The Best Games to Go on a Virtual Grand Tour
Have you ever been watching an episode of Top Gear and thought to yourself “Man, I wish I could be a part of these challenges as well?” I know for a fact after I saw the Romanian episode, all I wanted to do was go for a spin on the Transfagarasan Highway. I didn’t even care what car I was in; I could have taken wife’s wife Kia Rio there and would have been happy as a clam.
Recreating the experiences that the TG presenters have on the show is difficult to do in real life, but there IS a way. Maybe you can’t end up in a Honda NSX hurtling down the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, but what if you could have the next best thing?
This is where the world of video games comes in. In my day job, I’m a video game reviewer, and my favorite genre is racing games (followed very closely by JRPGs). I love sim racing the most, but I will also be more than happy to plop on the couch with Need For Speed and have some fun.
Do you all recall the episode of TG when Jeremy sets a lap time at Laguna Seca in a Honda NSX at Laguna Seca while playing Gran Turismo 4 (Series 7, Episode 6)?
Well, I had a similar experience in a Ferrari 458. I say “similar” and “exact” because the track I drove at, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was not something I could do in a video game since none of the games I owned had that track. While I was able to compare the feel of a real life 458 VS its digital counterpart, I couldn’t get the exact same experience of going through the exact same corners at a painstakingly digitally recreate circuit.
That got me thinking; what games out there can give you a Top Gear-esque experience without leaving the home? Say you were watching the episode of TG where the boys were trying to avoid the sights of an Apache pilot and you wanted to try something similar? I mean, it’s not like you can jump in a Dodge Viper and have an Apache chasing your down or anything.
Instead I have decided to compile a list of the best racing games out there that can give you a similar experience to various challenges and races seen on TG (and I’m sure soon to be seen on the upcoming Grand Tour). Of course these will be nowhere near the real thing, but why not do it digitally as opposed to not at all, right? Let’s start with my experience in a 458.
The only time I have played a digital version of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was in the NASCAR games, and there it was just the oval. When I went for a 7 lap drive in a Ferrari 458, it was at a specific road course within the oval designed just for Exotics Racing (the company I went through). I don’t know of any games that have the road course replicated in-game, so unfortunately I’m not able to compare apples with apples, but the experience of tearing around a track in a 458 was still more than I could have ever imagined. I won’t bore you with details, but let’s just say if you consider yourself a fan of cars at all, you owe it to yourself to try out one of these “dream racing” companies.
Jeremy was absolutely right in that TG segment; in the game (in my case, Gran Turismo 6 and Forza Motorsport 5), you have a lot more leeway with things like mid-corner adjustments. Any racing game, no matter how “sim” they claim to be, will have some form of assist activated even if you turn all the assists off in game. They have to; it’s because the developers have to assume that majority of people playing these games will be playing on a controller, not a racing wheel setup (which is what I used). If they allow to cars in the game to control exactly the way they do in real life, then it would be unplayable with a controller.
In my case, playing on a racing wheel in GT6 with a Ferrari 458 and then doing it in real life was amazing. Sure the GT and Forza series may never be on par with iRacing in terms of realism, but they sure as hell got a lot right when it comes to the feel of the 458. In fact, learning how to correctly steer a 458 around the track in real life made me a better driver in game as well.
Now, enough about me. What other games are out there that can closely replicate TG challenges?
If you’re looking for a bonafide racing experience, then look no further than these two games, though they present two very different sides to what constitutes a “race.” If an authentic, rules based racing experience is what you’re looking for, then iRacing will be your cup of tea. It features arguably one of the most authentic physics models you can find in a racing sim, and you won’t find any idiots that like to swerve around crashing into everyone.
Project CARS on the other hand, doesn’t feature physics that replicate reality as closely as iRacing, but I have yet to find a better racing game that offers players a taste of the violence and intensity of an actual race. I love the atmosphere and immersion in CARS, and it’s a game that actually makes me sweat when playing on my racing rig. Keep in mind both these games are considerably better on a racing wheel setup than a controller (I’m not even certain iRacing works with a controller).
The episode of TG that inspired this entry was from Series 10, Episode 9 where the boys take place in a 24 hour endurance race at Silverstone. The thing that stuck out to me the most in that episode was the intensity of the race itself, where drivers are forced to maintain complete focus over every tiny aspect of their cars. Real racing doesn’t get much closer than iRacing and Project CARS.
Gran Turismo 5&6
If your love of motorsports is all about the cars themselves and less about the race, then the Gran Turismo series is where you want to be…specifically the 5th and 6th entries. GT5 had one of, if not THE largest roster of cars I have ever seen in a game, over 1,000. Sure only a handful of them had modeled interiors, and roughly ⅔ of the cars were simply ported over from the previous generation’s Gran Turismo 4, but that made for a staggering number of cars. If you are the type that simply MUST have every single one of the 30+ Nissan Skylines in the game, then you have come to the right place.
GT6 had less cars and still featured quite a few that were carry overs from GT4, but a new tire model and improved physics made this the best handling GT game to date. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the realism in GT is on par with something like iRacing or Assetto Corsa, but it’s realistic enough to produce a number of GT Academy winners who have gone on to have actual professional racing careers.
The episode, or rather episodes, of TG that inspired this entry is actual the entirety of the show itself. Take away the hosts, the Cool Wall, The Stig, all the challenges, all the road trips, lap times, etc. and you have a show that is about CARS. Between all the different countries who air their own variant of TG to other automobile shows inspired by TG, the whole of the phenomenon that we have grown to love is about cars at its very core. I can’t think of any other games that can provide as many cars as GT5 and 6.
Need For Speed (2015)
This is an interesting entry that comes from slightly out of left field. You know how Jeremy, Richard, and James are always making fun of “yobbos” (which I guess here in the States simply means “douchebag”)? Well, I challenge any of you to find a game that features a cast of better “yobbos” than the most recent Need For Speed game. If douchey, ricey, illegal street racing culture is your sort of thing, then NFS is your pot of gold. The racing actually isn’t terrible, but it’s not exactly the paragon of realism, so keep that in mind. It’s more Burnout than Gran Turismo, but if you can get past the annoying characters and the overdone “always night/wet bright lights” art direction, then you actually have a decent racing game that offers a glimpse in “yobbo” life.
Forza Horizon Series
I always tell people that my vote for the most authentic Top Gear styled game is the Forza Horizon Series. It’s essentially a Top Gear game, just without any mention of anything TG related. You want to race a car against a plane, train, or boats? Horizon 1,2, and 3 have it. You want to race a car dangling from a helicopter while tearing through the Australian rainforest in a buggy? Horizon 3. Do you feel like getting together with a couple of friends and make merry in an abandoned airport or industrial complex? Any of the three Horizon games will offer you just that. What about the races themselves, how are they? With everything from circuit races to point to point, to cross country, the Horizon series can satisfy any racing itch you have.
Perhaps the best thing about Horizon (more specifically, the most recent entry, Forza Horizon 3), is how easy it is and how natural it feels just to grab a few friends online, and roadtrip across the Australian outback or the French/Italian Riviera. Three friends in supercars driving across the coastal roads to Nice? Sounds pretty Top Gear to me. Toss in a bunch of wacky races/challenges like I mentioned about, and you have yourself one of the most authentic Top Gear/non-official Top Gear games in existence.
Forza Motorsport 4,5,6
The Forza Motorsport series is essentially what I like to call “American Gran Turismo.” It has less cars, and most of its selections are more geared towards American/European fans, but at its core, FM is basically Gran Turismo for the Xbox with better feeling controls when played with a gamepad.
Perhaps my favorite thing to come out of the FM series is the partnership with Top Gear starting with Forza Motorsport 4. Yes, Gran Turismo 5 had Top Gear content in it, but it was a laughable attempt at best. It had the TG test track in it, and a short video blurb about the show, but that was about it. It didn’t FEEL Top Gear, and the replay cameras when using the TG test track didn’t even replicate the same camera cuts as the show.
FM 4, 5, and 6, on the other hand, make full use of the TG licensing. FM4 started off with a video intro narrated by Jeremy himself, but a number of Forzavista cars featured narration by Jezza as well. The test track was also in the game, but it actually felt like TG now, and the replays used the same camera cuts as the show. I can practically hear Jeremy narrating as I watch a replay. All the Reasonably Priced Cars are also available, and you could jump on Rivals and compete in challenges inspired by the show. FM6 takes all this one step further and introduces different motorsport styles, narrated by a bevy of automotive experts including our boys. Alongside its sister franchise Horizon, this is the ultimate collection of Top Gear inspired digital racing.
Short of the original Colin McRae Rally game, Dirt Rally is by far my favorite rally based racing game. The handling and physics are unreal in the sense that they are, well…extremely real, and very close attention is paid to the sport of rally racing itself. Unlike previous Dirt game before it which dabbled into demolition derby and Gymkhana, Dirt Rally is simple and pure; nothing but rally. Hook up a wheel and pedal setup, settle down in your racing cockpit, and enjoy the best and most realistic rally game to come along in forever.
The TG episode that inspired this entry is from Series 12, Episode 3, where James travels to Finland to learn “The Finnish Way of Car Control” from Mikka Hakkinen. While the race James eventually takes part in was not a rally race, the training that Mikka puts him through was very much rally inspired.
I’m cheating a bit here, since outside of the F1 series from Codemasters, you don’t really have too much of a choice if you want an authentic Formula One game. Sanctioned by Formula One itself, the F1 series basically takes you through year after year of F1 seasons. Handling is obviously dumbed down for gamers, but a variety of assists can make even the most inept racers feel like Lewis Hamilton as they play through the game.
The inspiration for this entry should come as no surprise; TG has long featured F1 stars and segments, and Jeremy is a huge lover of the sport. A show that features lap records specifically for F1 racers makes no bones about its love for the sport, and for that, you can’t go wrong playing any of the F1 games.
So there you have it! A list of racing games inspired by memorable moments from Top Gear. Let us know if you have any games that you think may have been overlooked!