Project CARS’ delay announcement was quite admirably open and honest about the situation in which Slightly Mad Studios had found themselves in. Originally penned in for a release on November 18th, that month and even that particular day quickly became a particularly dangerous one for even some of the biggest companies to try and launch on; Grand Theft Auto V’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One release combined with behemoths like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 4 and Call of Duty, so that Project CARS could have found itself a mere footnote on the release calendar. Pushing that date back to March doesn’t just let them have a fighting chance at the tills though, but also lets them to really refine some of the rather ambitious ideas they have for their game.
Admittedly, when I first saw the game and played it for a brief 5 minutes at E3, I was left quite unimpressed at what was being shown on the PS4, but the game has really come on leaps and bounds since then in every regard. Particularly in terms of graphics, there’s much greater polish and shine to what was previously a rather rough and ready demo, and it’s quite impressive when considering that it’s heading for that magic 1080p60 mark that some players hold so dear. Jumping from the PC version of the game which ran connected to a gigantic 4K TV – and did occasionally struggle under the load of this – certain aspects do appear to have had to take a step back in order to manage this on the console, with things like smooth curves of car bodies resolving into their constituent polygons if you look at the closely enough, but the overall effect is still rather arresting and looks great.
It’s impressive, especially when you take into account the weather and lighting systems which allow you to race in all manner of conditions. There’s a full day-night cycle at play, which is always an absolute delight to see in racing games and looked fantastic at the two tracks I was able to sample – Silverstone and the Dubai Autodrom – but this is married to an astonishing array of weather options. There’s everything from fog and rain to thunderstorms to choose from, and you can set the forecast to shift between them, but more compelling are the options to pick a date and time in history and have the game pull down the actual weather from that race. Fancy racing through a particularly tumultuous set of race conditions? Just pick the right date and time and set the rate at which time passes.
And the race setup itself is similarly flexible, with options to have practice sessions and qualifying sessions alongside things like formation laps and rolling starts. In terms of appealing to the sim racer and motorsports fans, it seems to be pushing all of the right buttons to let you recreate the particular racing formula that you want to.
Of course, that won’t mean a thing if it’s not fun to drive out on track, and here too my initial concerns have been allayed, compared to my brief time with the game at E3. Though racing with cars that featured quite large amounts of downforce, this definitely felt like a console-style sim in the same mould as the likes of Forza or Gran Turismo.
Whether on pad or wheel – a Thrustmaster T500 RS in this case – I was able to have all the assists turned off and feel fast, precise and in control of the car. Although neither the Aston V1 Vantage GT3 nor the fictional RWD P30 LMP1 car are lacking in downforce, which will certainly have helped with the amount of grip I had at my disposal, there was still a need to get the fundamentals right. As you’d expect without ABS and traction control, turning heavily under braking was a big no-no, as was slamming down on the accelerator out of corners, with the Aston in particular able to get away from me if I wasn’t careful. Curiously, it seemed to be missing the traditional video game tyre squeal, that’s so often used to compensate for the lack of sensory inputs and inform the player that they’re at the edge of their car’s grip.
It also helps that I’ve come to understand the collisions within the game. Initially, racing from my customary bumper cam view, I wasn’t sure why I was losing control through the corners and spearing off the track, but as I viewed the replay, I found that it was the AI giving me a little nudge. It’s something that feels more acute compared to other racers, but a tap to my rear left wheel arch with my car already under load through a corner would destabilise me further, pushing my car to face in a new direction and causing me to run off the track before I could realise that I needed to back off a little and compensate. It’s not as if the AI in this fairly old build was really able to deal with crashes, either, and cutting certain corners and kerbs could kick the cars up into the air and lead to some quite hilarious pileups. Naturally, the AI system is going to be a major focal point between now and release.
The ambitions of Project CARS are clear to see, to push the mass market sim racer to new heights, and having those few extra months of development time could really come to pay dividends for them. Again, not only will it give them more breathing room in terms of competing against other games on the market, but it will allow them to polish and refine the gameplay, the graphics and the excitingly broad possibilities for creating (or recreating) a race. Yes, you’ll have to wait a little bit longer, but we should be used to having to wait for our racing games by now…