<i>Project CARS</i> is that rare sort of game that boasts a healthy ambition in the run up to its release and then actually manages to deliver on it. It gives itself to you, completely, the moment you fire it up and encourages you to play it your way. This, alone, sets it so far apart from most other racing simulators that it may leave you unsure about what to do next.
Racing sims have been railroading players down lengthy progression paths full of unlockable vehicles and tracks to give a sense of climbing through the ranks and becoming a better and more successful driver. It meant if you wanted to drive the coolest cars, you had to grind for them. They had to be earnt. <i>Project CARS</i> doesn’t want a bar of that and the result is that it’s rather disorienting to begin with.
I automatically jumped into the career mode, which kicks off in the 125cc Go Kart competition because 25 years of experience with other games told me to do so. I drove those god damned Go Karts around for <i>hours</i> before I figured out I could just quit the competition and jump into any race I wanted, even the top-tier, really high-powered stuff, at any time. In fact there isn’t a single thing in the game locked behind a progression, experience or cash wall. Every part of the game is ready and available immediately and I think it’s a real shame that <i>Project CARS</i> doesn’t really explain that part of itself very well because for a game like this, the fucking Go Karts are the absolute worst place to start.
Developer Slightly Mad Studios (known for the excellent <i>Need For Speed: Shift</i> games) have gone to some pretty extraordinary lengths to create a simulator of class and integrity. Vehicle handling has been recreated in exhausting detail (which is why starting in Karts is a goddamned mistake, they teach you nothing about the game but bad habits) and it’s a real feather in Slightly Mad’s cap that, when you jump between classes like that – from Karts to actual cars – you can really feel the difference in handling, the way the weight shifts and how they’re geared differently. You don’t usually run into that sort of thing unless it’s predicated by something in the environment.
And, man, does <i>Project CARS</i> have some environment changes to throw at you. You can play around with the weather effects in the pre-race menus and you can apply more than one if you like – have the weather progress from a light drizzle at the top of the race to clear blue skies and then a full blown thunderstorm on the third lap. For a bit of extra fun, throw it on random and watch what happens – you won’t regret it. It’s gorgeously implemented too – rain spatters realistically on windshields and vehicle models, tyres churn water off the road into a mist, the sun blasts through the clouds whenever it can find the room and driving in a thunderstorm is a genuinely stressful experience.
There are stacks of tracks from all over the globe, real and imagined, that fill all of the usual race types. Classic circuit courses like Bathurst, Spa, Laguna Seca and Brand’s Hatch (a track that is a special kind of horrific all its own and quickly became my arch enemy). You’ve also got point-to-point tracks, the Azure Coast along the French Riviera and a stretch of Californian Highway. Tracks are buried in lovely set dressing – you’ll be racing through forests, alpine regions, deserts, long ocean-side highways. There’s also a few open tracks that let you do your own thing as long as you’re aware that driving into a sand trap will see you punished for any true off-road dalliance and there are no-nonsense closed tracks on which any negligent driving will be rewarded with your car being pinballed aggressively about the track.
And that was were my only real gripes with <i>Project CARS</i> came into play – it can’t seem to make up its mind on what constitutes being on or off the track. I was brought to the edge of complete fury during many qualifying laps when I’ve come too close to the edge of the track and, even though I didn’t actually leave it, the game has disqualified my lap time. I’ve also been penalised for reckless driving when the problem was actually the driving AI pinwheeling about the track, pranging into everything in sight, including me. As much as you can tweak the AI’s difficulty settings, they seem to be a bunch of amnesiacs a lot of the time – sometimes they’d act as though I wasn’t even there, swinging wildly into my side, and at other times they’d become super aggressive in blocking me out and pushing for the best racing lines.
I think my main problem with the AI is that I’ve just been spoilt rotten by <i>Forza</i>’s Drivatars. As incredible a simulation as Slightly Mad have put together here, their AI is far more traditional and pales in comparison to Turn 10’s supergenius driving robots. Having said that, when <i>Project CARS</i>’s AI are on point they become a significant challenge – they’ll take incredible risks, fight tooth and nail for positions and really make you push yourself to compete. Whenever it isn’t in this magic, aggressive mode, however, the AI wobbles between bland and “dumb as a box of hair”.
The other issue I had came from the game’s controls. <i>Project CARS</i> is rather obviously meant to be played with a racing wheel. Using my PS4 controller felt a bit fiddly and some of the higher powered vehicles became downright argumentative, especially when I had some of the weather effects on. It took a bit of getting used to but I eventually came to a point where I was able to maneuver perhaps not as well as I’d like in the higher-powered vehicles but well enough that I could navigate the course without sliding into every single wall.
For those racing sim fans who are into their slider bars, charts and graphs, are you ever in for a treat. If you thought <i>Gran Turismo</i> went overboard with the slider bars, you haven’t seen anything yet. Every last part of your vehicle can be played around with and the game encourages you to do so because this tweaking is essentially the game’s equivalent of difficulty levels. You can make your car as easy or as hard to control as you please and I can see motorsport enthusiasts losing hours to moving those bars around until they get their set up right and their car feels just so.
There is an absolutely enormous online multiplayer component to <i>Project CARS</i> too (indeed, the CARS in the title is an acronym standing for “Community Assisted Racing Simulator”). There’s the Career and Solo modes where you can hoon about to your hearts content on your own, but there’s also the Online and Community sections as well. Online allows you to jump into a pub game solo or with a group. You can also set up a private lobby if you’d rather race with just your friends without having to put up with trolls or bad drivers. If you’re the one hosting the game, you get to decide what the rules for the race are and, should you leave, the role of the host will transfer to another player.
A feature I found particularly neat was the ability to arrange a race at a particular time. As players filtered into the lobby, I could set the game to allow for mid-session features so they could head out and run a few qualifying laps while we waited for the race to actually start. It’s smart design and I’d like to see more of it. Pulling into the pit gives you a new appreciation for what professional race drivers go through while stranded in there. Rivals whip past and your position begins to drop, your anxiety increases and by the time your crew drop the car and give you the all-clear, you’re straining at the leash to get back out there. Wonderful stuff.
Your Driver Network Profile tracks a crazy amount of metrics from every race you enter and over time it generates an incredibly clear picture of you as a driver. The data doesn’t lie – if you’re reckless, prone to aggressive tactics or even fond of ignoring tire wear, it’ll show up on your profile for others to see prior to the race. It’s a smart way to gather information on your opponents and strategise accordingly.
Finally, lets take a moment to talk about the visuals. I can’t praise Slightly Mad’s artists enough for the work they’ve put into every part of this world, but the detail work on the vehicles needs to be singled out. These are pristine car models, recreated with an obsessive eye for detail. They look just as good as the real thing and at times you forget that you’re looking at something running on a console – this is as close to photorealistic as I’ve seen a racing sim get. The lighting is beautiful, the textures are crisp and the reflections are so pretty to look at they can become distracting (I actually had to switch to an internal view to stop myself from looking at it). It’s phenomenal work.
<i>Project CARS</i> is a work of obvious love for the sport and dedication to the racing community. It makes a lot of really smart design decisions and it dresses in its very best for the occasion. This is a game with manners and racing enthusiasts are well and truly going to get their money’s worth.
<b>Review Score:</b> 8.5 out of 10
<b>Highlights:</b> Incredibly realistic simulation; everything available right away
<b>Lowlights:</b> Some questionable line calls; better with a wheel than a controller
<b>Developer:</b> Slightly Mad Studios
<b>Publisher:</b> Bandai Namco Games
<b>Released:</b> May 7, 2015
<b>Platform:</b> PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
<i>Reviewed on PlayStation 4</i>