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Driving sim showdown: Real cars vs. their in-game counterparts

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Racing games tend to emphasize realism over any other factor. Think about it: In a role-playing game, the whole concept is to defy reality and live in a fantasy realm. With shooters, authenticity is not often the goal, since one shot from an AK-47 usually means you can’t just bounce back in the next round. There are some obvious compromises to make sure the game is still enjoyable. But in racing, the main objective is to put you behind the wheel of a $200,000 supercar in a realistic way.

At least, that’s where most racing games start – by modeling real cars. That Mercedes-Benz C63 in Forza 4 with the racing tires and the turbo-charged engine better handle like the real thing. When you lumber along in RAM HD 2500 Laramie Longhorn edition in Driver: San Francisco, the fine leather upholstery should look realistic, not like someone just chose a different color in Photoshop.

Digital Trends took an exclusive look at four recent racing games and tested the real cars in comparison to their digital avatars. We wanted to see if the cars handled realistically, especially for acceleration off the starting block, cornering ability, and whether the digital version looked accurate inside and out. Which one comes closest to putting a stable of realistic cars at your fingertips? Read on and find out.

Test-Drive-Unlimited-2-coverTest Drive Unlimited 2

Released last February, this arcade racer tends to downplay authentic driving in favor of gameplay, but you can drive a wide variety of cars. Scattered around the map (and we mean scattered) are nameplate dealers like VW and Chevy where you can “test drive” any car on the lot before you plunk down your cold hard cash. The game takes place on two islands (one near Spain, and one in Hawaii).

We had a blast testing out all the makes and models in Test Drive Unlimited 2. Quite a few of the cars are a bit “unattainable” in that they are expensive luxury cars from brands like Alfa Romeo and Koenigsegg. Yet, developer Eden Games did include some cars you can buy in your local suburban dealership. We spent hours testing the VW Golf GTI, mostly because we also reviewed the real car.

Unfortunately, the driving mechanics – which did improve on this release – were nothing like Forza 4 or Gran Turismo 5 Spec 2.0. The GTI felt boxy, as though it would tip, and turns were too sudden, as though the pixels shifted suddenly to the left or right. In the real car, the steering is tight (most VW cars are) but the car tends to ride low and hug the road, which is why this particular car is so popular with younger drivers. The 0-to-60 acceleration was accurate, though – just under 9 seconds. And, the redline indicator hit right around 6,000RPM for each shift, which was roughly the same as what we experienced.

A low point was driving the Chevy Camaro SS in the game. This souped-up racer, which has a modified suspension for cornering and a 426-horsepower V8, drove sluggish in the game. It’s a difficult challenge trying to mimic a heavy muscle car in a game. The real vehicle (technically, the game has an 2SS and we drove a Camaro SS Convertible, but they drive similarly on the road) drives like a tank, but you feel the power in the engine: There’s a tremendous roar, a pleasing rattle, and an insane throttle push.

One thing we really liked about this game, though: You can use the analog stick to look around the vehicle, and the GTI in particular looked spot-on right down to the hazard light button. Overall, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a fun game with plenty of rewards, but the cars we tested lacked realism.

Driver-San-Francisco-coverDriver: San Francisco

The Driver series does not even pretend to be realistic. In many ways, the franchise is a holdover from the days when a sandbox game was a new idea, ala Grand Theft Auto. A “mission” might involve racing against an opponent in the game or picking up a mysterious package. In other words, the cars and the physics are secondary. Still, what we liked about the game is the plethora of cars available.

As you drive around, you can quickly switch to another car you see. (In Test Drive, we had to go to a dealership to either test out a car or win enough points to buy a car.) As you unlock rewards in the game, new vehicles start appearing on the road. After playing for about six hours, we finally unlocked the one we wanted to test: a Dodge HD 2500 Laramie Longhorn.

Once again, the realism here is a bit suspect. Developer Ubisoft may have tried to differentiate the different trucks in the game, mostly by styling, but the HD 2500 felt exactly the same in the game as every other truck. In the real world, a Ford F150 has a sporty drive because it’s lighter.

The HD 2500 feels like you are driving a building across a road. It has the same muscular feel of a Dodge Challenger, but in the game the truck is way too responsive, as though you’re driving in a car that’s higher off the ground.

We also drove a Chevy Corvette Z06 in Driver that’s similar to one we tested recently. In the game, the Corvette has the same awe-inspiring lurch in lower gears. We liked how Driver mimics the lumbering feel of the car and how the Z06 has such a massive front end.

Driving the CTS-V in the game was another story. One problem is that Ubisoft did not match the real-world redline of 6,200RPM. You can redline all the way up to 7,000RPM and beyond before you lose power. (In reality, you don’t just lose power at 6,200RPM – the car shuts off the fuel.) Still, Ubisoft did get the 0-to-60 acceleration about right – just under 4 seconds.

Check out our full Driver: San Francisco Review.

Gran-Turismo-5-Spec-2-coverGran Turismo 5 Spec 2

The crown-jewel for Sony PlayStation realism, Gran Turismo 5 portends to be the most authentic racing game ever made, with the widest selection of cars, and the most authentic tracks. Granted, it is not trying to usurp iRacing for absolute realism on the track.

Yet, in the recent Spec 2 DLC content released this month, developer Polyphony Digital tweaked the physics in the game to make cars more realistic. In our tests with the Mercedes-Benz SLS (we had the 2012 model, the game has a 2010, but they are quite similar), the handling in the game was good; cornering was tight and responsive like it is in the real car. The SLS redlines in the game at 7200 RPMs as it should. And, the rear spoiler pops up at 72MPH and lowers at 50MPH, which matches real life.

As with Forza 4, there is no launch control mode for the SLS in the game. In the real car, you can press down on the brake, press the gas pedal (which revs the engine to about 3000RPM and prepares the car for launch), and release the brake. Doing this in the game only makes the redline go up all the way, but does not add any punch. The 0-to-60 test in the real and virtual cars matched up almost precisely at just under 4 seconds. The SLS felt fun to drive in the game, but seemed to lack some power.

The Cadillac CTS-V in the game behaved realistically: the tires spun out like they should, and the 0-to-60 time test in the game clocked in at just under 4 seconds, matching the real car. The redline was also accurate – about 6,200RPM. Like Forza 4, GT5 does not use an auto-fuel shut off like the real car. That feature, which is actually included with most cars but they rarely hit the redline, saves the engine, which is not something you have to worry about in the game. Still, it would have been cool to make that an option in the game as a way to be even more authentic. Instead, like in Forza, the car just loses power.

We also tested a Camaro SS in the game and looked back (with warm memories) at our previous review. The Camaro in GT5 felt like it lacked some zip in the lower gears that we remember from our real-world test. There’s also one missing ingredient in the game, something that’s almost impossible to replicate: the Camaro felt too light on the road, as though it was a sportscar and not a muscle car.

Check out our full Gran Turismo 5 Review.

Forza-4-coverForza 4

While Gran Turismo 5 offers plenty of realism, Microsoft has steadily encroached on that franchise by adding a heavy dose of realism into the Forza franchise. Forza 4, released just a few weeks ago, follows a similar approach to Gran Turismo 5 where the real OEM specs are fed into a database.

That’s why, in driving the CTS-V, the Mercedes-Benz SLS, the VW Golf GTI, and even the Lexus CT200h in the real world (and reviewing them all) and in the game, we found that Forza 4 nailed the realism.

The Lexus CT200h drove exactly the same in the game, with a long 0-to-60 acceleration time of about 10 seconds. Our only minor ding here is that the 200h felt almost too slow – it drove too much like a Prius (which makes sense, since both cars share the same powertrain), but Lexus heavily tweaked the suspension and even used braces that are used in F1 cars to make the drive tight and nimble. In the game, the 200h cornered like a Toyota. In reality, even with the slow acceleration, the car is a blast to drive around town, and has plenty of punch in first gear (when you are in an all-electric mode).

The SLS was modeled perfectly though, even if the vents near the steering wheel looked a bit exaggerated. The rear spoiler pops up automatically at 72MPH, and recedes at 50. The GTI also drove much more realistically compared to Test Drive Unlimited – not boxy, but road-hugging with plenty of punch in the first few gears, and a smooth cornering ability that can help you win races.

Each of these cars redlines at the proper RPM (e.g., 6,200RPM for the CTS-V, 7,200RPM for the SLS).

Check out our full Forza Motorsport 4 Review.

Final verdict

So, which game gets the nod for the best realism? Perhaps not surprisingly, we ended up viewing both Forza 4 and Gran Turismo 5 as highly authentic. Both games include the Mercedes-Benz SLS we tested recently. We switched from car, to game, back to car a few times and found that both games nailed the jaw-dropping acceleration. They both were accurate in terms of the 7200RPM redline (and not bothering with a fuel shut off to save the engine). They both nailed the rear spoiler raising at 72MPH and lowering at 50MPH.

And, while you can flip the car in both games, neither game bothered with the feature where the door pistons blow off so you can exit the vehicle. Yet, in the end, the Spec 2.0 version of Gran Turismo 5 felt a little stale in the end. We booted up both cars in the games on the same HD screen, with the same surround-sound system, and Forza 4 seemed to nail one aspect that was missing from GT5: the fun factor. This is more of an authenticity issue than you might think. The SLS in Forza just felt like it was faster, hungrier, and more fun to drive. Both games mimicked the car accurately. If we had to pick one game that delivered the thrill of driving the real $200,000 supercar, it would be Forza 4.

John Brandon
Former Digital Trends Contributor
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