For fans of console sim racers, the Xbox One has you ever so slightly better covered than the PlayStation 4 right now, with Forza 5 already out and Forza 6 just recently announced, and no real news on whether we’ll see Gran Turismo 7 any time soon. So there’s a lot riding on Slightly Mad Studios and Project CARS to sate those people’s appetites for realistic racing, and they’re really not holding back.
This is a game that tries to cover as many angles of motorsport as possible, whether it’s racing around Brands Hatch in a Ford Focus, hopping into an Ariel Atom on a fictional stretch of road or pushing yourself to the limits in an LMP1 car at the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans. Scrolling through the long list of cars on offer, it wasn’t just a case of seeing a long litany of cars, but the kinds of cars and racing classes that I’d want to play with.
Dipping in and out of various different cars, a minor bug in the free practice mode – which had me quite baffled as to what was going on initially – meant that I got to experience the handling model with cold tyres and brakes. Racing with the “Pro” handling model and real assists – Oh, to have this option in other games! – this was more problematic with some cars than others, as I struggled for several laps to heat up the tyres of the Ford Focus, spinning out under braking, struggling to turn and so on.
Eventually, the tyres were hot enough to let me start pushing, having also got to grips with the finesse required on the analogue stick, only to have them go off the boil just as I was starting to have fun. Thankfully, as I switched to the Aston Martin V1 Vantage GT3 that I’d played with on a previous occasion, it was reassuring to feel it instantly offer much more grip and heat those tyres and brakes quickly.
Flitting from car to car, from LMP1 to BAC Mono, they all had to be dealt with differently and heated their tyres in different ways. Even with the most challenging handling model, these were all quite pleasingly accessible to drive with a gamepad. It’s much more of a simulation that what else is out there, that’s for sure, but I never felt the need to rely on the crutches of driving assists. I did, however, rather enjoy being able to switch on a live telemetry HUD, showing me the exact forces going into each corner of the car, the way the different parts of the tyre were heating up and so on.
Playing on a recent PS4 build, and 1080p60 the game’s goal to try and deliver that gold standard of responsiveness in the controls and gameplay, Project CARS can’t really manage to match up to the visual delights of Driveclub. That’s not to say it doesn’t look fantastic though, and diving into the settings to play with different weather conditions – whether randomised, picking your own or choosing a particular day from history – exposed the game’s wonderful visual variety.
Some parts of a track’s scenery can look rather plain perhaps, but that’s hardly going to be what you focus on when the sunlight breaks through a tree line on a foggy morning at the Hockenheim ring, creating some glorious rays of light in the process, or when the rain lashes down on track but the sun continues to shine through breaks in the cloud. The rain effects might not be quite as nuanced as the effects in Driveclub, but it’s still damned effective and comes in many more forms and with greater and wider reaching ramifications to your driving, with less grip available to you and water coming to obscure your view.
Speaking of ramming, I do find the AI to still be an area for concern at this late stage in development. On the plus side, they’re hardly a procession, making mistakes and running wide and especially so in wet weather, but there’s still that inability to handle crashing and the consequences of a full damage model. It wasn’t uncommon to see a car trundling along with a tyre missing, as it made its way back to the pits, or worse, a crashed car with several drivers backed up behind it, unable to figure out a way to get past (though admittedly, this was on the game’s circuit based on the streets of Monaco).
Yet, there’s still time for Slightly Mad to iron out those kinds of kinks before release, and it’s still rather impressive to be able to pack a track with 36 cars in total (or more on the PC version). The real strength here is in the details, and with options to run a race weekend with a two race format, pick a qualifying session, have multiple classes of vehicle on track to simulate an endurance race and so on, there’s a lot to like about what CARS will offer throughout its single player – though this is still under wraps until release.
Racing fans have a lot of hopes pinned on Project CARS right now, myself included, and it’s particularly gratifying to see a lot of their ambitious plans and ideas coming to fruition. There’s a few bugs and flaws that I hope SMS can stamp out as they head towards release in March, but with the breadth of cars on offer, picking the race format and the varied weather conditions and plenty more besides, I’m eager to spend more time out on track.