Project Cars 3 handles well, but it’s driving away from its sim racing roots

People don’t like change, and if there’s one thing that Project Cars 3 is doing, it’s changing. This is not a run-of-the-mill sequel or follow up, but rather a deep reconsidering of what Project Cars as a series can be. But with change comes concern, worry, doubt, and after the game’s initial reveal, Slight Mad Studios have had some convincing to do.

If there’s one thing that Project Cars 3 absolutely has going for it, it’s the fact that it has vastly improved handling when playing with a gamepad. The first two games both seemed to put racing wheels as the first priority with gamepad controls left as an afterthought. They weren’t really, but they never felt… great and fun to drive. In Project Cars 3, gamepad can finally be a real and meaningful option. The cars all just feel tighter to control, there’s no longer a strange detachment and weird feeling wobble back to the direction you were previously travelling in. It’s just so, so much more enjoyable and predictable to race with. Of course, die hard sim racers will obviously still want to plug in a racing wheel.

That massive step forward for the series goes hand in hand with so many other changes across the game designed to make Project Cars 3 feel more inviting to newcomers. While I enjoyed seeing the career structure of Project Cars 2, letting you move realistically through the different racing categories, it wasn’t necessarily the best fit for an actual video game and became quite a chore for me. Project Cars 3 trades that in for something much more game-like and straightforward.

There’s now cars that you buy and then upgrade through the career, starting off with road cars and working up through GT categories to the pointier end of motorsports, there’s events grouped together thematically instead of in championships where points are handed out after each race. In that way, Project Cars 3 has given up on some of its own philosophy to follow that of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport instead.

It certainly feels like Project Cars 3 is trying to make a more serious play to fans of those polished and refined console exclusives, but curiously when you get out on track, there’s shades of Driveclub or GRID. You’ll obviously still want to try and win the races you take part in, but through the career you’ll have race objectives to perform X amount of clean overtakes, draft another car for a certain distance, reach a certain top speed, and so on.

But don’t think that Project Cars 3 has traded in all of its sim racing credentials. There’s still a solid simulation running under the hood and the game asks you to give up some of the assists you might expect from other games. As in the first two games, there’s no rewind feature, so if your race goes badly, it’s either a case of starting over or of accepting the need to fight back and focussing instead on ticking off those objectives.

Intriguingly, the racing line has also met an end, with this notorious crutch of the racing genre being instead placed by a set of markers to indicate where you should brake, where to try and hit the apex and where you should aim to have your car on exit. These markers (which can be turned off if you prefer) float above the track, asking you to hit each one in order to “master” a corner. While great in concept, and similar to the cornering cones found in GT Sport, they don’t seem to adjust to different racing categories, and they give far too much leeway for speed and positioning. It’s a looseness that’s presumably to aid less adept racers get the mastery rating, but that meant I didn’t always feel like I’d actually mastered a corner, despite what the game was telling me.

Speaking of categories, those have also kind of ended up in the bin. Working through the career, you’ll see cars grouped together in made up categories like Road A and GT C. That’s fine, as an overall indicator of relative pace, but when you then head out on track, creating a race with cars all in the same class, it can lead to wildly different racing characteristics. I’m talking American Stock Cars going up against GT cars, with cars that are strangely mixed up in acceleration, top speed and cornering ability. There’s still some balancing work to be done here, but it can lead to custom races that seesaw from corner to corner.

Sim racing fans will also be disappointed to see practice sessions and qualifying go to the wayside, just as there’s no fuel consumption and no tyre wear. Sure, I won’t miss the pain of having to warm up tyres (or more accurately the pain of this not being optional), but race strategy and knowing when to pit, when to push, when to save your tyres is such a big part of motorsports. No, they’re not glamorous parts of racing, but for a series that’s traditionally geared itself toward sim racing fans to now omit these, even as an option is so strange.

It’s things like this that have had my thoughts on Project Cars 3 swinging back and forth following its announcement and while previewing the game. I really like that it’s now got palatable gamepad controls – which is handy because I don’t have a racing wheel set up these days – I also like the shift away from having a racing line, but it’s just a bit odd that a game series built with sim racers in mind, a game that rode the early wave of esports has put some of the key elements that are really needed for that to one side. And who knows, maybe this is the right step forward for the series? Slightly Mad will have all kinds of metrics showing engagement across all areas of their games, there’s focus testing, and there is absolutely space in the racing genre for a game like this right now.

People don’t like change, but that definitely doesn’t mean that change is bad. It’s just, you know… going to be different.

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1 Comment

  1. I was really looking forward to this game but after watching and listening to the video I’ve got a bit deflated. No practice or qualy isn’t too bad but no pit stops, tyre wear and fuel usage is a big let down.

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