There’s a rather large elephant in the room when it comes to discussing Project CARS 3. So big, that you just have to get it out of the way early. If you weren’t aware already – and a lot of comments and forum posts suggests many have cottoned on already – Project CARS 3 isn’t trying to be a simulator any more.
Out goes the more serious motorsports tone of Project CARS and Project CARS 2, alongside tyre wear, long races and pitstops. In comes brash colours, customisation and a pumping soundtrack. Naming this latest Project CARS game with the number ‘3’ at the end makes you believe that the series continues in the same vein. It doesn’t. Not even slightly. This is far more than a fresh lick of paint.
Allow me to explain what this game actually is and then judge it based on that, as opposed to the rather large shadow of former instalments.
The aim through the career is to buy cars for your garage, starting from road cars such as a Honda Civic Type R or the latest Chevrolet Corvette C8 and progressing up to include racing vehicles such as LeMans prototypes and Formula E single-seaters.
Along the way, you participate in racing events, earning both XP to progress through overall driver rating and credits to buy new vehicle and upgrades. You can then change the way your car looks through new paints, livery creation or different wheels. Performance parts are also available to enhance various car attributes.
Project CARS 3 is best played with a gamepad. Pack away your sim rig, because while you can use a steering wheel, it feels limp and inappropriate. The vehicle handling is more about being accessible and fun, as opposed to the bleeding edge of realism. Going sideways isn’t really going to slow you down, nor is bumping into rival AI cars.
The career will have you work your way through car classes and tiered events. In each race you can obviously try to win it and earn XP, but there are also three event objectives. These can be targets such as set the fastest lap or overtake a number of cars. It’s actually completing these that unlock the next event set, as opposed to your race result.
Additionally, instead of a traditional racing line, there are three corner markers: braking point, apex and corner exit. Drive through these and you “perfect” a corner. Perfect all corners and you earn bonus payouts. There are further points awarded for drifting (“corner slide”), slipstreaming (“drafting”) and clean overtakes. Now throw daily ‘Rivals’ online challenges, new multiplayer matches starting every 20 minutes or so, a pumping soundtrack, and by this point you’ve got the essence of Project CARS 3.
If you are reading this and thinking that all sounds a bit familiar, then you would be right. Project CARS 3 has turned out to be a spiritual successor to Driveclub. Heck, you even level up each car’s individual XP by competing in events, and I swear there’s a song in the menus from the Driveclub soundtrack.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Once it was patched-up and DLC’d to the nines, Driveclub was an arcade racing classic. Much like that game, in Project Cars 3 you can into a rhythm of trying to master every corner, pull off stylish overtakes and earning all the delicious experience points. Imagine having an unlimited PEZ dispenser and you will get some sort of idea how satisfying it can be.
What stops that flow are the carryover elements from previous Project CARS games. Namely, corner-cutting penalties that are stricter than a former head teacher. Run two wheels off the track on a corner exit, penalty. Cut the inside of a corner, penalty. Brush a wall on one of the many street circuits and your lap times are invalidated. This is extremely annoying during career events such as “Hot Lap” (one-lap time trial) or “Pace Setter” (three-lap timed average), leading to many event restarts. It’s completely at odds with the new laidback racing vibes.
AI opponents can also be super aggressive. Thankfully, you can tune the overall difficulty and level of aggression independently, and I would recommend keeping them on the lower end through the career. For single races, you may want to ramp up the levels, set a full grid and see how high you can rise, but with large grid sizes and a tendency by the AI to force you out wide or clump together on lap one, it can be a real hindrance in the career. Especially when objectives aren’t focussed on race results.
For a game that has an emphasis on customisation, some of the options are quite limited. For instance, selecting your driver’s avatar is restricted to a handful of presets, and while you can remove weight from your Porsche 911 or change the air filter, you can only add one or two modifications before it moves up into the class above the event you are entering. Being able to upgrade your steed from road car to race car is interesting, but there needs to be more thought put into how much effect each upgrade creates. There are odd things like how adding a ‘high-downforce pack’ doesn’t visually change your car too.
Each car is categorised with a PIR score. On paper, this is a great idea, balancing performance across different cars. In reality, some vehicles within the same class are still clearly more effective than others. I was in a race where all of the Aston Martin DB11s raced to the front and disappeared, making my tuned Supra feel worthless. Then there’s the strange mix of being in a race against a classic BMW touring car, a rallycross car and a JDM Nissan Skyline GTR. Odd.
At least the handling model is a tad more satisfying than the recent GRID reboot, which is really this game’s closest contemporary competitor. Front-wheel-drive cars feel like front-wheel-drive cars, racing cars have more grip and each car feels unique. There are some weird instances, such as a FWD hot hatch during a Hot Lap event, where the game automatically applies the handbrake to make your corner entries more sideways as if to invoke some sort of trailer for a Fast & Furious movie.
Pivoting a racing video game series to a different audience has been done successfully before, and that Slightly Mad has tried to do so isn’t the real issue here – well, not changing the name hasn’t helped with perceptions, of course – it’s that it hasn’t quite pulled it off.