulator and not just a NASCAR simulator (which it does VERY well) with a few half-finished road cars on the side.
The third, and most frequently discussed, is the protest system. Due to the size of iRacing’s userbase, it’s entirely possible to have a few dedicated guys looking over every single complaint sent to them about on-track incidents. This system, in theory, is bloody brilliant: Some guy wrecks you, calls you names, and then wrecks you again, so you send the dedicated protest guys a clip of the replay, and they suspend him for a week or ban him outright if he gets out of hand. Sadly, this isn’t how the system works in execution. Because of the size of the community, many staff, administrators, and moderators have built close relationships with the userbase, and favoritism runs rampant. Some drivers are able to wreck multiple cars each race, throw rather creative insults at others, or even cheat with zero consequences, while other drivers have received month long suspensions for their steering wheel snapping into their lap mid-turn and accidentally taking out a couple of cars. The farther you progress up iRacing’s “ladder”, the more obvious this favoritism becomes, to the point where most people speak of it as if it’s some sort of genuine obstacle to overcome when trying to make your way into one of the two year-long “Pro” series, with prizes in the ten thousand dollar range.
Thankfully, these three main issues do not completely detract from the overall racing on iRacing, but they certainly make you view this “world class racing sim” in a different light, as all of these issues are still a part of the complete experience. A full field of 32 virtual Chevrolet SS’s flying off into turn one at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is still a sight to behold, and when it’s at its best, iRacing is unmatched when it comes to competitive online racing. You will not see this kind of clean, respectful racing on any console or PC game without purposely seeking out a private league dedicated to providing a perfect racing experience.
The decision to try it out yourself relies solely on your wallet, and whether you’re an oval racing fan. If you can stomach stupidly high content prices and fancy the idea of lag-free competitive online oval racing, iRacing is your one-stop shop for everything NASCAR related. But if you’re a diehard road racer hoping to finally move on from aging SimBin and ISI titles, it’s best to look elsewhere.
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