There’s a brand-spanking new racer on the tracks, and it’s tearing up the rulebook. Project CARS ditches the progression-based, grinding XP system so common in console racing games and throws everything it has at players right from the get-go, with a sandbox experience that allows you to dive straight into any type of race and choose any track or car you like without the need to unlock content.
It’s a brave move by developer Slightly Mad Studios to move away from such a tried-and-tested formula, but it actually works rather well. Though Project CARS occasionally lacks that satisfying feeling of achievement you get from unlocking new content or progressing through the ranks, it does give you complete freedom to forge your own story and carve out your own experiences, while cutting out the stuffy content that essentially just gets you to where you actually wanted to be in the first place.
Project CARS is a racing simulator complete with real-world variables such as tire wear and grip, fuel usage, car damage, and suspension settings. Like any racing sim, it requires players to have an understanding of car handling in the real-world. However, on its easiest setting, with automatic gears, no vehicle degradation, and all assists turned on, it feels easy enough to pick-up-and-play, with the main lesson being that you need to take it a little easy around corners. Simply put, you won’t be drifting around corners Need for Speed style.
Whack the difficulty up a notch (remove assists and switch to manual gears), and Project CARS takes on a whole new demeanour with its expert setting catering for the core racing sim audience who understand how to tune a car for maximum performance. In the higher difficulty settings, or in the online arena, it’s pretty safe to say you’re going to get left behind if you don’t get a grip of the basics in car tuning. In Project CARS, there are no upgrades available, so the only way to improve the performance of your car is by tweaking its parameters.
Indeed, petrol heads are well-served here, with car porn delivered by the handful thanks to the sheer amount of tracks, cars, and customization options. The latter allows players to fiddle around with the likes of brake tuning, tire pressure, and balance between the front and rear of the car. There’s also the option to set up pit stop strategies, change your HUD layout, and tweak almost any aspect of race day. Project CARS is built around realism and its challenge comes from understanding how your car handles, amending your strategies based on weather conditions and track layouts, and learning how to get the most out of your ride.
From the menu, players are presented with four choices: Career, Solo, Online, and Driver Network. It’s worth noting that PSU has not had access to any online matches, which cater for up to 16 players, prior to this review. Nor have we played any community events which are hosted via the Driver Network. We’ll be providing our online impressions at a later date, as it’s an area where Project CARS should really excel. Our review score does not reflect these areas.
With 65+ cars on offer from the outset, it’s fantastic to be able to just jump into your favourite vehicles, though it’s a little disappointing to see the omission of some major brands like as Ferrari and Lamborghini (update: DLC is incoming with those two specific brands and more). And though Project CARS doesn’t offer a GT-quality range of vehicles, it does cover virtually every base, from the Caterham Superlight R500 and its impressive 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds to the growling McLaren P1 and its twin-turbocharged V8 engine. There’s European GT cars, retro tourers, Le Man Prototypes, and much more on offer, and you can view them in all their stat-filled glory in ‘My Garage’ before you make your choice. Indeed, Project CARS is all about choice, not to mention a fair amount of experimentation.
The track list certainly doesn’t fail to impress, with fan favourites Monza, Nurburgring, and Hockenheimring swelling the roster to a massive 110 courses. Each track is faithfully recreated with correct elevations, turns, and stadia mimicking their real world counterparts. This really means there’s something for everyone, from long road courses with elevation changes like Willow Springs International to the likes of Sakitto in Japan, with its figure-eight track and infamous ferris wheel towering in the background. The attention to detail is quite astonishing.
Meanwhile, the career mode is packed with progression tracks, from the Tier 1 LMP1 championship through to the Tier 8 kart races. Each option offers something a little different in terms of the cars you drive and the type of races you partake in, and once you complete one season, you can dive in and try something else. Despite the sandbox structure, there are some overall historic goals that can be completed or ignored, such is Project CARS’ eagerness to encourage you to play how you want. These range from ‘Zero to Hero’ (inspired by Lewis Hamilton’s career), which tasks players with winning the LMP1 World Championship, to Triple Crown, where players need to win three championships in three different motorsport disciplines. Though this gives those who need it some initial focus on what to aim for (rather than just being thrown into a mass of options wondering where they should begin), the beauty of Project CARS is that it doesn’t have any limitations. Being able to experiment and enjoy whatever you wish from the outset is a huge bonus.
The career mode is supplemented with a dashboard that keeps you up-to-date with news from other events–a digital magazine, of sorts. There’s also feedback to spur you on and tips from the in-game engineer to take on board as well as a calendar of events for each season to dip into. Bizarrely, there’s also a fake social media aspect to the dash where your fans ‘tweet’ messages which get more fanatical and creepy as you gain in reputation. Apart from this bizarre addition (which we found a little pointless), the dashboard acts as an attractive hub of information that keeps you up-to-date intuitively with your progress and provides a well-laid-out overview of your current status.
Even without any traditional XP or leveling system, Project CARS does provide rewards via accolades, like winning championships or stretch goals like 30 career podiums. You can even unlock special events this way via private invite, or be courted by other teams. The main reward in Project CARS, however, comes from mastering the tracks and tinkering with your rides to get the most out of them, shaving precious seconds off lap times. On the track, Project CARS takes a lot of mastering. Car handling starts off feeling a little stiff, punishing you for the slightest mistake and teaching you quickly to respect bumps, rumble strips, and corners. After remembering that I wasn’t playing DRIVECLUB, we started being more cautious coming into corners, understanding the need to let our foot off the throttle earlier rather than braking abruptly in order to glide around corners. Indeed, recovering from an oversteer takes a lot of time–far more than we’ve seen in other racing games. Learning to adapt and constantly iterate on your best times is what it’s all about.
On the track, Project CARS certainly captures the speed, handling, and authenticity of race day through the cars you drive, but in opponent AI, things start to go a little downhill. Project CARS still seems like a work-in-progress in that respect, with a number of issues giving us cause for concern. Crashes and minor scrapes with other cars, for instance, lack any consistency. One second, a small nudge at low speed can send you spinning off the track if another car catches your tail side, yet in the same race, when we attempted a side-on smack, the opponent simply ghosted straight through us. A.I. behaviour can be a little strange, too. During packed starting grids on some courses, they’ll bunch up around the first corner and get tangled up like novices holding up everyone behind them. We also found myself sticking like a magnet to the back of some cars for a few seconds around corners, which felt like some sort of glitch as we struggled to shake them off.
Graphics, on the other hand, are consistently great, with strong reflections, bloom effects and weather transitions on par with DRIVECLUB. The track detail is magnificent, with realistic backdrops adding to the authenticity of racing on familiar tracks. The use of lighting and vibrant colours is, however, both impressive and disappointing. While the sun casts impressive shadows over the tracks, and the day and night cycle brings a level of realism to the races, the night races occasionally suffer due to the lack of lighting around some courses, which makes it unnecessarily difficult to navigate. Meanwhile, though car interiors look stunning in detail, some exteriors (while using the third-person cam) are so colourful that some vehicles come off looking a little cartoony.
In summary, Project CARS isn’t quite the complete package as it stands right now, with our main gripe being the performance of enemy A.I. and some of the glitches we’ve encountered. Nevertheless, it does feel like it’s built for a long-term audience, a community-focused racer that will no doubt keep on growing and improving. And Project CARS actually turns out to be more accessible than you might think in terms of the way the cars handle on the easiest setting, despite the fact that it’s obviously designed for the core simulation fans. With so much on offer from the outset, the sandbox approach is refreshing, while its scenery and track design never fails to impress. The cars are a lot of fun to drive, too, and the challenge of tuning your car and nailing a track to perfection is as addictive as racing games get. While Project CARS doesn’t quite roar past the championship finish line in a blaze of glory, it feels ready to burst out of the qualifiers onto the main scene.