Project Cars – Review

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We’ve been lucky enough to have checked out Project Cars a few times over the course of the past year. This review is going to confirm some things we’ve already said and probably you already know, which is that Project Cars is awesome.

Of course I have to talk to you about this from the console perspective, but I’m no slouch. I’m well aware of the PC offerings like Asseto Corsa and I’ve been playing racing games on this new generation of consoles very rigidly. However, this is nothing like DriveClub, this is nothing like Forza Horizon 2 and to compare them would be an error. The closest thing you could possibly compare this to is Forza Motorsport 5, but again, that would belittle the attempts of Slightly Mad Studios.

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The game has seen its bumps along the way. Funded by the community and the developers themselves, tight budget constrictions and no publisher to fund them (although Bandai Namco now have distributed the game) has seen some big ideas and some big sacrifices. The planned Xbox 360 and PS3 versions were dropped due to the consoles being unable to run them, and the WiiU version was recently put under fresh doubt for the same reason. The investment in this is now reliant on just three platforms: PC, Xbox One and PS4.

Graphically, you can easily (and I mean easily) see why other consoles would have struggled with this game. It is quite simply sublime. From the detailing in the inside of every car, to the shape and look of every car (we’ve talked to Project Cars’s Andy Tudor before about photo realism), to the look and feel of every track – Project Cars is the almost the most graphically complete racing game on the next generation consoles… Almost, with the exception maybe of DriveClub’s beautiful settings and weather dynamics, but it will take some beating. My favourite touches always involve the depth perception of the player, something exclusive to the helmet camera. You can see how your view shifts to where it needs to be as you come to a corner. You lock your attention on the apex of the corner as your dashboard becomes blurred, losing focus in favour of the next place you need to be but relying on your track knowledge as a driver to be already slowing, braking and controlling the car, especially if surrounded by other cars.

What the graphical touches do is highlight how important the thought process is of a racing driver, which given the major involvement of racing drivers in the production of the game is no surprise. The way your head turns and the focus shifts is encouraging you as the driver to always be a few steps ahead, at the minimum. As you focus on the corner, you aren’t actually looking to turn in to the corner. That thought process has already happened. What you’re thinking and looking for is the point where you can get your foot back on the accelerator and power out of that corner as quickly and as smoothly as possible. In fact the helmet cam actually be a little cheat for people who turn off the suggested driving line as it helps to to dictate your braking points.

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There are issues. Occasional glitches, some skipped frames, the gear changing animation frustratingly (and probably unavoidably) happens after your gear change, especially noticeable if you use manual gears, and the game’s replays also suffer from car placement glitches. There are patches due to help cure some of these issues but for the most part, the game does exactly what it needs to do on the screen. This includes some excellent customisable HUD options and data which, if you know even a minuscule amount about racing, are incredibly helpful for reasons I will embellish on later.

Behind the virtual wheel the game plays like a more hyperactive Gran Tourismo than the earlier mentioned comparisons. As far as PlayStation goes (which is the version I tested) Gran Tourismo 6 is probably the closest most recent PlayStation game to it and in the earlier parts of the game Project Cars excels it. The career mode sees you starting in karting and very quickly puts you in to souped up road cars around the more national level racing circuits. You end up signing short contracts for a season in a formula with a team with many invitational races and tournaments along the way. To be honest, this is quite nice as a career mode. Compared to DiRT and GRID’s various attempts at “fan” accumulation, and Gran Tourismo 6’s utterly asinine and soulless progression, it’s one of the best modes that isn’t narratively based (I’m counting most open-world racers as narratively based).

The only issue that I have with it is that it feels a tiny bit forced because the game doesn’t strictly need it. There’s some nice, slightly unfulfilled, career choices like making a fake twitter name and having some fans comment after every race, and some very tiny email addresses where your team give you plaudits and others invite you to races. But it’s just there to read, there’s no real interaction, there’s no way to customise your driver in helmet or design and it’s all there just to push you to the next event. But with the game having everything unlocked straight away with cars and tracks, the career mode really is there to allow us to experience every kind of car. For that reason though, it might not keep the attention of the more casual player as there isn’t really anything to achieve in a gamification sense.

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The experience is very good of course, you can tell that the karts are zippy and responsive compared to the Renault that I went in to next. You can notice how slippery your car is when the tyres aren’t up to temperature and how your car struggles with cold and unbalanced braking.  All of this is brilliantly translated by the on screen data in the HUD and there are several third party apps that can record this information for your analytical desire. After a while though, it all gets a bit too similar especially with so many similar spec cars. Whilst you do get the feeling of every car it doesn’t translate in a way on the controller that you’d have hoped for given the onus on simulation. Add in to that the rather aggressive and poor AI which you’ve undoubtedly heard about then you do get rather frustrated.

This isn’t an AI that will get out of the way for you to get an easy win. But it doesn’t get out of the way at all or give any quarter when beaten, anywhere or anytime. This leads to frustrating collisions and several occasions of being run off the road. At times in practice and qualifying when you’re the faster car and overtake someone, you’ll immediately get a blue flag telling you to let the guy back through. The AI themselves struggle with the cars level of simulation detail with occasional sliding and tricky braking. All things real drivers deal with of course but when you have to cut a corner to get out of the way, or run slightly off to get around a car pushing you off the track, and you get penalised for it with lap penalties, it feels very harsh. If it happens more than once in a short qualifying session then you’ve got no hope of setting a time. So eventually, you will get frustrated.

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However, when you use a steering wheel (we used the Thrustmaster T300 RS which will be reviewed shortly), Project Cars becomes something utterly spectacular. The video below is actually me using the wheel, racing around a shortened Monza circuit in the Formula C (Formula 3) car. What the game’s realism does is make the steering wheel a much more enjoyable, reactive and interesting experience. You feel why the cold tyres make the all the difference and how the data shows you why you are overshooting corners with cold brakes. When you change to something else, even a McLaren, you can tell that the single seater cars are light and flighty compared to the dead weight of a normal car chassis.

 

You can understand when you go around Laguna Seca’s famous corkscrew and come to the next left hander, why you stay up on a high line thanks to a horrific dip in the track that completely unbalances the car. Practice sessions not only become essential but also a fascinating journey of discovery for the tracks and the cars. It breathes new life in to the game that you probably wouldn’t expect on console. Project Cars is a responsive and intuitive game with a control method normally championed by serious PC simulators and it works brilliantly with it.

The thing is though, this game is obviously for racers and it’s not that the game isn’t interesting or intriguing to people who aren’t huge sim racing fans, but the lack of a more narrative-based career progression and things to unlock does alienate the more arcade style of players. It’s not to say that this isn’t for them at all and that everyone can’t get some enjoyment at any level because you can. But this is a simulation racing game. This is perfected for the people with the kit who take as much pleasure on a track on their own perfecting a lap and a time as they do racing others and pulling off a tricky outside overtake at high speed with dodgem car wielding AI. And on that count, Project Cars is a spectacular game and a triumph for Slightly Mad Studios and the development model they used.

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Project Cars is the game that real console racers have probably been waiting for since Gran Tourismo 4. It’s responsive, interestingm in depth and rewards the expense of a wheel and a proper set up, whilst still being perfectly enjoyable without it. Arcade racers might get annoyed with the lack of career achievements, accolades and frustrating AI but can surely warm to that perfect lap which Project Cars captures perfectly.

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– Excellent graphical detail for cameras, cars and tracks

– Amazing depth of detail to suit all levels of racer

– Great support of steering wheels

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– AI is very aggressive and causes many issues

– Career mode doesn’t grab the more casual racer

– Some occasional glitches that we hope will be patched

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Whilst this game is absolutely amazing and a brilliant achievement for the production costs and the development model, I can’t look past a few issues, like the AI and a more narrative career mode might have increased the scope of the game a little further to encapsulate the casual player a bit more. I wouldn’t say the game is reliant on a steering wheel but the type of game that is make it clearly biased towards one which of course could limit gameplay for people who don’t own or don’t want to buy one. Still, this is the torch bearer for the coming years of simulation racers and I’m sure will be tough to beat.

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This review is based on the PS4 version of the game and also used a Thrustmaster T300 RS steering wheel and the T3PA pedal add on.

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