Project CARS was clearly borne of a simple love of racing, both on the side of Slightly Mad Studios and that of the racing community. Its unique development didn’t just see the community buy into the project ahead of time, but saw them actively contribute to the game with both feedback and actual content, leading to a fresh perspective on the sim-racing genre.
What makes Project CARS stand out from the crowd is that not only are all of the cars and tracks unlocked right from the off, but you have the freedom to do whatever you wish within the game’s career mode. You can pick from any of the 16 disciplines as your starting point – with several “Coming Soon” boxes indicating that more are on the way – and compete in both that particular championship and all manner of invitational events. It’s a particularly refreshing and innovative twist, even if many people will simply start from karts and work their way up.
While the number of real world tracks is quite impressive, ranging from legendary locations such as Spa and the Nurburgring to the Dubai Autodrome and a bevy of British tracks, the number of cars on offer is relatively small. What it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in breadth, with the range of difference disciplines it covers. You’ve everything from classic 70’s and 80’s touring cars to the Le Mans Prototypes, but these real world cars are necessarily bolstered by fictional creations from the game’s crowdsourcing roots. The game’s Formula 1 and GP2 equivalents – Formula A and Formula B – are prime examples of this.
Regardless of the car, they all look and sound great, and provide a rather unique challenge to control. Getting used to the handling is sometimes difficult, as you have to first warm up the tyres during practice and qualifying sessions – I long for an option to start on a hot lap with fully warm tyres – and even when I overrule my preference for the “Real” assists setting, some cars can require a degree of finesse that is difficult to achieve with a controller in hand.
Naturally, when testing on PC with a venerable Driving Force GT, I found you can deliver much more nuanced inputs and better compensate for the force feedback that you’re receiving, making some cars feel a lot more driveable. Yet either way, it’s about learning the limits of what you can make a car do in a given context. As the game’s excellent weather systems come into play, with the track warming and cooling during the day or as the rain starts to lash down onto the tarmac, the tyre model is such that the cars can start to feel very different over time.
Admittedly, the graphics aren’t a match for Driveclub on console. They can sometimes give it a run for its money, but there is a sometimes distractingly short draw in distance between texture detail and some tracks can look a little bland. It is aiming at and generally achieving 60 frames per second, so this deficit is easily forgiven, though a combination of heavy weather and lot of AI cars can cause this to drop.
Racing against the AI is almost always a delight, as long as you picked an AI difficulty setting that’s appropriate for your skills. Though contact is almost inevitable, they’re actually very good about respecting your space, sometimes to the point of obsequiously swerving to get out of your way or failing to try and pull a move and pass you. With lots of cars on track – up to 45, depending on the track – the start of any race is chaotic to navigate safely, and the AI can sometimes get stuck in a traffic jam at the first corner, but they put on a good show and are fun to race against.
Heading online, it’s the human behind the wheel or controller that you need to beware of, and whether or not you have faith in their abilities. It’s a strong showing, and in my experience only displayed rare instances of lag, even with a full lobby of 16 racers. Rather than a matchmaking system, CARS features custom lobbies that can be set up to the same degree as a custom offline race. This gives you full control over the sessions, their length, the rules, the cars and the weather, though it’s not quite as flexible as to let you recreate some of the discipline-specific rules as in the career.
Sadly, for everything that Project CARS does right, its launch is marred by a disappointing number of minor bugs and inconsistencies, which are quite baffling given the string of delays it faced over the past six months. Loading into a Le Mans career race to restart, I found my Audi R18 LMP1 prototype impossible to control under braking, but testing the same car in practice or a custom race saw it to be as stable as ever. The game had diverged from the default car set up to utter gobble-de-gook overnight.
Similarly, I noticed that the cars on the grid had been rearranged, contrary to the qualifying session that I had taken part in. Elsewhere, cars have spawned on top of each other, and I found myself involved in a quite shocking phantom crash while switching camera viewpoints, which I was only doing because the game had failed to restore my HUD after I foolishly wanted to watch the other racers during the final moments of qualifying. And don’t get me started on the infuriating penalty system which wipes out lap times for both the tiniest of infractions over the white lines and moments where you’ve clearly not gained an advantage from your trip through the gravel.
Some of these issues are compounded by the menu system. It is stuffed with an admirable but confounding number of settings and sliders, so that you can tweak practically every imaginable thing about how the game plays, even including PC-like graphics options on console. However, the main menu doesn’t behave quite the way you would expect – it would be tedious to go into the exact details, but it doesn’t – and you cannot access such fairly obvious seeming options for things like assists when you’ve loaded into a track.
When the first few hours of the game are spent getting used to the handling of the vehicles and picking between different control options to find the right settings for you – the defaults are far from optimal, whether on controller or wheel, unfortunately, and there’s already a mod to improve the FFB for PC wheel users – it’s tedious to go back and forth in order to find the sweet spot. But these are niggling issues and concerns which, much like Gran Turismo 5’s launch, tarnish the overall experience, but don’t detract from the strength of the racing that is at the heart of the game. This is especially true once you have found that sweet spot and can simply enjoy the range of content on offer.
Project CARS is an ambitious take on the racing simulator that brings a lot of fresh ideas and improvements to the genre. A number of patchable flaws hold it back, but with an innovative career structure and the challenging but rewarding car handling and racing, this is almost essential for racing fans.
Version tested: PS4