Open world racing games provide gamers with a multitude of ways to have fun. Big names like Forza Horizon and Need for Speed drop you into a sprawling world, where you can explore the limits of the map, drift your way around racetracks, or even go off-road.
Often designed as a jack-of-all-trades, titles in this genre prioritize playability over all-out driving pedigree. But after all, these are racing games, and that means that they need to have decent driving mechanics if they want to be taken seriously. Here we look at some of the most popular open-world racing games along with a couple of interesting wildcards to see how their driving styles compare.
Forza Horizon 3
Forza Horizon 3 comes from superb stock; there’s no doubt Forza is one of the most recognizable racing franchises. And unsurprisingly, the attention to detail is superb, making this a great driving simulator in an opening world setting. More so than any other open-world racer, Horizon 3 boasts an enormous garage of cars – part of what makes it such an authentic driving experience is how different each car feels.
Set in Australia, the game offers some exceptional and unusual racing locations – and the best thing about that is that they actually exist in real life. Driving on the slick sand alongside the iconic Twelve Apostles, for example, provides an element of realism that many generic open world games simply can’t touch. Speeding on buggies through outback rally tracks feels markedly different to the road races of Surfer’s Paradise, as well they should.
But does that mean it is an extremely life-like simulation? Admittedly Horizon 3 is more interested in providing fun than ultra-realism, but overall the driving mechanics are very solid. Yes, there are some rather unlikely wheelspin possibilities and absurd crashes at 200mph that will barely scratch the beautifully rendered bodywork. The arcade-style driving is also relatively forgiving when it comes to things like racing lines and spinouts. But the racing feels satisfying and each mode of driving has its own personality.
The game is locked to 30 frames per second on Xbox One, although the PC version can run at a much higher frame rate – unsurprisingly, then, the driving mechanics and true feel of being behind the wheel is seriously better on Windows than on console.
Horizon 3 is also one of the most recent of the big-name open-world racers, so it just from a graphics perspective, it’s a real step up from a number of the other available titles. But just because it’s the most recent, doesn’t necessarily make it the best. Let’s take a look at some of the other contenders.
Need for Speed Payback
Need for Speed is another huge racing franchise. It’s actually been around since 1994, and with the latest incarnation released in 2017, you would expect the team to understand a thing or two about good driving mechanics. This is actually the newest game on this list, and the story takes obvious influence from the Fast and the Furious movies.
Interestingly, in Need for Speed Payback it is often the gameplay that undermines the driving mechanics. Escaping from police, for example, is not a task in improvisation or driving skill, but rather a challenge to reach a series of arbitrary checkpoints. Additionally, the rare aspects of the game that threaten to demand control and dynamic driving too often give way to cinematic cutscenes.
Like Forza Horizon 3, the style of driving is more arcade than simulation – but Payback takes it a step further. Drifting is so easy, the only real challenge is how long you can hold your drift for. And for a game that takes speed so seriously, there’s no great sense of how fast your car is going. Even reaching the upper limits of the speedometer never offers thrills.
The physics – hardly a priority in Horizon 3 – feel like even more of an afterthought in Payback, and you are very aware at all times that you are playing a game rather than driving a car, no matter how stunning the graphics and backdrop are.
Released in late 2014, The Crew is an online-only open-world racer with a truly jaw-droppingly huge map and environment to drive and race in. There’s no doubt that one of the most fun aspects of The Crew is the size of the map. It’s a scaled-down version of the United States with six huge cities beautifully recaptured. Each feels different to drive in, and there’s something rather authentic about how each large city has its own character and layout.
As with much of The Crew, it feels as if there is too much in the way of compromise for the game mechanics to be what you want. Rather than feeling like a true driving simulation or a furiously fun arcade racer, The Crew hedges its bets and ends up with something that feels not as good as either.
One frustrating aspect is the AI-controlled opponents appear to be able to bend the rules of the game’s physics, leading to a somewhat demoralizing racing experience where you never feel as if your opponents are playing fair.
Interestingly, The Crew 2 is due out in 2018 and it promises to have far more honed driving mechanics to the point where racing will feel like a true simulation, while freestyling and open-world driving will retain its fun gameplay. This could be one open world racing game to watch out for.
Burnout Paradise is currently the most recent installment in the iconic Burnout series, but given that it was released in 2008 it is somewhat surprising the title hasn’t seen a revamp. Nevertheless, Burnout Paradise is one of the most well-known and popular open-world racers and deserves a place on this list even if only for nostalgia purposes.
The joy of the Burnout series was always the anarchy of multi-car pile-ups and mega crashes. Unlike many open-world games, Paradise does simulate the kind of damage that would happen to your car in a crash situation; hit your rival at 100mph and you can expect to see crumpled bodies, bonnets flailing and debris flying everywhere.
However, when it comes to the actual driving mechanics, Paradise cannot be accused of attempting a real-life simulation of driving. Chaotic, fun and forgiving, the cars are easy to control and the racing is accessible rather than challenging. You shouldn’t expect to need to stick rigidly to racing lines or time your braking distances to perfection – the game will compensate for you.
One area of driving where Paradise does stand out over many open-world games, is that it truly gives you free reign. Races are typically a task to get from one side of the city to the other – how you get there is completely your choice, so a good understanding of the map and potential shortcuts can make a huge difference to your times. Just like in real street racing, the no rules element of the gameplay makes it a lot of fun.
Test Drive Unlimited 2
On paper, Test Drive Unlimited 2 looks like it should have everything you would want from an open-world racing game. There are aspects that take their realism very seriously – the game map is based on the island of Ibiza, and even uses satellite imagery. The rich variety of scenery looks solid and the cars are lovingly brought to the screen.
Sadly though, in all the ways that matter, Test Drive Unlimited 2 doesn’t live up to its billing as a fun racing title. The feel of driving the cars is just somewhat off – it is never quite right no matter which camera angle you are using. There’s no sense of speed and the controls never make you believe that you are behind the wheel of a powerful car.
A new Test Drive game is reportedly in the works, and Unlimited 2 does have a lot of potential that the makers could hopefully channel into something much more playable. It will have to avoid the myriad glitches and technical issues that plagued this title if it wants to challenge the big names in the genre, however.
Some open-world games aren’t necessarily racing titles, but provide their own unique driving mechanics that make them worth looking at. For a movie tie-in game, Mad Max has a surprising amount on offer. And along with a darkly beautiful setting, the best feature of the title is when you get behind the wheel – perhaps as it should be. The racing segments of the game as mashed with vehicular combat, but this only adds to the fun.
And it would be difficult to discuss open-world driving games without tipping your hat to GTA V. One of the most in-depth and interesting settings ever created for a video game, the GTA series’ most recent title offers a truly exhaustive array of fun driving game experiences.
Unsurprisingly though, while the mechanics of these games are solid, they are still a secondary consideration to the broader aspects of gameplay. So, if you are looking for an open-world game with great driving, one of the titles above is better suited.
How do they compare to motorsport games?
In terms of overall driving mechanics, while many open-world racing titles give a credible account of themselves, they are unsurprisingly blown out of the water by the games that specialize in driving simulation. The big names, Gran Turismo Sport and Forza 7, both offer a technically superb recreation of driving on tracks – instilling each vehicle with its own unique driving style and experience.
The 2015 title Project CARS and its 2017 sequel Project CARS 2 have taken driving simulation one step further, and you really need a home racing set-up to get the most out of the mechanics. The subtle differences that can be achieved with minor modification to the engine make this series the choice for gamers who are most interesting in getting the authentic feeling of racing on a track.
For those who are looking for great driving mechanics set within a fun open-world environment, there are few that can match Forza Horizon 3 for pure playability. But we eagerly await the release of The Crew 2 and a potential future Burnout title to see where they take their driving styles.