Project CARS hands-on preview: a hardcore racing fan’s dream

Developed by the irreverently-named Slightly Mad Studios, Project Cars is but one of three major racing games burning rubber on the track this fall—the others being DRIVECLUB and The Crew—that’ll no doubt give petrol heads reason to burn a hole in their wallets. We were lucky enough to go hands-on with the Namco Bandai-published racer in London recently, and it’s obvious from our slightly embarrassing attempts at trying to conquer Silverstone that Project Cars is a serious contender for best racer of 2014. 

This isn’t a racer targeted at casual fans, however. Project Cars is aimed more at tight, lengthy bouts against legions of AI-controlled opponents than a quick arcade jaunt. This was abundantly clear after strapping ourselves into one of the game’s shiny powerhouse vehicles, where the slightest hiccup could cost you an entire race. Slightly Mad Studios has crafted a game where taking a methodical approach, not simply putting your foot down and hoping for the best, will prove key to victory. It’s very much a learning game; meticulously planning out every turn, learning when to break, and familiarizing yourself with the nuances of your chosen car and its controls. It’s about as hardcore as you can get, which will no dout appease racing simulation fans. 

Speeding around the familiar, quintessentially British race track that is Silverstone proved a valuable lesson in this respect. Yet, despite its tone being more realistic than some, Project Cars is remarkably user-friendly. While only one vehicle was on offer, it’s certainly an indicator of how the game will perform; steering our flash motor proved smooth and responsive, and there’s a palpable sense that you are in complete control of the car. Whether you want to brake quickly or ease off on the accelerator just a pinch, Project Cars responds accordingly. Furthermore, if you find yourself in a spin and out of the race, a quick tap on the Touchpad will set you neatly back on course. 

Pleasingly, the AI is also top notch, and you’ll be fighting tooth and nail just to scrape into a meaningful position, let alone actually maintain it until the white flag. Rival cars will be snapping at your rear view mirror, attempt to bump you off-track—leading to some particularly nasty skids that can completely disrupt your equilibrium—-and generally making it a task to overtake. I found this particularly refreshing, as it’s not often you are met with such a challenge in a racer that didn’t involve going up against fellow players online. 

Of course, Project Cars is not only mechanically-sound, it’s also one of the most sumptuous looking racers you’ll clap eyes on. From the beautifully-realized vehicles to the squint-inducing sun glaze as you cruise past your rivals during dusk hours, Slightly Mad Studios has cobbled together a visual stunner that is sure to give the likes of DRIVECLUB a run for its money.

The weather effects are gorgeous, and various options allow you to tweak everything from the time of day to weather conditions. One race transitioned seamlessly from the hazy splendor of evening to a star-coated night sky; it’s stunning to look at in motion, and while Namco couldn’t divulge if the game was running at 60fps/1080p, the demo didn’t have any hiccups from what we experienced.

Project Cars is scheduled for release on November 21 for PS4, PC, and Xbox One.