Racing simulators have taken a particularly long time to evolve. In the past, developers have often taken a stock-standard approach to gameplay: Choose from a selection of crap cars, drive around some tracks, win races, earn credits, then purchase slightly better cars. The cycle repeats until players reach the top tier of available vehicles – usually the Supercar and Formula1 categories. From Gran Turismo, to Project Gotham, to Forza Motorsport, they all follow a pretty similar formula.
The mass-funded Kickstarter venture from Slightly Mad Studios, Project CARS, is something quite different. Not in terms of shiny graphics or having a long roster of locations, but probably the most important aspect of gaming for players; freedom.
Players can set up a Career Mode and, from there, they have free-reign. This means you can start any of the eight tiers with no pre-requisites, select any car in that tier, and start racing straight away. From my experience in this genre, this was a strangely liberating design choice.
However, before you even set foot (or tyre) on a track, you’ll want to tinker with the expansive tuning options for your new car, as well as the controller’s settings. In Project CARS you can change tyre and brake pressures, change the realism of petrol consumption, and alter the steering and throttle sensitivities to your liking. The amount of customisation sliders on offer is commendable, but Project CARS doesn’t look after newcomers to the genre or those unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of a car’s mechanics. These areas were in need of some descriptors, as not all players may know what ‘steering dead-zone’ or ‘force feedback’ is.
On race day, through the Quick Race Weekend and Solo Race menus, Project CARS has even more options. Players have the power to alter track weather patterns, set a date and race in the conditions specific to that date. For instance, you can set a race to start at 10am on a Friday in August with fog or haze and, progressively, the weather could change to sunny or break into a thunderstorm. Furthermore, you can choose to race on Bathurst in 1996, for instance, and the weather system will look up the forecast for that day in that location, then simulate it in-game. It’s a pretty neat feature.
Out on the track, the graphical design of Project CARS literally shines through. While the car models aren’t quite up to scratch when compared with games like DriveClub, Slightly Mad Studios have excelled in every other department. There are up to six camera angles to choose from while driving, with ‘helmet-cam’, ‘hood-cam’ and ‘bumper-cam’ being the most intense views.
Zipping around in the rain not only provides the most challenge but looks unbelievably good. Water droplets fly past the third-person camera, sticking to the windscreen and hood, as all the vehicles leave a trail of moisture in their wake. The track gets slippery and puddles emerge on the tarmac, calling for players to change their game plan as car handling is affected. Then the sun breaks through the clouds, lighting up the track with a blinding glare. It is particularly difficult to maintain a clean line through chicanes and hairpins with intense sunlight reflecting off the windscreen and raceways, but this is another bit of added realism separating Project CARS from the pack.
Post-race, Slightly Mad Studios tries to match this realism in the Career Mode. As with other games in the genre, the inclusion of practice rounds and qualifying sessions are a fantastic touch, as players get a first-look at the track and its nuances before the all-important battle for pole position. You therefore grow to respect each track rather than maintaining a ‘full throttle’ approach and braking at the last second.
Project CARS has no driver skill trees, no experience points, and no in-game credits. Your driver’s main menu is made up of an email account, Twitter feed, and online news reel, with the potential of landing sponsorship deals (it’s quite strange how your driver can receive emails but not respond to them). So, it begs the question, why have monetary values and experience points been scrapped? This is what makes CARS’ Career Mode weak. While there are lots of bells and whistles, there’s a layer of abstraction that means you never feel like a real person fighting for a Championship title. For example, there are no pre-race/post-race press conferences and no interactivity with your followers in the social media feed. This is where the game could lose some people, as it’s a pure driving simulator with an illusory Career Mode.
Apart from this major stumbling block, Project CARS is technically a very good racing sim. It has excellent sound design, with the shuddering claps of thunder coupled with an engine’s roar providing a huge highlight for the senses. There is a stable frame-rate throughout most races you’ll enter, which is important when it comes to the game’s online functionality.
There are Community Events based on time trials, whereby all players will use the same car (or choose from a selection of cars) to set the fastest lap times. Furthermore, Project CARS offers fully-fledged racing weekend events, comprising of practice and qualifying rounds, followed by a main race. It’s particularly intimidating and thrilling to see a starting grid in excess of 20 players.
If you’re a hardcore racing fan, than it’s highly recommended you invest in a racing wheel and pedal setup just for this game; ultimately, using a controller just feels a bit more awkward.
Project CARS is not the death of Gran Turismo. Nor is it the death of Forza Motorsport. But, what Slightly Mad Studios have constructed here sets in motion player freedom and realism for Career Modes in future racing simulators. There is an impressive roster of cars and tracks here that will hold the attention of players for hours, with no sneakily locked content behind DLC paywalls.
The game is hampered by an under-delivered Career Mode as well occasional glitches (such as one where the lap counter fails to progress, leaving you in last place for the entirety of the race). Project CARS is a good racing sim but, if some issues had been addressed and more depth been added, it could have been a great one.
Needs more torque.
Not quite a rev-elation.