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The 25 best simulation games on PC

Let's not argue the sim-antics

Ready to discover once-and-for-all whether X-Plane is better than FSX? Whether Falcon 4.0 is better than Milk Float Simulator 2012? Ready to read the word 'realism' 46 times in a single hour, and spit feathers on discovering that the sim that caused got you through your divorce has been cruelly cold-shouldered by an idiot with a bus fetish and a sci-fi blindspot the size of the Crab Nebula? You are? Splendid. You're in the right place.

What is a simulation? According to the imaginary dictionary I keep on my desk next to my imaginary bust of R. J. Mitchell, it's a game that offers users the chance to operate "a digital facsimile of a real-life vehicle" or participate, from a first-person perspective "in painstakingly recreated historical events". For me a sim isn't defined by the length of its controls list or the complexity of its HUD, it's a diversion inspired by something, usually a machine, that's tangible, researchable, and incontrovertibly Real.

Some cynics will doubtless claim that I'm peddling this pedantic line - provocatively claiming that the likes of Star Citizen and MechWarrior are simulation pastiches rather than 'true' simulations - because I...

a) Haven't played the latest batch of space 'sims' and am therefore not very well-equipped to assess them.
b) Am concerned that allowing fiction-based sims into the top 25 will mean many fine and relatively obscure plane and car sims have to be excluded.
and c) Can't decide where in the top 5 to place Crimson Skies.

To those individuals I would say this: Gosh, you're looking well. Been on holiday this year? We're just back from a week in South Devon. The weather was marvellous. Barely saw a cloud the whole time we were down there. If you're ever in that neck-of-the-woods I strongly recommend a trip on the Dartmouth Steam Railway. All GWR locos of course, though they do have a rather nice Class 25. Lovely route too. It runs close to Greenway, Agatha Christie's old house. That's worth a...

The following page would look very different If I hadn't factored in mods when making my selection. Fan skill and sweat has turned some of the titles in this list from basket cases into masterpieces. Even if I don't mention mods specifically, you can safely assume anything over a couple of years old in the line-up, shouldn't be played in its original form.


25: Farming Simulator 15

There are so many predictable pigeons strutting about inside this 25-perch loft, I feel duty-bound to insert one cat. Say hello to a tatty-eared Swiss tom with a deeply suspect attitude towards realism and an activity set as idiosyncratic and intertwined as it is inducive.

No-one with any sense plays Farming Simulator for the verisimilitude of the agricultural kit or the plausibility of the turnip physics. You play and keep playing because Giants evidently understand that sometimes novelty, choice, and a deeply embedded sense of purpose are just as important in a sim as clickable cabs or truthful torque. I can't pretend that I wouldn't like to see the devs take a leaf chapter out of MR Software's or Kunos Simulazioni's vehicle modelling book and beef-up realism in future instalments, but I also can't pretend that the money-manured plough-plant-harvest cycle at the heart of the game isn't one of the most natural and compelling campaign mechanisms I've ever encountered.

And though FS2015 won't befuddle your brain with intricate controls and accurate agronomy, it's not without challenge. Ploughing a field neatly and efficiently, frontloading bales onto a trailer, justifying your FS2015 addiction to surprised friends... all far from easy.


24: Train Simulator 2015

The Gough & Poole Rankomatic VII used to create this list struggled a bit with the placement of train sims. It couldn't seem to decide what it valued more - the deep systems realism of ZDSimulator and Run 8, the variety and popularism of Microsoft Train Simulator and TS2015, the structural ambition of Zusi 3 or the ambience and physics of BVE/OpenBVE. It took several resets and a wallop from the office knobkerry to finally coax a decision out of it.

Couple Train Simulator 2015 to high quality routes and rolling stock and the results can be mesmerising. As with the civilian flight sims arrayed at the other end of this list, TS2015 offers those of us with a pre-existing interest in the subject matter the chance to clamber aboard countless old friends, myriad mechanical heroes. If you've never stood at the end of a station platform with a notebook or a camera in your hand, or shivered with pleasure on hearing a Class 40 or a GP40X spool up, you may struggle to appreciate the allure.

There are few more relaxing activities in Simulatia than bowling along a sleepy TS2015 branchline at the controls of a well-modelled loco or multiple unit. Assuming the scenario designer hasn't set any sneaky signalling traps or devised a horribly tight timetable, you're free to sit back, savouring sights and sounds while the crib-like cab sway rocks you into reverie.


23: Enemy Engaged: Comanche vs Hokum

I toyed with the idea of populating this parade entirely with games ten or more years old. If a sim hits the big one-zero and is still whelping mods, generating forum hubbub, or filling servers, then (and only then?) you can be sure it's a bona fide classic.

EECH passes the 10-year test with flying colours. Arguably the best equipped, most replayable, and most enjoyable of the late Nineties crop of hoverer homages, its forums still buzz, its add-on artisans still toil. The folks that pay regular visits to FARPS like EECH Central and the SimHQ forum stay faithful because - and I'm projecting like an MLRS here - Razorworks did the campaign thing so bally well, and understood instinctively how much complexity, how much avionic gristle, most of us are prepared to stomach.

Campaigns are Falcon-esque. A supporting artiste rather than a limelight-hogging lead, you hellraise and reconnoitre in war-zones chock-a-block with incidental action and sortie options. Terrain detail is sparse by modern standards, but atmospheric pits and a cracking cast of flyables more than compensate. The only reason DI's Hind and Jane's Apache Longbow aren't lurking behind a hillock somewhere in this Top 25 is the presence of excellent Mi-24s and AH-64s in the evergreen EECH.

Where can I buy it: GOG


22: Steel Fury: Kharkov 1942

Did you turn to your mate, spouse, cat, dog or goldfish at the end of Fury, and start pointing out plot flaws and realism gaffs (Surely, one of those bungling SS goons would have been carrying a Panzershreck?). If you did you're sure to appreciate the work Graviteam put into this relentlessly gritty armour sim.

SF stars the T-34, Panzer IV, and Matilda II (Many more playable types have been added by modders). It's an unglamorous, unforgiving game inspired by an unglamorous, unforgiving form of warfare. During advances every hollow, thicket, and treeline radiates malevolence; blunder into the midst of an enemy trench network and, chances are, a flurry of molotovs and AT grenades will ensure you never emerge. Anyone expecting medals, haunting trumpet solos and Band of Brothers camaraderie from this gruelling Ukrainian sweat-coaxer will leave sorely disappointed

SF doesn't have the ingenious wargame-like strategy layer of its younger sibling Steel Armor (another fine game) but its trio of campaigns usually allow some control of supporting forces. Tank interiors look great and feel appropriately claustrophobic. Fighting on with fellow crewmen slumped bloody and useless at your side, is a regular occurrence. Superb ballistics and skull scouring, sanity shredding audio cement a bleak, beguiling illusion.


21: War Thunder

IL-2: Sturmovik's DNA can be found in at least four of the titles in this line-up. War Thunder fluttered from the nest of IL-2 Sturmovik: Wings of Prey (2009), an inspired fusion of Maddoxian flight models, modern visuals, and sleek interface. Essentially Wings of Prey crossed with World of Tanks, it quickly gained air superiority by providing choice, spectacle, convenience and accessibility not offered by traditional solo-centred sims or the old guard of online dogfight diversions.

As in WoT, the motivational carrot isn't patriotism or a sense of duty, it's the promise of imminent drama, the challenge of sentient opposition, and the thought of that next unlock or upgrade. War Thunder's airframe array makes Duxford's look paltry. Put in the stick/mouse time (or cut corners by shelling out for premium content) and eventually you can fly everything from inter-war biplanes to first generation jets. Painfully familiar icons, unsung stalwarts, evolutionary dead-ends... you'll encounter/eviscerate them all.

Handling, damage, and engine simulations lack the scholarly flourishes available elsewhere, but opt for the historical servers and WT can do a passable impersonation of its weightier, more intimidating peers. Whichever realism level you end up gravitating towards, parsimony is no obstacle to success. In WT, the pilot is always far more important than the plane.

Where can I buy it: Developer's siteSteam


20: B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty Eighth

Take off. Spend an hour climbing to operational altitude and forming up, and several more droning towards objective. In the event of fighter attack do not attempt to evade, but rely on escorts, gunners, and other bombers for protection. On arriving at destination, fly straight and level ignoring flak until bombs gone, then commence long trek home... It's hardly surprising the vast majority of WW2 flight sims focus on nimble horizon-twirling fighters rather than dogged dawdlers like Lancs and B-17s. Done badly, a WW2 heavy bomber sim could be an excruciatingly tedious affair. Fortunately, Wayward understood this and chose to flesh out the flying in B-17 Flying Fortress's modernised and enriched sequel, with plenty of absorbing crew management decisions and auxiliary tasks. More than any other sim in this list B17II is a compendium. You flit from yoke wrestling to bomb aiming, from crew shuffling to Browning brandishing, from chart scrutinising to fire extinguishing. It's even possible to switch cockpits and pilot your silvery chaperones for a spell.

Atmospheric, fraught, and, thanks to the personalised panic-prone crews, unusually affecting for a flight sim, the game came with a pretty special campaign system too. Players that plump for the Squadron Commander option get to manage multiple Flying Forts and their crews, selecting targets, setting waypoints, and organising photo-reconnaisance jaunts for a full 25-sortie tour of duty.


19: IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover

Both of the Battle of Britain sims in this feature were sickly babies; both are now strapping infants thanks to the talent and industry of amateur modders. A group called Team Fusion have helped turn CloD around. Their updates have transformed a sim that on release had more rough edges than Norway.

Over the last two years framerates have been boosted, FMs and DMs tweaked, AI routines reworked, broken instruments fixed, maps amended, and new aircraft variants added. With each unofficial patch more untapped potential comes to light. What has emerged is a sim with an incomparable knack for mimicking the mechanical, visual, and aural aspects of the Battle of Britain; the sim 1C: Maddox were attempting to finish when the long-suffering money men ran out of patience.

TF plan to take the engine to the Med next and expand the selection of exceptionally fine flyables with crates like the Wellington. Until a little soul and consequence is breathed into the solo campaign (CloD shipped with a disappointingly primitive sequential campaign system and, as yet, little has been done to develop it) BoB 2 will remain my Spitfire Summer sim of choice. For multiplayer action however, or brief no-strings burst of action over the Channel and Garden of England, it's impossible to deny that CloD is the superior sim.


18: Steel Beasts Pro Personal Edition

The militaries of Finland, Norway, Sweden, Austria, The Netherlands, Spain, Chile, Australia and New Zealand think very highly of Steel Beasts Pro. While a military pedigree isn't always an indication of a quality in the recreational sphere, in this instance the accomplished trainer is also an accomplished entertainer.

It turns out that the same spacious virtual battlefields, fastidiously modelled targeting systems, solid AI and complex combined arms scenarios that help keep real tankers sharp and competitive, do a very good job of persuading desktop cavalrymen like you and me that we're trundling about real war-zones in authentic contemporary MBTs. Steel Beast's steel bestiary has grown steadily over the years and now includes dozens of contemporary crewable IFVs, APCs and utility vehicles, but the main attractions remain incomparable recreations of familiar angry houses like the Leopard and M1A2.

If SBPPE has a shot trap it's the absence of a campaign mode. Happily, most of the generous selection of single player scenarios are laced with randomness, a powerful mission editor is included, and there's a wonderfully warm and creative multiplayer scene ever ready to welcome new blood. Complaints about this seemingly steep $115 asking price all tend to come from prospective buyers rather than those already enjoying the sim's singular delights. Telling? I think so.


17: Richard Burns Rally

After the wonderful Richard Burns Haystacks (2000) and Richard Burns Old Love Letters (2001) the RB series seemed to lose its way. Richard Burns Garden Rubbish (2002) and Richards Burns Roof of Mouth (2003) are probably best forgotten. Most critics were on the point of writing off the franchise when, out-of-the-blue, the magnificent Richard Burns Rally arrived in 2004.

An uncompromising recreation of modern rallying (for the vintage variety, try Rally Trophy or the recent DiRT Rally) RBR's secret weapons were its exquisite physics, great Force Feedback implementation, substantial stages, detailed pace notes, and genuinely educational rally school mode. For a generation of throttle featherers raised on Codies' Colin McCrae efforts, RBR's fidgety yet communicative conveyances were a revelation. Tunable and damageable in a remarkable number of ways, and blessed with a sense of mass and momentum that no subsequent rally game has managed to match, the eight steeds (Subaru Imprezza 2000/2003, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, Peugeot 206, Citroen Xsara, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Corolla, MG ZR) were always ready to bite the hands of the cackhanded and inattentive. Guiding them round the Finnish, English, Japanese and French stages required the finesse of a sign writer and the courage of a myopic matador.

A mod and multiplayer scene still bustling with activity today, testifies to the sim's incomparably strong fundamentals.


16: Rise of Flight

Minutes after this Top 25 is posted I'm going to get an email from one of the chaps behind this fine simulation of Great War aerial combat, complaining that I've failed to place RoF highly enough or give it the credit it deserves. I will dash off a reply politely disagreeing and pointing out that I still find the sim's campaign element somewhat dessicated, the obligation to log on before career sorties a trifle irksome. I will draw attention to the fact that I've heaped praise on the deliciously lively flight models, the handsome visuals, the bone-crunching damage depictions, and the uncommonly resonant and exacting multiplayer.

777 have numerous reasons to be proud of Rise of Flight and weaknesses in the career game diminish with every new release of Pat Wilson's Campaign Generator, yet I still can't quite bring myself to place it higher than rival Wings Over Flanders Fields. If you value kinetic naturalism and human competition over atmosphere and campaign immersion, you may well disagree with my stance. Sadly, comparing and contrasting both of these Fokker furnishers without spending cash is currently impossible. Though RoF's demo arrangements are exemplary - it's possible to fly three aircraft in multiple modes over Western or Eastern Fronts for no fee - Old Brown Dog still haven't got round to trialling WOFF.


15: X-Plane 10

Feel free to cut out this entry and tape it over the one on page (spoiler removed) if you're one of the folk who feel that Laminar Research approximate aviation better than MS does. A lot of the hyperbole I lavish on FSX would apply equally well to this sim (and Prepar3d for that matter).

X-Plane 'languishes' down here primarily because its default scenery lacks the detail and regional/seasonal sensitivity of its rival's (FSX has the wider range of scenery add-ons too). Plane choice is more restrictive too (though a surge of third-party developer interest in recent years is helping to close that gap). Factor in the weaker ATC, AI traffic and flight planning facilities and FSX favouritism is the result.

Of course, there are areas where X-Plane comprehensively outsims all the opposition. The night lighting effects are fab, the weather and fault seeding system excellent. Does Austin Meyer's continued faith in a blade element theory-based flight modelling approach lead to more realistic FMs? I'm not totally convinced it does, but there's a distinctive liveliness and sensitivity to X-Plane FMs that many adore. That liveliness seems to mesh particularly well with rotary wing aviation.


14: Grand Prix Legends

Most sim manuals begin with a bit of historical background or a proud boast or two. GPL's began with a chilling warning. "You will spin and crash the first time out. And the second time out. And the third." David Kaemmer and chums knew they'd created a ballbreaker and weren't afraid of admitting it. GPL had to be insanely demanding because the activity it strained every algorithm to simulate was insanely demanding.

When the advanced modelling techniques developed by Papy for their NASCAR and IndyCar games met the hard, narrow tyres, light cars, powerful engines, and lethal circuits of the 1967 Formula 1 season, the results were always going to be spectacular. By turning their backs on contemporary motor racing, and focusing on an era before wings, slicks, and run-off zones, the devs reintroduced romance and drama to an increasingly stale and clinical genre. The swashbuckling simplicity of late Sixties motorpsort was emphasised by a minimal GUI and a set of eleven tracks that included notorious driver slayers like Spa-Francorchamps and the 14-mile Nürburgring Nordschleife.

GPL's true greatness took years to emerge. Smoothed by advances in PC tech and swollen by the efforts of an army of talented modders, the sim was still springing surprises and winning converts a decade after its launch. While a new generation of titles - Assetto Corsa, rFactor2, iRacing - now offer superior physics, none of the newcomers rival its flavour.


13: Wings Over Flanders Fields

There are four different manuals available for this unusually immersive WW1 pilot sim. The first is Old Brown Dog's own instructional pdf, the second, third, and fourth are called Flying Fury, Sagittarius Rising, and Winged Victory.

What started out as a free Combat Flight Simulator 3 mod will now set you back $30 ($88 if you purchase both expansion packs). Expensive? If you hanker for a sim that treats the solitary campaigner as a king rather than someone too slow or stupid for multiplayer, then probably not. WOFF is all about the long-term solo experience. You arrive at the Front at a date and place of your own choosing and fly dynamically generated sorties (sorties that abut and overlap with countless others) in a wide selection of plane types until a moment of inattention or a misjudged manoeuvre leaves your mess armchair vacant and your pet spaniel masterless.

Flying and fighting beside you in this mesmerising maelstrom are delicately sketched comrades whose proximity in a dogfight often makes the difference between a rejected kill claim and an officially acknowledged one. The range of sorties is substantial, the opportunities to freelance and blunder into trouble, numerous. Rival RoF has the flight modelling edge and the draw of MP, but WOFF comes out on top in most other respects.


12: Rising Storm

Beneath the blood-spattered bandoleer of this multiplayer Pacific/Eastern Front FPS (RS comes with Red Orchestra 2's MP content and vice versa) beats the heart of a true simulation. No-one works harder to communicate the physical nuances of WW2 infantry combat than Tripwire and Anti Matter Games. The bolt fumbling, the breath regulating, the desperate cover seeking, the panicky snapshots, the blind terror of melee and fumbled grenades... it's all here.

Newcomers will perish frequently early on (and a fair bit later on too) but as the pleasure of Rising Storm/Red Orchestra 2 comes as much from imbibing exquisitely evoked history as engineering team victories, deaths don't rankle nearly as much as they do in other more frenetic manshoots.

Though RS at release managed to outshine its parent in several important departments (The default maps were roomier and more interesting, the reality-rooted differences between the US and Japanese weapon sets made side choices seem more significant that they were in Stalingrad) recent free RO2 updates have helped close the gap. The combi-sim now offers the most convincing portrayal of period tank combat outside of specialist titles like Steel Fury. True, bot AI isn't up to much, but the game's sizeable online following means that seldom impinges on the fun.


11. iRacing

iRacing is the sim you reach for when you're tired of being rear-ended at Mirabeau by inebriated imbeciles, the sim you seek out when you're sick of sharing straights with cars that jink, blink, and teleport. £7-a-month subscription fees, a recklessness-penalising progression system, and top-notch netcode help keep the regular-as-clockwork online sessions exceptionally clean, crisp and civilized.

Post-Papyrus David Kaemmer's appetite for sophisticated physics and accurate tracks has only intensified. Before Assetto Corsa arrived, iRacing was the undisputed pacesetter when it came to mimicking in extremis race cars (I suspect many subscribers would claim it still is). That verisimilitude and the high standard of competition still draws professional race drivers to events and leagues.

All of the 60+ circuits (most of which are North American and, like the rides, offered as separate DLC purchases) are laser-scanned affairs. The dev's dislike of silicon stand-ins means every driver in every race is relying on the same fleshy hardware to graze apexes and shut doors. Anyone wondering if they've got what it takes to make it in real-life motorsport - be it karting, single marque circuit racing or whatever - should know for sure after a year or two of iRacing.


10: ARMA 3

Like Antarctica, Borduria, and Restoration London, The Digital Battlefield is a place I've always wanted to visit. I've glimpsed the borderlands on Cornered Rat and Eagle Dynamics organised trips, but only Bohemia Interactive's tour bus (a battered red and white Karosa) has brought me anywhere near the interior.

Back in 2001 while their combat sim-crafting contemporaries were busy fleshing-out and fine-tuning sub-genres, BIS were amalgamating them. The visionary Czechs took bolt-cutters to the invisible shackles that kept tank simmers tethered to tanks. They snipped the strings that linked ripcords with Mission Over messages. They gave grunts compasses, hiking boots, and FPS-mocking tactical freedom. Most importantly, they changed forever the way we thought about tractors.

Later the gorgeous ARMAs came along, confirming the glaringly obvious - a well-executed mod and MP friendly soldier sim stuffed with crewable vehicles could be a wondrous thing. Whether your poison is slithering through shrubberies clutching a silenced SMG, surprising far-away insurgents with a .50 cal sniper rifle, ferrying mates to firefight in treetop-tousling helos, or carving up convoys with torrents of depleted uranium, the gloriously seamless ARMA is your man. Yes, you can find far more detailed AFV and aircraft recreations elsewhere, but choosing a more specialised sim means foregoing all that freedom and depriving yourself of some of the prettiest vistas in Simulatia.


9: Euro Truck Simulator 2

Proof sims don't need to be achingly accurate or swimming in detail to shine, ETS2 has an innate momentum that has to be experienced to be believed. The build-your-own-trucking-business concept at the hub of the long game is quicksand of the deadliest type. Seconds after completing one delivery, you're mulling over the next. Once on the road, however, thoughts of expansion and new rigs take a back seat to more immediate concerns. Which is the prettiest way to Bratislava? When should I pull in for fuel and a nap? Do I have the acceleration necessary to overtake that dawdling HGV on the next straight? Do I want to listen to Japan, Joanna Newsom or George Benson for the next 45 minutes?

There are just enough landmarks and scenic differences to sell the illusion of trans-European travel. The fact that the Czech devs have zapped Europe's road network with Duke Nukem's shrink ray will seem unimportant after your first hour or two at the wheel. A game of mesmeric long-distance motoring, gratifying wealth generation, frivolous truck pimping and tricky parking manoeuvres, ETS2 is far friendlier than most of the sims in this list. For those times in your play schedule when you can't face a five minute cold start procedure, for those moments in your week when blotting out Reality with a little war-free motion and monotony seems like a good idea, it's awfully hard to beat.


8: Battle of Britain 2: Wings of Victory

Nowadays sim smiths seem more interested in simulating machines than milieus. BoB2 is a relic of a more enlightened era. While Rowan Software worked hard to model the technical factors that made the Bf 109 and Supermarine Spitfire such well-matched adversaries during the momentous summer of 1940, they also strove to communicate context. They wanted us to look up from our reflector sights, altimeters and boost gauges occasionally and take in the bigger contrail-grafittied picture.

This is the only sim I know of that explains, without recourse to glib cutscenes or dense manual text why Britain's Finest Hour was Britain's Finest Hour. To participate in one of BoB2's brilliant dynamic campaigns is to understand why Allied pilots sometimes fell asleep in their aircraft seconds after touching down, why Goering was so confident shows of strength like Adler Tag would finish the RAF. To participate in one of BOB2's brilliant dynamic campaigns is to plunder a hundred memoirs, to glimpse the pluck and indignation that drove the young pilots of Biggin Hill, Tangmere, and Manston. I'm increasingly reluctant to use the phrase 'time machine' in the context of a computer simulation (it loses potency every time it's used) but BoB2 deserves the accolade.

Where can I buy it: Developer's site, Amazon, etc.


7: OMSI

This Deutsch delight is the reason I now have editions of Classic Bus Annual on my bookshelf and slow down when I see shapely vintage doubledeckers approaching. When a sim singlehandedly kindles an interest in something as prosaic as omnibuses you know you're in the presence of greatness.

That greatness is rooted in beautifully observed physics and sumptuous sound, but it also owes something to structure and setting. Creators Marcel Kuhnt und Rüdiger Hülsmann have painstakingly recreated a small portion of the Berlin of their youth. Beetling around the streets of 1980s Spandau in vehicles as talkative and tangible as any in Simland, their nostalgia may end up feeling like your nostalgia.

Simming at its purest, OMSI isn't particularly interested in artificial rewards or punishments. While keeping to time and avoiding prangs is quietly encouraged, the reason you return time after time is not to level-up or unlock; you keep coming back because you enjoy the challenge of navigating complex traffic flows in a charismatic yellow behemoth, you relish the atmosphere and rhythms of the city, and, most of all, because you've discovered a game in which mundane acts like pulling into a kerb, changing lanes, or halting at traffic-lights are profoundly pleasurable.

The sequel would be occupying this prestigious parking spot if it wasn't for a few stubborn bugs that, more than a year after release, remain unsquashed.


6: IL-2: Sturmovik

Like the Panzer pulveriser in its title, IL-2 Sturmovik proved robust, adaptable, and extremely good at its job. Today, it's easy to forget just how refreshing the Eastern Front setting was back in 2001 - just how visceral those flight and damage models seemed. To those of us raised on sims dominated by nimble Spits, Mustangs, and Wildcats, the rocket-spitting dacha skimmer at the centre of Oleg's creation felt deliciously thuggish... agreeably alien. Actually, come to think of it, the entire sim gave off an intriguing odour of otherness.

I can still remember how shocked I was the first time I was hit by flak. The bowel-loosening sound of shrapnel rending metal, the anguished whine of a mortally wounded engine, the surreal experience of watching, through a jagged hole in my wing, snow and birches flash past. There was a brutal, unembroidered honesty to IL-2 that myself, and many others found instantly endearing.

I recall too, being deeply impressed by 1C: Maddox's approach to after-sales. The original plane set grew steadily after release thanks to a series of then-highly-unusual free updates. Now, of course the Ost Front warbirds represent a tiny portion of the sim's sizeable solo and MP appeal. Several sequels and a decade of community-crafted crates and maps have turned IL-2 into by far the most cosmopolitan and complete WW2 air combat sim in existence. If you've never Sturmoviked, you really should.


5: Assetto Corsa

It's late and I'm flagging. I wonder if I can get away with summing up this masterpiece of the automobile imitator's art with a whistle of stunned amazement or a muttered but heartfelt 'YES!'

Kunos have nailed it. They've synthesized the alchemical substance that makes cars behave like cars and put it on sale for a very reasonable £35 a vial. Structurally AC does nothing that hasn't been done a hundred times before. The solo career mode and multiplayer options are as conservative as Cheltenham Spa. The track folder contains fewer surprises than an episode of Escape to the Country. A small but choice sheaf of official licences (Ferrari, Pagani, BMW, Mercedes, McLaren, Lotus, KTM ...) translates into a small but choice mix of supercars, GT, GTR, production and track day steeds.

What elevates AC, what transforms it from an also-ran into the essential race sim, is the combination of strong visuals, intense audio, and handling models that feel stolen rather than simulated. Car game connoisseur and friend of Flare Path Jon Denton summed it up beautifully in one of his Ravsim previews: "AC does such a wonderful job that you feel it is just you and the car. It doesn’t feel like a filter. It isn’t “Game X’s version of car Y”; it is that car."


4: DCS World

The history of combat flight simulation is littered with the rivet-studded hulks of studios that perished pursuing the hyper-realism dream. Jane's Combat Simulations, Spectrum HoloByte, 1C: Maddox... delivering breathtakingly detailed warbird facsimiles might guarantee high-brow approbation but it doesn't guarantee success or survival. It would be tempting to think of armed aerial study sims as splendidly byzantine suicide notes if Eagle Dynamics hadn't proved time and time again that they were actually perfectly viable commercial propositions.

What DCS World users get from forensically faithful payware modules like A-10C, Black Shark, and MiG-21Bis is not dissimilar to what MSFS users get from from forensically faithful payware add-ons like the PMDG's 747 and A2A's Accu-Sim C172 - unabashed realism, priceless insights, bond-forging intimacy. What FSX can't offer at present (though it has aspirations in that direction) is the chance to fly high fidelity aircraft in complex threat-stuffed combat environments. To understand what it means to be a front-line pilot in a contemporary warzone, you need this sim (and the one two slots south of it) in your life.

Over the last few years ED have overseen a burgeoning third-party development scene. At times there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the mix of incoming aircraft (Bf-109s, Sabres, Hips, Hawks...) but the diversity does mean everyone's sure to find a winged or rotored soulmate amongst the modules. If DCS World has weaknesses at present, they are campaign structure and cartographic variety. Until WIP Nevada and Strait of Hormuz theatres arrive and the devs rethink their campaign approach, fliers must content themselves with Caucasian skies and sequential scripted sorties.


3: Silent Hunter 3

Ubisoft Romania's first Topp tribute could have surfaced just about anywhere in this list and not looked out of place. Modded up to the nines, it offers everything a good great naval simulation should: realism, plausibility, challenge, tension, atmosphere, dolphins, stylish knitwear, an infinitely replayable campaign that swallows weekends like a whale shark swallows plankton...

U-boat sims need a pinch of tedium in their make-up to work, and SH3's freelance-friendly Atlantic patrols deliver the requisite bouts of boredom/anticipation nigh perfectly. The slow drift from early war 'Happy Times' to late war 'I-wish-I-was-back-in-Kiel-supping-a-pilsener-not-sat-here-on-the-seabed-listening-to-depth-charge-detonations' is deftly captured and helps give SH3 one of the most naturalistic difficulty curves imaginable.

Embrace optional intricacies like manual chart plotting and targeting and successful hunts feel infinitely sweeter. Go full full real and forswear time acceleration, and a bizarre world of interrupted sleep and priceless insights awaits.

If you think you'd prefer prowling the Pacific in a Gato to prowling the Atlantic in a Type VII, then SH4 is well worth considering. Once appropriately augmented it arguably has just as much right to occupy this slot as its forerunner.


2: Falcon 4.0

Falcon 4.0 is what happens when a flight sim developer buries themselves in blueprints and thinks Galaxy-big. The quintessential study sim, its combination of deep avionic realism, high-calibre flight modelling, and ambitious dynamic campaign engine, remain unsurpassed to this day. The original 1998 release offered a staggeringly thorough recreation of the Block 50/52 F-16, an infinitely replayable Korean conflict, together with impressive multiplayer facilities amazing documentation, and myriad bugs. Subsequent semi-sequels and community-engineered updates have broadened theatre and ride choice, and vastly improved visuals and stability.

Today, most discerning Falconeers opt to fly the seventeen-year-old stalwart in its 'BMS' form. Benchmark Simulations' free marvel adds DirectX 9 graphics, a fully clickable 3D cockpit, and new avionic gizmos like the Lockheed Martin 'Sniper' advanced targeting pod. Terrain textures and particle effects have been overhauled, flight models reworked, training improved; flyable F/A-18s, F-15s and F-14s grace hangars; there are new ways of playing the campaign... in short everything possible has been done to ensure Falcon 4.0 remains what it was in the late Nineties, the most rounded and rigorous jet sim available. If you fancy flying a scrupulously simulated contemporary warbird in a gloriously unpredictable battlespace abuzz with incidental activity, and have the patience to master its complexities, F4 is the sim for you.


1: Microsoft Flight Simulator X

The moment has finally arrived. Pipsqueak Magnificas, the 300-foot-tall hamster deity that watches over all of us from his cloud-shaped dirigible in the sky, has come for you. Before climbing the swaying rope ladder that leads to The After-Life, you've got five minutes to kiss your loved ones goodbye, put together a wash bag, and select the one book and the one game that will help while away the eternity to come.

Choosing the reading matter is relatively easy (Moonfleet or a Putnam tome of some kind, obviously) but what about the game? You want something as vast as the Sahara and similarly easy to lose yourself in. You want a cornucopia of challenges, a palace of variety, an Old Curiosity Shop crammed with reminders of the extraordinary land/life you've left behind. Ideally you want a game that doesn't have slaughter at its centre.

Your rheumy eyes scan higgledy-piggledy shelves for several minutes before finally settling on the golden spine of FSX.

More hobby than game, Flight Simulator can be enjoyed in countless different ways. It welcomes nostalgics, explorers, aspirants and obsessives. It caters for the sociable, the solitary, the stressed and the war weary. It soothes, it trains, it entertains and employs. One moment it's effortlessly satisfying our wanderlust and reminding us that borders only exist on maps and in minds, the next it's binding us closer to the places we call home. To pigeon-hole MSFS is to malign it.

Without the work of modders and third-party devs, make no mistake there'd be another title occupying this slot. All of MSFS's finest airframes and prettiest panoramas have been parachuted in post-release by outsiders. To fully understand why the sim is held dear by so many, you must first embellish and embellish hard. Expect to spend hours browsing freeware file repositories and mulling over potential payware purchases.

A pre-existing passion for planes will accelerate initiation and enhance enchantment, but is by no means essential. A toybox this capacious, an experience engine this potent and flexible, has more than enough power to sow the seeds of air enthusiasm on its own. Flight Simulator will change you, you can be sure of that. Whether it sets you on the road to a Private Pilot Licence or a career in commercial or military aviation, or merely turns you into an aviation anorak with bookshelves stacked with aircraft books (*turns to admire bookshelves stacked with aircraft books*) only time will tell.


Postscript

At times during the preparation of this list I felt like I was being asked to sort siblings or drown kittens. So many great sims ended up on the wrong side of my arbitrary Checkpoint Charlie that I can't resist deepening the depth of field for the following run-down. If your favourite sim still isn't present then either you're a person of dubious tastes (highly unlikely considering you've found your way to Castle Shotgun) or I've had a senior moment and completely forgotten about one of this genre's hearteningly plentiful corkers. Feel free to spotlight any gaffs in the usual way - smoke grenade, parachute flare, dirty protest or plain old comment.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that a couple of titles in my list previously featured in another 'Bestest Best' feature. While there's nothing in the RPS rulebook that forbids overlaps, myself and Mr. Meer will be meeting on Primrose Hill at dawn tomorrow (Alec's second: Jim. My second: Adam) to establish once-and-for-all whether Rising Storm and ARMA are manshoots or soldier sims.

About the Author

Tim Stone

Contributor

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