Fast, fun, and free: Racing games for your PC

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These days you don't need to spend a dime to enjoy some seriously adrenaline-drenched automotive action: I've collected five excellent racing games that you can download for free and play to your heart's content.

Rubber, Meet Road

Games are all about make-believe, but some are more realistic than others. The first two games in this roundup qualify as simulators, and can feel almost too realistic, especially if you're just looking for a quick rush.

Dolphinity Racer is the most hard-core of the bunch: It serves as the basis for expensive racing simulators built by Cruden, it has no installer, and it incorporates painstakingly realistic physics. Driving a car in Racer feels very much like driving a real car, and not always in a fun way: The vehicle can easily swerve out of control, and getting started driving takes quite a bit of patience, especially if you're used to more toylike racing games.

One level away from Racer's uncompromising realism is Driving Speed 2. Driving Speed 2 feels a bit more like a game, though your car can still easily drift and spin out of control. If your car rubs up against the sidewall as you race, you will see sparks fly. It will also collect dents as you bump into walls and other cars, but it won't easily flip over or lend itself to crazy aerobatics. Driving Speed 2 runs only in full-screen mode, so if you have to lower your monitor's default resolution to get it to run smoothly, the graphics may end up looking stretched and pixelated.

Racer, Meet Cop

Now that we're covered uncompromising realism, let's move on to games that put fun first. Need For Speed World is a massively multiplayer online racing game first released in 2010 by Electronic Arts. As befits an entry in the long-running Need For Speed franchise, Need For Speed World features beautiful graphics, dozens of cars, and copious amounts of action.

You can race against other players from all over the world, participate in single-player events in which you dodge the cops in crazy urban car chases, gain in rank, and buy new vehicles. Need For Speed World lets you buy in-game SpeedBoost for real-world money, and then use the SpeedBoost to buy cars and other items, but you don't have to buy SpeedBoost to have fun and level up.

You will need to log in to the Need For Speed servers every time you start the game, and the game doesn't offer to remember your password, which can be annoying at times.

Flights of Fancy

Need For Speed World doesn't try too hard to stay in the real world, but it does feature real-world cars. The same can't be said about the next two games, which eschew any pretense of realism in favor of magical aerobatics, otherworldly visuals, and generally awesome gameplay.

First comes Trackmania Nations Forever. Like Need For Speed, Trackmania Nations Forever emphasizes online gameplay against friends and strangers. But Trackmania Nations Forever specializes in tracks that include crazy loops, ramps that cause your car to leap for yards, and more. For people who don't enjoy network multiplayer mode, Trackmania Nations Forever includes an addictive single-player mode with plenty of beautifully designed maps, each containing three medal achievement levels. You unlock new maps gradually, by winning medals in previous maps.

Finally, there's Nitronic Rush. This gorgeous Tron-like racing game offers fast and furious action on neon maps that move so fast that they sometimes become disorienting. Your car can jump and even sprout wings and fly for short bursts of time. Nitronic Rush was designed to work with either a keyboard or an XBox 360 controller, but it also worked very well with my Logitech Rumble Gamepad. The gamepad vibrated whenever I hit a wall (which was often enough), and the controls were intuitive to use.

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