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Debris sprays everywhere as one demolition racer t-bones another, turning it on its side, over the hard tarmac in Wreckfest Image: Bugbear Entertainment/THQ Nordic

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The essential racing games of Xbox Game Pass

It’s not the journey, it’s the speed at which you finish it

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There is nothing as simple as a racing game, at least on the surface.

You start at one place and have to reach the next place faster than everyone else. Filling in the rest of the details is what makes racing such a versatile genre.

A quality racing game is also one of the best ways to show off a new console; cars are technological works of art, a synthesis of engineering and aesthetics. If you want to brag about just how powerful your hardware is, model some sports cars to the best of your ability, show them racing along a beautiful countryside, and the hardware sells itself.

But racing games aren’t just about visuals, or geeking out about cars. Each one can elicit a different emotion, whether it’s relaxing you or dumping 10 gallons of adrenaline directly into your bloodstream. Racing games can be strategic, or they can rely on pure reaction time. You might think you don’t like racing games, and you may even be right, but I’d be willing to bet that the real issue is you haven’t found the right one yet. The genre has much more to offer, and so many things to express, than its reputation suggests.

Here are five of the best racing games on Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service, although the last pick is more of a choose your own adventure. The ability to dive into a genre and give it a chance without risking your money is one of the primary benefits of Game Pass. It’s not just about playing the games you already think you’ll like, it’s about the freedom to move out of your comfort zone, and into something a lot more fast.

Burnout Paradise Remastered

Burnout Paradise Remastered is an updated version of the 2008 racing game that introduced an open world to a game that used to be organized as a collection of events, mostly focused on destroying the other cars. It was all about huge crashes and loud music, and it was glorious.

Paradise kicked everything up a notch by putting you inside a city where everything seems designed for racing, or getting sick air off a ramp, or just seeing how long you can drive into oncoming traffic. It’s a playground, almost like a giant skate park in the Tony Hawk series, where you can explore every inch of the environment and make your mark by racing through events and chasing the fastest times and highest speeds.

There is always something to do, and it’s all for you. I can spend hours just zenning out, racing around, narrowly avoiding demolition, seeing just how much of the good kind of trouble I can get into with my speed and crashes.

Burnout Paradise Remastered is like Dirt 5 in that it’s a definite departure from the games that came before it, but it earns those updates by delivering a masterfully paced and designed world of joyful racing and beautiful crashes. Despite the violence and the tortured metal, this has become my happy place throughout the week.

Dirt 5

heavy vehicles race through a tropical setting in Dirt 5 Image: Codemasters

Codemasters took some heat from fans over Dirt 5, which is a much more rough-and-ready, almost arcade-style racer compared to its predecessors. It has shorter events, brighter colors, and more of a focus on the rush of bullying your opponents through the corners. Some people learned to love the new feel of the series, while others miss what has been lost. Still, this is an obvious pick for an entry into racing games as a genre.

Dirt 5 is a neon-drenched series of varied racing challenges smushed together, and it looks absolutely gorgeous on an Xbox Series X. If you’re a more casual racing fan who wants a rush of adrenaline or to see just how good a modern racing game can look, this is the place to go.

It’s very easy to get stuck in a loop of promising yourself only one more event before bed. You don’t need to be a gearhead to play, either; the options for upgrading your cars are straightforward while also being complex enough to keep the game fresh without overloading folks new to the world of cars that go very fast indeed. And don’t neglect the Playgrounds mode, which lets you race on player-created tracks or make your own; trust me when I say people are getting wild out there.

Dirt 5 may not have pleased all the longtime fans of the series, but it’s a fresh and fearless entry in the world of racing games, emphasizing a splashy presentation, variety in events and vehicles, and general excitement. Dirt 5 is eager to please and presents so many good things with so little fuss. It just wants to be loved, and I just want to be a maniac behind the wheel, so we get along very well.

SSX (2012)

The SSX reboot from 2012 was both over the top and more serious than other entries in the series. It’s not a pure racing game; in some events you’re trying to score as high as possible while snowboarding down a mountain, and in others the goal is simple survival when the route is choked with trees and boulders to avoid. But there are also plenty of races, and they are amazing, even today.

I have never been snowboarding, and I’m guessing SSX (2012) feels nothing like real snowboarding, but it feels like how I imagined the fantasy of snowboarding at this level to feel. It lets you navigate routes designed specifically to provide opportunities for tricks, plus multiple paths that may be faster, or more dangerous. It’s all wrapped up in a sense of joy from the freedom of owning the snow, of seeing how far you can push yourself to go a little faster, to jump a little higher, to hold that backflip for just a little longer.

SSX stands up in 2021, although the graphics themselves look a little dated, even when they’re upscaled through Xbox Series X backward compatibility. I would buy a remastered version of SSX in a heartbeat, but for now, its inclusion in the Game Pass library means you can give it a download and either rediscover a classic or try an amazing game for the first time.

Either way, I envy you. Falling back in love with SSX in the past week has been a wonderful journey.

Wreckfest (Xbox, PC)

Stunt drivers crash in Wreckfest Bugbear/THQ Nordic

In the Wild West days of ESPN’s first five years, that fabled time of Australian rules football, billiards, and the Worldwide Leader would also broadcast demolition derbies. My big brother and I were instant fans. There is something neurological that causes me to laugh whenever I see a big, pointless car wreck on TV. Ditto for my brother. And so we sat on the floor of the den, snickering and roaring and goddamn!-ing and sorry-mom-ing.

Car combat has been its own video game sub-genre for two decades, and even though titles like the PSOne’s Destruction Derby and the FlatOut series have tried, obliquely, to capture the mayhem of a county fair demolition derby, none has done so as thoroughly as Wreckfest, by Helsinki-based Bugbear Entertainment.

This may seem like an oxymoron, but the level of restraint in Wreckfest’s design is what makes it the perfect demo-derby race sim. There are no drivers going through the windshield, no exploding vehicles, no power-ups or health refills — all of which are typical features in other games of this variety. Bugbear, which made FlatOut, really tried to set a field of beaters and bangers that resembled real life and would behave accordingly. The roll cages, the removal of anything glass on the vehicle, the railroad-tie bumpers are all straight-from-ESPN-circa-1983 authentic.

Wreckfest launched on PC in 2018 and made its console debut a year later, which is why I’m so late to this party. In it, players have their choice of mayhem-filled events — the demolition derby, the banger race and the figure-8 race, with some variances and novelties (like school buses and RVs) in the single-player career mode. Online is as anything-goes as you’d expect in a racing game where slamming into each other is not only tolerated, it’s the point of the game. It’s very hard to get mad about a race you could have won, but you got spun out in the last lap, when that’s a legal tactic. —Owen Good

If you’re serious about driving …

We’re going to cheat a little in this final entry on the list, because many of the options for hardcore racing offer such different experiences. If you’re new to this world, we think these are the three games you should consider, and we’ll give you some guidance on how to pick two of the three to at least try. Even if you decide this style of racing game is not for you, after a few hours with some of these games, you’ll gain an educated opinion about racing and the science and art behind it.

So, pick two: Assetto Corsa, F1 2019 (Xbox, PC), or MotoGP 20 (Xbox, PC).

Four years ago, Codemasters’ F1 racing series unlocked a serious driving urge I never knew was inside of me. This is mostly thanks to an exceptional career mode, with intriguing car development choices and longterm goals that are about more than just winning the next race. I’ve no doubt that F1 2019, Assetto Corsa, or MotoGP 20 could become your next obsession, even if you view yourself as a dabbler or rookie in racing games right now.

All three games offer plenty of assists that leave room to develop and challenge yourself as a driver. Don’t be shy about using them (while driving on a gamepad, you will absolutely need anti-lock brakes in F1 2019, no matter how advanced you are). But do leave yourself enough time to understand each game’s rather long learning curve, especially MotoGP 20, where taking corners on a sport bike has a vastly different feel from doing so on four wheels.

Among this grouping of serious sims, F1 2019 and Assetto Corsa offer real-world, grand prix-level tracks and high-performance racing. It’s just that Assetto Corsa does so across multiple classes of cars, and F1 2019 is locked to 10 subtly different Formula 1 cars. Likewise, F1 2019 and MotoGP 20 offer the immersion of a licensed sports simulation with a longterm career mode, focusing on a created driver.

For newcomers to this level of motorsports sim, realize that extracting the most out of your car or bike is going to require tuning its setup for the particular course or race you are about to run. That requires understanding what alterations you can make and how they affect the car. Or you can do what I do, which is go to a site like RealSport 101, whose F1 setup guides and MotoGP 20 beginner’s guide are useful for all racing teams and all levels of experience.

Finding what you need can also be as simple as Googling the game’s title, the track you’re running, and the word “setup.” Even five years after its launch, Assetto Corsa has robust official and unofficial forums where gearheads exchange information.

If you only give one of these games a shot, make it F1 2019, which is the most accessible of the three. But for all of them, you’ll probably have a gut feeling, early on, as to whether the game as a whole provides enough intrigue or incentive to make it worthwhile to learn its technical demands. I had that a-ha moment very early into my time with F1 2017, and I’ve poured hundreds of hours into serious motorsports games ever since. —OSG