To this day, I’ve never participated in a race weekend. I’ve watched races on the internet, on TV and even from an embankment that was one crash away from causing a landslide, but I’ve never raced a car IRL. Half the problem is that I drive a Volvo 740GL with suspension softer than my baby hands, but I’m also reluctant because I suck at being a good sport on the track. I tend to adopt the Mad Max (aka, Super GT) approach of “I win, or we both die”. So, to make sure no one gets hurt, I’ve stuck to driving sims, where the only thing that gets damaged is your feelings. I’ve tried Gran Turismo, I’ve had a crack with Assetto Corsa, and now a new contender enters the mix: Project CARS.
Project CARS has been riding the hype train pretty hard for the last year or so despite being in development for close to half a decade. It slowly puttered away in the background, releasing the occasional piece of gameplay footage for sim fanatics to drool over. Thankfully, all that development shows in the game, with deep simulation and attention to detail to rival even the best simulations out there. The thing is, for a game so preoccupied with details, there are some big problems that seem to have been overlooked. Regardless, if realistic racing is what you want, realistic racing is what you’ll get. More or less.
The main narrative of the game is like that of most other car sims. You are a driver making a name for yourself, and you just want to race the very best like no one ever has. You start at whatever tier you want, ranging from go-karts to LMP1, and work up to LeMans because endurance racing is the best. You can start from the very bottom or skip to the top, but what’s interesting is that everything you do ties into a background narrative.
As you compete in more races, and your reputation becomes more widespread, your narrative begins to emerge behind the scenes. You’ll see news coverage of your meteoric rise as well as Twitter-like messages from your adoring fans. On top of this, you’ll receive private messages from your contractor or engineer letting you know that you’re on their good list. All of this feeds into a sense that you’re being recognised for dominating those pole positions, and you feel like you’re making progress to the top instead of mindlessly driving without purpose. These background narrative devices help to cultivate an atmosphere of professionalism, which this game is all about.
You are a professional racer, and every message you get or contract you sign reminds you that you’re a professional. Whenever a formal invite comes your way that’s written as if you’re a dux, it’s quite the confidence booster. This prestige goes both ways though, and the expectation to perform is always lurking in those passive aggressive crew emails. Mind you, you never get to know much about your team beyond the fact that they’re helping you out, but getting a message from them detailing their disappointment in you is never fun. It’s a nice way of motivating the player through little details, but it’s one of the few places where there are no gaping holes in the design.
From the moment you start the game, everything is unlocked. Getting access to everything straight up is pretty standard for hardcore sim games, but it’s against the norms of Gran Turismo and Forza where you need to earn your cars. What this means is that you can jump into whatever car you want on whatever track you want and race however you want without needing to grind or prove that you’re worthy, which is great. The problem is that even though you can access everything, you might not find what you’re looking for.
One of the exciting parts of Project CARS that I was looking forward to was endurance racing. When I discovered that the 24 hours de LeMans was specific to the single player career mode, my heart wasn’t just broken, it was torn asunder by the hell-scream of an LMP1 car I couldn’t drive. On top of that, I could only adjust the number of laps in a race weekend, not set it to a timed race. To me, this is a huge oversight since so many iconic races include time limitations, and some are even defined by them. You can set the lap count up to 250, but if I wanted to do a 1-hour timed race with my friends, I don’t have the option. This hit-and-miss design carries over into car selection as well.
For the most part, Project CARS delivers a fairly nice line up of vehicles to drive in. There’s McLarens, Audis, BMWs, Aston Martins, Mercedes Benz, Lotuses and a heap more, but it’s all in the vein of high-speed racing. Everything, including the road cars, are all very racey vehicles, usually sporting a spoiler on the back and a legacy of racing behind them. There’s also the distinct lack of Japanese cars, which seems odd considering Japan’s racey road cars. The cars on offer are exceptionally detailed and modelled, but it might not appeal to someone who wanted to drive a WRX or MX-5 around Silverstone. Even though the car selection didn’t totally rustle my jimmies, the track variety did.
No matter where you want to race, there’s a 99% chance that the track is in the game. Everywhere from kart raceways to legendary tracks like Nürburgring are available… Except stuff from Japan. There’s no Fuji Speedway or Suzuka Circuit, which is, again, very odd. They’re famous tracks used in F1 and WEC but aren’t available because… Japan? It just seems odd. The game comes off as very Western-centric, but considering the ludicrous amount of tracks on offer, it’s forgivable that it lacks locations from the East. There’s over 110 different courses, so you’re bound to find another track that you like. Of course, finding it in the game can be a battle.
Before you can start racing, you need to navigate through the inconsistently intuitive menus. Half the time, they’re great; you know exactly where to find what you want. The other half of the time is spent floundering around looking for something specific in a system that lacks specificity. This is especially annoying if you want to find a specific vehicle to drive and you don’t want to trawl through a list of 80+ cars. The only way to filter through them is via some arbitrary groupings, like ‘touring’ and ‘open wheel’, that make sense but aren’t hugely informative. This same problem extends over to picking a track, where you need to go through sub-menus just to see it’s layout. Once you manage to move past these, the menus for customisation come up, and those suffer from the same inconsistency.
There is a huge amount of customisation on offer from the pits, from suspension to differentials. The thing is, the menu for adjusting all of this feels a little cramped because it’s in lists rather than diagrams. Explanations of how adjustments directly affect how the car will feel take up the main portion of the screen, which is fantastic for someone like me who has no idea what a roll bar is. If you know what you’re doing, then only a fifth of the screen is of any significance to you, and you’ll have to go navigating through boring lists to engineer your car to perfection. It’s more welcoming of newcomers than GT6, but it’s nowhere near as readable as Assetto Corsa. Still, it’s hardly a bad system to deal with, and the detail shines through in the sim… Kinda.
You would think that with so much attention to detail, the game would feel realistic, which it does… On a controller. According to Ben Collins (aka, The Stig), the game’s handling is spot-effing-on. According to me, it’s not, but this might come down to the controllers I was using. For the most part, I played with a 360 controller on my computer, and while it felt pretty accurate, it was twitchy as hell. So, I tried it out with a Logitech G25, but it felt lacking in responsiveness. There was no bite back from the car when I took a corner, just a nibble when I hit the rumble strip. Even after adjusting the force feedback, the response I expected just wasn’t there. The simulation is certainly there, but I couldn’t feel it through the wheel, and when you compare the handling to Assetto Corsa, it’s just not as good. On top of this, the AI drives like AI, which is both good and bad.
Simulating human behaviour in driving is far from easy, but ensuring the AI can emulate human error is important. Every time I raced against AI, I wasn’t unhappy with how they would weave around me, but none of them deviated from the racing line at all. They were all set in their way, and only I could force them to mess up. It’s better than GT6’s AI who just don’t adapt to you, but it just felt like they were AI through and through. There were no imperfections in their movements, and how lifelike they were in their driving was questionable, but they didn’t just ram me at every opportunity either. All up, I wasn’t disappointed with how the game played, I was just expecting a bit more. It looks pretty though. So damn pretty.
If you haven’t already noticed from the screenshots, Project CARS is effing gorgeous. Everything from the inner workings of the cars to the shrubbery in the surroundings looks exceptional, and there’s so much attention to detail in the simulation that you can get hypnotised just from watching suspension bounce. Seeing it all in motion is a delight, with the visuals giving a great sense of speed while the insides of the cars look pristine. Even the menus (as much as they suck sometimes) are clean and sleek. It’s not the most true-to-life rendition of the cars or tracks, but good lord, everything is so damn pretty. The visuals coupled with the sound helps nail down what this game gets right: atmosphere.
As you drive around, engine roaring, you’ll get the occasional bark from your pit engineer telling you how the race is going as you look back at the superbly detailed cars behind you. You’ll feel like you’re on a track as part of a crew, not just racing for the sake of racing. I was impressed with how well the feeling of being on a track was cultivated because a lot of racing sims don’t do it. They’ll supply you with a race, and then you go race, but there’s no feeling that you’re a pro racer in there. In Project CARS, I felt like a pro, even though I was driving half-naked in a towel. It might not have the same degree of an atmosphere as iRacing, but it sure as hell made me feel like a pro!
While other games give a better feel of driving, Project CARS delivers an atmosphere amongst the best racing sims on the market. It might not have the realism of Assetto Corsa or the overwhelming content of GT6, but it delivers a very enjoyable feeling of being a pro driver. It’s hit-and-miss a lot of the time, but it’s a lot more welcoming of newcomers than its competition. It might not be the best sim out there, but it’s certainly a good one.