You’re here because you want to know what the best simulation games for PC are right now. The all-time greats still worth playing; the sims with modding communities who breathe eternal life into them; the facsimiles of an aspect of reality so niche you can barely fathom their existence.
Sims differ from other PC games in that their raison d'être isn’t necessarily to entertain, at least not primarily. You want fun and excitement? Tough. Operating a submarine is neither. It is, however, fascinating, terrifying, and hugely satisfying as a long-form experience.
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 communties 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 best flight simulator
Flight Simulator X
When people say the word 'simulator,' Microsoft's imperious and encyclopaedic aviation behemoth is the first game that springs to mind. It's inevitable - like picturing a Christian Bale in a clear raincoat flecked with blood whenever you hear Huey Lewis and the News.
It's rare for a sim to be so all-encompassing that it can provide both light entertainment to the curious casual gamer who wants to fly fighter jets under bridges with a gamepad, and valuable education to a budding pilot ensconced in a home-made cockpit - but such is FSX's scope.
In a recurring theme throughout this feature, mod support plays a huge role in its prolonged lifespan. At this point, all FSX's best planes and environment maps come from third parties, which means to get the most out of it you'll need to invest a fair few hours gathering .zips of high-res textures before you fly.
The best free-to-play simulator
Perhaps the best thing about this air-and-ground combat sim is that it's very easy to just plunge into it, get a decent idea of its systems and start having fun right away. Try saying that about Flight Simulator X with a straight face.
If you're after sheer volume of machinery, War Thunder's WW2/Korean War era roster exceeds 300 aircraft. Each can be piloted using arcade (boo!) or simulation physics models to blast away at airborne adversaries playing on both PC and consoles - its servers know no platform boundaries. Which, of course, means there's usually plenty of easy meat for PC players to pick off.
If War Thunder's skies offer an opportunity for a quick joyride and a bit of sightseeing, ground combat in its tanks offers the exact opposite - its steel beasts move at such a glacial pace that you're constantly on high alert, scanning for enemies in the scrubland. Whoever fires first in War Thunder's land battles almost always carries away the spoils.
The USA, Russia, Britain, Germany and Japan all wage war here, each with their own particular mechanical strengths (there's a long-running argument converning Soviet machinery bias in this area), weaknesses... and convoluted upgrade paths. If you're averse to grinding, this might not be the sim for you. If you're after a WW2 war sim with an enormous community that you can start playing with no financial outlay, though... well, your demands are very specific, and War Thunder's your sim.
The bad boy of train simulators
Train Simulator 2016
Train Simulator 2016 has some big problems, and a risible pricing model - and yet, it's unquestionably the best way to travel the world's best-known and most historic railways without leaving the comfort of your PC gaming dungeon. It's a tricky one.
If you already own Train Simulator 2015, this year's game is available as a free update that adds a shiny new UI, expanded tutorials and better search functionality. However, it also includes new trains and routes that you can buy by either shelling out TS2016 as a standalone game, or purchasing them seperately. Currently the game has over £3000/$5000 of DLC on its Steam store page, carrying over from title to title dating back to 2014, with individual routes and trains costing as much as £24.99/$27.99 each.
That pricing model is bewildering at best, and yet armchair locomotion enthusiasts have no better option than TS. Routes are exceptionally detailed, trains include familiar domestic and exotic historical machinery, and while the series has yet to make the jump to Unreal Engine 4 as promised, it boasts higher visual detail than its limited rivals.
The best sports management simulator (and worst anger management therapy)
Football Manager 2017
Of course it's not the best sports management simulator - it's the dumbest game ever and it doesn't even make any sense anyway and I swear I'm done with it, seriously this time. At least that's how you'll feel after going on a bad run in FM 2017, when your promotion bid is faltering or you've exited three competitions in two weeks or the chairman has just invited you into his office for a 'serious chat'.
But even the rage that Football Manager can elicit is proof of its quality. There are few, if any, games out there which cause the emotional highs and lows of SI Games' perennial series, and even fewer which have engendered such dedication in the player base. We're all familiar with the ended marriages, but feature films and installations and even real, physical books have been written about the cult of FM.
And this year's instalment really is the best yet. Match engine tweaks have helped smooth over certain bugs (crossing is no longer so overpowered, for instance) while graphical and optimization improvements make things look and run that much smoother. The lure of Football Manager has always been the paradoxical feeling that you have a lack of control over how your team performs, yet simultaneously you know that all the tools are at your fingertips. It's this that makes us love and hate it like no other.
(If you want a helping hand to try and avoid those rage blackouts, check out our list of the best FM 2017 wonderkids you can buy.)
The best making people happy simulator
What is the most important part of running a theme park? A cynic, financier or theme park owner would say it’s money, but we think it’s making people happy. That… and money. Planet Coaster is all about managing both of those things as you build a theme park up from a pitiful collection of pre-built rides to a sprawling maze of themed zones and behemoth coasters. Over the course of that transformation you’ll have to hire and fire a lot of staff, micromanage every store and facility in your park to ensure you’re drawing as much cash out of it as possible, and then repurpose that cash by building roller coasters. You can also track every guest that enters your park like an almighty deity, allowing you to see how different types of people respond to changes in your park, what’s lacking and what they like.
The flipside of all of that management is that you get to create a park that people genuinely want to visit, and one you can watch over with pride. While you can fill your park with only premade rides, buildings and shops, you can also decorate those uniform blocks with hundreds of customisable shapes and objects and then share the finished structure on the Steam Workshop. As with any game that lends players that much creative control, Planet Coaster has some of the most bizarre and impressive creations around.
The best simulator for launching dongs into space
Kerbal Space Program
You know a space flight simulator’s doing something right when NASA and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk start getting interested. Despite the cutesy appearance of its astronauts, Kerbal Space Program is an incredibly detailed physics-based space sim which lets you design and construct your own spacecraft before launching it into orbit and then doing impossibly complicated things like docking with other vessels or landing your wobbly phallic construct on the moon.
Since the earliest version of KSP released in 2011, its community sprang into action with mods, written and video tutorials, and a cornucopia of user-created spacecraft to try out for yourself. Its popularity prompted NASA - as in actual NASA - to reach out to developers Squad and collaborate with them to create new in-game content based on real missions.
Is it 100% realistic? Given that it's simulating one of the most complicated human endeavours ever undertaken and letting you have a go with your mouse and keyboard, there's an element of creative licensing. However - it's about as close as the medium has produced. Every physical object in the game abides by Newtonian dynamics, which is why that rocket you built to look like Gary Busey's face collapsed and burned itself to cinders the second you hit the thrusters. Its model of orbital mechanics has also been praised by those in a position to assess that sort of thing.
The best driving simulator, period
While the likes of Project CARS and Grid Autosport may offer a more coherent driving game experience, with a sense of career progression and other such bells and whistles, Assetto Corsa recreates the sensation of driving a fast car better than any other. It's simply magnificent in its purity, delivering an all-encompassing sense of realism and immersion with stellar sound design and a physics model that justifies that £300 you spent on a force feedback wheel while your children starved. It was made using lasers, apparently.
Kunos Simulazioni made their game tremendously tweakable too, which has given rise to a host of custom profile settings for those aforementioned force feedback wheels, and allows all manner of visual customisation. A few minutes adjusting sliders, and Assetto Corsa is as comfortable as an old shoe. A shoe that can lap Spa Francorchamps in under two minutes and leave your hands numb from trying to wrestle its 500 BHP engine through Les Combes.
Crucially, it's also proved a fantastic platform for the racing sim community's most talented modders. The car and track roster available at launch is respectable if not voluminous, but the sheer breadth and quality of its user-created additions turns Assetto Corsa into an endless playground of automotive hijinks.
The best... haulage simulator?
Euro Truck Simulator 2
An oft-vented argument about Euro Truck Sim is that it isn't aspirational; people play flight simulators because it's incredibly difficult and financially prohibitive to become a pilot, and relatively easy to get a job driving lorries by contrast. The counter argument? Euro Truck Sim 2 exists so you don't have to get a job driving lorries.
On one hand, it's therapeutic. Cruising the dual carriageways of Northern Italy at just below the legal speed limit while a local radio station plays unintelligably is pure nourishment for the soul. On the other, it's a supreme challenge. Defeated the Fume Knight in Dark Souls II, have you? Come back when you've parallel-parked a Scania R Highline carrying a yacht after a night drive from Luxembourg to Budapest.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of SCS Software's simulation is that it is ostensibly driving, but not quite as you know it. Forget everything racing games taught you about turning circles. Forget what they taught you about mirrors, too - no longer do they exist simply to illustrate the crash you caused with your reckless weaving. Now they're an essential component of your driving experience, crucial to turning any corner greater than 10 degrees without scraping thousands off your salary.
As with any sim worth its salt, Euro Truck Simulator 2 has a considerable haul of mods, crafted by the loving hands of its community. The base game offers thousands of kilometers of real estate and no shortage of vehicles, but there's a wealth of additional trucks, maps, liveries and sound packs out there.
The best naval combat simulator
Silent Hunter 4
Contary to their depiction in film, submarines aren't sleek, agile instruments of death. They're vulnerable at sea level, and all but blind below it. They hunt for freighters in the incomprehensibly vast ocean for days at a time, and when they do engage in combat it moves at a kind of perpetual bullet time. If ever a subject matter didn't lend itself to videogames, submarine combat is it.
But Silent Hunter 4 isn't a videogame. It's a ruthlessly realistic sim for only the most sun-averse naval commanders, complete with a control room full of unfriendly dials and crew members whose admiration for their superior prohibits them from emitting as much as a whimper when you guide your sub towards certain death. Mother nature’s just as deadly as your Axis opponents down here at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Released way back in 2007 when YouTube was in nappies, SH4 almost eligible for a state pension at this point. Although later iterations have modernised its visuals, they haven’t bested its atmosphere and tension, and its freeform career mode, played from the Allied perspective in the Pacific theatre of war, is still the best simulated submariner experience on offer.
The best simulator for side-swiping Lewis Hamilton
In some respects, Codemasters’ F1 series has been on something of a downward trajectory for several years, with enjoyable additions such as historical content stripped out and the game’s once lavish career mode now reduced to a single championship season in one of the real drivers’ flame retardant booties. However, beneath this year’s disconcertingly bare game lies the best driving the series has ever offered.
F1 2015 arrives with an all-new handling model that articulately conveys the grippiness and volatility of a modern F1 car. Brakes must be applied like you’re taking home a box of eggs in the footwell; turn-in points precisely anticipated and throttle modulated as your V6 engine does its best to squirm away from your control.
There are numerous other ways to chase the F1 rush – Assetto Corsa and Project CARS offer something approaching top-tier open wheeled racing, and modders have built damn good approximations of the sport in every sim from rFactor to GTR2. But F1 2015 offers fully licensed cars and tracks, both rendered with impressive detail, without the need to unRAR a single file or visit the game directory once. Its wheel support is improving year-on-year, too.
The best driving simulator with mud on its tyres
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, t'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.
There are no doubt those among you who’d reort that RBR is still the superior rally sim, enriched by some 14 years of mod development. And while it’s true that the sheer volume and quality of user-generated content is beyond formidable at this point, there’s a lot of hoop-jumping involved to get RBR running properly, with mods, on a modern PC at 1080p and above. It's time to move on and accept that DIRT Rally is the future of low-traction motoring mayhem.
The other best non-combat flight simulator
X-Plane 10 Global
There are two very distinct schools of thought when it comes to commercial flight sims. Some prefer Flight Sim X's all-you-can-eat buffet of addon content, other swear Laminar's blade element theory-based flight model (which actually simulates air) makes for a livelier, more realistic journey. Trying to ascertain superiority between the two is a fool's errand, really. It's a matter of personal taste.
X-Plane 10's physics model definitely feels different. Wings bend more visibly and weight is conveyed more tangibly than in FSX, thanks to an underpinning system that calculates a plane's behaviour according to its 3D model and engine output, then simulates the air's behaviour as that model tears through it.
While its ATC and traffic AI are often derided in comparison for guiding you into suicidal manoeuvres, its helicopters are regarded as much more convincing by those in the know.
Its chief drawback is the low-detail landscape textures you'll find in the base game, drawn by an autogen system that can leave some areas disconcertingly unpopulated and big cities/airports lacking realistic details. However, it makes for much more spectacular night-time flying, cities glimmering on your windshied as you descend through the clouds.
The best tractor simulator. Also possibly the worst.
Farming Simulator 15
"Here, want to have a go in this tractor?" It's a redundant sentence, isn't it? Because of course you do. There's a switch buried deep within our psyche that gets flipped on at some point in early childhood and continues to keep a fascinated eye on farming machinery forevermore. That is the reason Farming Simulator 15 exists.
Like F1 2015 and this year's Football Manager, Farming Sim isn't immune to complaints levelled against its game design. but even if it leaves your eye for realism with its eyebrow firmly arched, as a sim it indulges your darkest argicultural desires with aplomb. Farming itself is a surprisingly player-directed experience; there's little to guide you along the word of fluctuating crop prices and land management beyond your own trial and error.
The actual physics simulation lying beneath the game doesn't feel like a particularly stable foundation - tractors stop dead in their tracks at the slightest contact with a three-foot wooden fence, but are able to mow down pedestrians without a milisecond's throttle modulation.
The important thing, though, is that they're visually resplendent in their muddy liveries, and boast all the requisite knobs and levers required to indulge your pornographic fascination. And just because its physics aren't on a par with the best sims on this list, that doesn't mean we're talking Crazy Taxi here - keeping your lines straight and loading crops onto trailers requires the same patience and practice required to keep Assetto Corsa's Pagani Zonda facing the right way, or land a chopper in X-Plane 10.
Not strictly a simulator
Surgeon Simulator 2013
Okay, so it won’t teach you much in the way of practical surgery skills in the same way Flight Simulator X might aid your piloting prowess – but Surgeon Sim deserves a mention as the cream of the parody sim crop. The sub-genre's rise was inevitable in the wake of straight-faced offerings such as RECYCLE: Garbage Truck Simulator and a certain Scandinavian YouTuber's proclivity for offbeat games to stream. But while Goat Simulator et al reveal themselves to be one-note gag games pretty quickly, Bossa's Surgeon Simulator 2013 walks the line perfectly between medical procedure, slapstick comedy, and Wes Craven horror flick.
What would it be like to perform a heart bypass in space? Could you accurately remove a man's stomach while hampered by magnetic, triple-jointed hands? How many scalpel stab wounds to the small intestine is too many? Why is a highly skilled surgeon still using a beige early '90s PC to store his patient records? These are the weighty questions that Surgeon Simulator 2013 asks. The answer is always a floor littered with surgical tools and a gaping abdominal cavity full of floppy disks and wrist watches.
The best combat flight simulator
IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs Of Dover
Cliffs Of Dover wasn't anything like the supreme fight-and-flight extraordinairre it is today when it first rumbled apologetically down the runway in 2011, but a series of staggeringly high-quality patches from Norway-based collective Team Fusion now leave it worthy of its IL-2 Sturmovik moniker. Performance issues have been ironed out, and the original, notoriously dodging AI fixed with more sensible routines.
There are new aircraft variants in the modern-day Cliffs Of Dover, too, and the original planes enjoy a physics rework that improves ground handling (much more challenging than in 1C's base game, but much more realistic). Airborne manoeuvrability has been tweaked for realism and more engaging dogfights, too. In short, it's an immeasurably better game than the one that appeared, sniffling and coughing, four years ago - all thanks to Team Fusion. Their patch is now up to version 4.312, and you should definitely download it before playing.
The best, and most unsympathetic, war simulator
ARMA 3 doesn't care about you. It doesn't care if you're having fun, and it doesn't care about your k:d in Call Of Duty. ARMA 3 cares about one thing, and one thing only: realism.
It's the kind of shooter in which you spend more time looking at your map and compass than down the ironsights of your TRG assualt rifle, and gunfights play out with hundreds of metres separating combatants. When you see a tank, your first instinct is to pull out your radio, not an RPG launcher. Every single key on your keyboard has its own unique function. It's basically terrifying.
But from your first petrified footsteps through its enormous theatres of war, when you see the chopper in the sky above you and realise someone's flying that, ARMA 3's hardcore appeal permeates. There's a reason so many of its Steam reviews come from players with thousand of hours of play time.
Those reviewers will mention its myriad annoying bugs, and they'll also all agree that they don't ruin Bohemia's fantastically large-scale combat sim. There is a solo campaign, but it's in the multiplayer sandbox that the real long game lies. It's here, under the scrutiny of dozens of other players, that you'll try to pilot a helicopter for the first time and take to the skies with the finesse of a daddy long legs. It's here you'll learn to move as one infantry unity, and use voice comms not for blaring Belgian techno or schoolyard insults, but useful, concise communication. On the internet. That's ARMA 3's power.