Project CARS isn’t a racing game – at least not in the same way that Mario Kart 8 and Ridge Racer are. If you’re looking for a mindless racing game where you can sit back with your mates and bash out a few laps as you unwind, keep looking. These are not the cars you’re looking for. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a racing simulator which is as deep as it is difficult, Project CARS (it stands for Community Assisted Racing Simulator, in case you’re wondering) may be just up your street.
There’s no traditional style racing arcade game to Project CARS. Slightly Mad Studios have done something different here, breaking the mold by simply saying “Here’s career mode – we’ve unlocked everything, pick something and race.”
On the surface this streamlined approach is a refreshing alternative to the grind-heavy likes of Forza and Gran Turismo, where we’re all used to racing our way through careers to get to bigger, better cars. Project CARS can’t match those games on the sheer size of their vehicle roster or comprehensive career modes (though it does boast an impressively large track list). Instead, Slightly Mad Studios provides huge breadth when it comes to car types – offering everything from mini karts to high-powered supercars which go like stink on a windy day. There are high-profile brand names involved in Project CARS, and to some, this will mean a great deal. But just as many of the cars on offer are original creations.
For the sort of people who can happily spend entire afternoons watching old re-runs of Top Gear, this may be a deal breaker; but each of the original vehicles is simulated in just as much as depth as its licensed counterparts – and given that Project CARS‘ simulation model is the equal of, if not better than its rivals, the game still has plenty to offer hardcore racing purists. That’s not to say that there isn’t still plenty to admire for more amaterur racers, with a wealth of assists and difficulty sliders on offer to satisfy even the most inexperienced racer.
This streamlined, more accessible approach extends as far as unlocking everything from the start; once you’ve picked a career you’re greeted with two emails. One is from your new boss, and the other is from your mechanic. Both are equally useless, sadly – especially because the mechanic first appears to be an absolute boon, telling you that he’ll help you prep your car for each race. The curious thing about Project CARS is that no one setup is perfect for each race, and you will need to tweak your car if you’re looking to win. If this seems like effort to you, you probably won’t like what Project CARS has to offer.
I started my career as a mini kart driver and jumped in. This is how the first few races played out for me: I got to my third bend in the road before cursing at the TV, telling it that I drive better on ice in real life. I restarted the race thinking maybe it’s just been too long since I last played a racing sim, and that I needed some time to get into the swing of things. I finished that second race in last place. Swearing some more, I clicked retry, this time opting to get my mechanic to auto-prep my car for the race – this didn’t happen. Contrary to what is initially suggested via an in-game email, the mechanic only tells you what happens if you change tyre pressure. You never see him – you literally just have a wall of text, straight out of a textbook, telling you what each tweak will do as a general overview. So, being the God-like scientist that I am, I tweaked everything. I adjusted my tyre pressure; I changed the amount of pressure my brake pads put on the brake discs; I fixed everything but the goddamn paint job, and started the race again. This time I came in third.
Thoroughly impressed at how much of a difference these changes made, I moved onto the next race to see if I could improve. It was the same course so I was feeling pretty good about my chances, having got the turning and controls down relatively well since my tweaks. This time, I finished 10th. It was around then that it started to dawn on me that the problem actually wasn’t my lack of skill or preparation. The problem boiled down to the game itself.
Unfortunately, the AI in Project Cars is entirely inconsistent. Even on Novice mode the other drivers range from aggressive bumper car racers who will happily sideswipe you off the road (they evidently didn’t get the memo that this is not Mario Kart 8), to the grannies you invariably get stuck behind on a weekend trip to the local supermarket. Naturally I set the AI to Super Easy and carried on. After coming in a solid first and patting myself on the back, I moved onto a second race course. I tweaked my kart to the same setup that I had before, hit start, and went straight off the track at the first corner.
Every little detail seems to make a difference in Project CARS. If it’s raining, break sooner. If this track has more or less turns, change your setup accordingly. If the wind looks like it’s blowing in the wrong direction, pray that you know what you’re doing as you approach that chicane because the chances are that unless you really like racing sims, you’re driving on a wing and a prayer. As fascinating as it is playing a driving simulator with this level of real customization (I honestly couldn’t care less if my car has decals the shape of a bomb on it or not, so we’re not talking about that), the barrier to entry in Project CARS is pretty horrific until you get used to the need to get your hands dirty under the hood before each race. For all the assists on offer, this is not a casual game: if you don’t love driving sims and you don’t understand how the pressure in your front left tyre differing from the pressure in your front right tyre will affect your ability to take a turn at 50kmph, and you honestly don’t want to learn about it, just move on. As good as Project CARS is – and it really is a good game – it demands you learn the ins and outs of motoring.
Speaking of looking at things, Project CARS looks absolutely sublime. Well, in terms of the racing anyway. The cars, the drivers, the weather – it’s like driving inside a movie. It’s really breath-taking and a real pain tearing your eyes away from the scenery as you hurtle past at breakneck speeds. Even the goddamn lens flare looks pretty in Project CARS, and that’s one of the most overused lighting effects of the last decade.
Unfortunately, the quality of the visuals isn’t matched by an equally impressive soundtrack. Quite the opposite – it’s one of the worst soundtracks I’ve heard in a racing game in a long time. The music on the menu screens is overly dramatic, sounding as though the game is psyching you up to enter a boss battle with Pavarotti. If the game sounded like the trailer I would have been overjoyed, but it doesn’t. Car engines, while realistic, feel far too loud, and there appears to have been zero attempt whatsoever to control the audio balance from a sound engineering perspective. As someone who is hard of hearing and so needs the TV to be relatively loud anyway, all of my neighbors and housemates now loathe Project CARS and the weird volume spikes that come with it. While I’m busy complaining: the UI is awful. It’s finicky and fiddly as hell, with tiny, spidery text, and everything feels about 4 or 5 clicks farther away than it should be.
Meanwhile load times are horrific – at least on Xbox One – and there are a number of bugs which made me lose my temper. One in particular, which caused no shortage of swearing, was encountered in time trial races. I beat the second fastest car by a good 10 seconds, finished the trials and the game told me that I didn’t even finish a single lap, leaving me in last place. This happened a few times, even after taking extreme care to ensure that my car stayed on the tarmac. Playing online and chatting to people I’ve also heard bugs of people finishing first and coming in last on the scoreboard. While I expect these bugs to be ironed out over the near future, it’s enough for me to stop playing Career mode for the time being.
That leaves a few modes for me to throw myself at, all of which are fun but are a fairly standard affair. There’s a Solo Mode with daily competitions, and an Online Mode: race car, don’t come last. There’s also a Driver Network which is a community hub and stats page. Project CARS was funded in a bit of unusual way, at least for a game with this high a profile: It was crowdfunded, with much of the development work coming from a community of over 80,000 fans and professional drivers. Slightly Mad Studios didn’t have huge amounts of money to throw at the game, but what they came up with is damn impressive – possibly one of the best-looking and Racing Simulator ever made, and one which arguably surpasses the work of Turn 10 and Polyphony Digital.
However, its development model has led to the usual kinks that come with a game created by a community rather than an organized team – it’s chock full of bugs. Its origins as a project are entirely laudable and worthy of admiration; but that doesn’t excuse the fact that consumers are being charged $60 for a game which often feels completely broken, with crashes in the career modes, a sometimes erratic framerate and odd graphical glitches that crop up from time to time. If Slightly Mad Studios manage to find the time and the money to fix all that, then I will happily dive straight back in; but until then I’ll reserve Project CARS for online racing.
So what is Project CARS in a nutshell? It’s a racing simulator with over 100 tracks, which is frequently gorgeous to look at, watch and play thanks in no small part to some striking (if occasionally overdone) dynamic weather and lighting effects. It’s detailed almost to a fault, with a simulation model and level of customization that puts other racing sims to shame. And it rewards patience, with dozens if not potentially hundreds of hours of enjoyment for those with the time to learn its quirks and subtleties.
What it isn’t is perfect, with erratic AI, awful music, an abundance of bugs and glitches and spotty performance. It also isn’t a game you’ll get the most out of by playing with a controller; you get a strong sense throughout that Project CARS was a game built to be played with a racing weel, and perhaps a pair of leather driving gloves. It certainly tries its best to look approachable, but underneath the surface it’s perhaps even more unforgiving than its contemporaries.
On a final note, the game starts with a request that if anyone playing wants to get out and race their little Ford Focuses against each other, they take them to the track. That was a nice little touch which put a smile on my face, and for that alone, I tip my hat. If you like racing sims, buy Project CARS and you’ll have hundreds of hours of fun at your fingertips. If you don’t know whether or not you like racing sims, and you’re looking for a decent entry point that eases you into things gently, you may want to look elsewhere.