Sims differ from other PC games in that their goal isn’t necessarily to entertain, at least not primarily. You want fun and excitement? Tough. Operating a submarine is not that. It is, however, fascinating, terrifying, and hugely satisfying as a long-form experience.
The world of the best simulator games is a weird and wonderful place where games to experience ranges from experiencing the European trucking industry to messing around with practically spineless goats with longer than is natural tongues. The variety available in the genre is astounding, which makes narrowing down a list to just 10 quite challenging. So, for this list, we've stuck to a stricter interpretation of the term.
Such is the nature of the genre that seeking out the best PC sims is like asking for the ‘special’ stock the shopkeeper keeps in the back room. They’re not all best-sellers, but these are the titles with dedicated communities offering deep tutorials and incredible mods, that let you get as close to hauling a trailer full of plumbing parts across Europe, driving an F1 car, or piloting a military aircraft as national security laws will permit.
The second Insurgency game wonderfully straddles the line between hardcore soldier simulator and arcade multiplayer games. Anyone can pop in a game and have fun, but try to play Insurgency Sandstorm like Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike and you won’t advance very far. Instead, Sandstorm is more like a condensed version of ARMA 3. Sure, there may be capture points and XP, but at its heart this war game is all about simulating the ferociousness of modern conflict. A couple of gunshots will down any enemy, although aiming and actually hitting them is far more difficult. There’s a large range of realistic guns to choose from, and they all feel distinct, especially once you start modding them with attachments like new barrels, grips, and scopes, which can completely change the feel of the weapon.
The humble train simulator has been around for almost as long as there’s been PC simulation games, and while the latest iteration of Train Simulator is the traditional choice, Train Sim World offers something a mite more ambitious – and it’s by the same developer, Dovetail Games, so fans of one should appreciate the other. It’s certainly the most realistic train sim game around – for example, you can’t even leave the station without priming the battery first. The whole game’s played in first-person, so all the driving, management, and upkeep is done from the ground level – just as if you were serving and running the train yourself. The whole point of simulation games is to make you feel like you’re actually doing the job, and Train Sim World does that better than any other – as we found while documenting our Train Sim World travel diary adventures.
Microsoft Flight Simulator recreates every aspect of flying down to the last sublime detail: the hot air from the engines rippling over the wing as you begin your charge down the runway, and the streaks of rain across your windshield as you descend through the clouds. This spectacular attention to detail becomes more astonishing – every single square inch of our planet Earth is mapped out in MFS, ready for you to soar overhead. The flying itself is also meticulously simulated, with detailed aerodynamic modeling, fully detailed cockpits and instrumentation, and real time weather conditions – so you can experience the precise wind speed and direction outside your window right now as you crash into your own house.
If you’re a fan of F1 games, you should already be aware of the official F1 series from Codemasters and the studio’s annual entries. The pinnacle of Formula One simulation racers gets as close to the experience as you’re likely to get without actually being there, and the latest entry is the best yet. The handling model in the F1 series is the best around and this is the finest iteration yet – accurately and perfectly conveying the sense of driving one of these ridiculously fast beasts. Tiny changes in traction, feeling the back twitch out in the rain, and that unmistakable bobble as you hit full speed; it’s all there, whether you’re haring around the Côte d’Azur in modern or classic vehicles.
Codemasters’ first foray into early access development has proved fruitful: DIRT Rally currently has 136,000 players and a Steam user score of 92%, and that’s thanks in no small part to a renewed focus on the actual driving and a shift away from console-style presentation. Like F1 2015, it’s the proud owner of an all-new handling model which feels infinitely more granular and weighty than the quasi-arcade physics of previous DIRT games, and it brings the best out of a good force feedback wheel. The UK studio’s always been adept at bringing the knife-edge balancing act of rally driving to sim racing – let’s not forget it was they who developed Colin McRae Rally back in 1998 – but not until now have they been able to strip away all the interactive motorhome menus and Californian voiceovers to concentrate on simply delivering the best all-terrain driving model since Richard Burns Rally.
The brainchild of Will Wright was bound to show up on here at some point, and as the most updated iteration in the decades old franchise, it’s The Sims 4 that currently remains the game to beat when it comes to suburban simulation. Dressed up with rich colour and brilliant animation, The Sims 4 provides an exceptional wealth of options for self-expression, customization and, yes, simulation, and the extent of this variety only continues to grow with the regular rollout of bespoke expansion packs. The Sims 4 turns the American dream into a virtual reality, and proves that the franchise’s niche USP still has legs in an increasingly crowded market.
If you’re planning to play Kerbal Space Program, try not to get too attached to those eponymous little guys with the green skin. You’re going to be killing a lot of them, after all. Kerbal Space Program operates on an understanding of success as the sum of persistence through failure; in short, it’s going to take quite some time before your uniquely crafted ship is considered space-worthy. Every minute spent tinkering and toiling away in Kerbal Space Program is worth it, though, as developer Squad has imbued every mechanic and system with such a forensic attention to detail that the hard work of their players is always rewarded. An endlessly gratifying and entirely unique simulator which celebrates creativity and intuition in a way that no other game could, Kerbal Space Program is something of a mini masterpiece.
A slightly more in-depth sim than its series predecessor, Project Cars 2 adds new levels of realism to its racing experience. With improved car handling and a new weather system that takes into account everything from time of day to seasons to the track’s height above sea level, the game’s ultimate intent is being as realistic as conceivably possible. Yet despite this obsession with technical details, Mad Studios doesn’t lose sight of what’s really important- the pure adrenaline rush of racing around the world’s most famous tracks in over 180 real-life supercars. Whether you’re driving alone, or competing online in the game’s Online Championship mode, Project Cars 2 lets you live your most vivid racing fantasies.
Who knew a game about driving a truck could be so addictive? SCS Software did, clearly, as their trucking sim sequel is currently one of the highest rated games on Steam, sat above the likes of Dishonored, Civilization V, and Half-Life 2. The reality is that Euro Truck Simulator 2 offers that devastating blend of being both immensely relaxing and fiercely captivating, with the pleasant journeys along your designated trade routes segmented by junctures of deep strategy, as you consider factors such as fuel, finance, and furbishing your ride with new upgrades. Euro Truck Simulator 2’s greatest achievement is that it isn't just a game made for transport enthusiasts, but the appeal extends to anyone with even the slightest appreciation for the simple pleasures of the open road.
Most people will recognize the ARMA brand for its wildly popular zombie mod based off of ARMA 2, DayZ, but it is ARMA 3 which deserves some of the spotlight for what it brought to the military-sim table. Bohemia Interactive executes the essential elements of sandbox strategy with aplomb, and ARMA 3 serves as an open-ended arena for organic, dynamic war stories that can be played out with friends and foes. The depth of simulation is comprehensive, but only to a point, so as to sustain the immediacy of every interaction. Indeed, ARMA 3 can be extremely stressful and even terrifying at times, but that truth nothing less than a testament to its immersive power as an undiluted evocation of modern warfare.