- Format: Xbox One (version reviewed), PS4, PC
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: Bandai Namco
- Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
- Players: 1 (offline), 2-16 (online)
- Site: http://www.projectcarsgame.com/
- Game code provided by the publisher
Project CARS is on a mission to keep it real. Not in a ‘middle aged man trying to appropriate outdated street language’ way, but in a ‘let’s aim to make this more realistic than reality’ way. A staggering amount of work has clearly gone into every nook and cranny of this game. Everything from looks, sounds, controls, and physics has been painstakingly crafted with astonishing attention to detail. It’s mightily impressive, but you do at times wish that the attention had been diverted elsewhere…
In many important ways, this is a petrolhead’s dream come true. Everything’s fully licensed, allowing you to sit in the virtual seat of some of the finest past and present cars from Ford, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, and many more. Heck, there are even karts in this game, all recreated with the same respect afforded to the cars. The tracks you’ll be swinging around are all official too and will be familiar to racing fans, who can whizz through the likes of Brands Hatch and Road America and marvel at how damn much like the real thing they look. This GOTY edition includes all DLC released up till now (on the disc too – no codes!) and exclusive content in the form of two Pagani cars and the marathon Nűrburgring combined Nordschieife + GP circuit. If your eyes started to glaze over there, it’s basically a track of over 15 miles where one lap might take you about ten minutes.
While it’s not quite as gorgeous as Forza 6, Project CARS is still a thing of beauty. There are some pretty awesome weather effects too which look – yes – realistic. The handling is where the most work has been done to replicate the real thing. Each car feels unique from the others to drive, but that’s barely half the story. All the stops have been pulled out – and then more stops created so they can be pulled out too – to make these cars behave like their real-world counterparts. That’s the source of each machine’s uniqueness, the source of much of the game’s appeal – and the source of much of the game’s problems.
Anybody with even a casual experience of sim racers will understand that you won’t be able to hurtle these things around corners like you’re playing Burnout. You’ll need to manage your speed and turning when entering and exiting corners with extreme care, each and every time. Lose control, and only a keen understanding of car physics employed with split-second timing will see you regain it before coming to a standstill. Another layer on this brutally unforgiving cake is the fact that the track itself, and its relation to your car, is possibly taken into account here more precisely than in any other game. Seemingly innocent slopes and kerbs, and distinctly less innocent-seeming rain, can have a positively disastrous effect on your progress if you don’t respect them. Even the temperature of your brakes and tyres are monitored and affect your car’s behaviour.
With all assists off and AI difficulty ramped up to maximum, it’s quite likely that only the world’s top five formula one drivers could finish a race in first place here. In its purest form, Project CARS is relentlessly, devastatingly, soul-crushingly difficult. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and there are reams of options and sliders to adapt things for people at all skill levels. That, at least, is the idea. In practice, the dedication to realism has proven to be something of a poisoned chalice.
Firstly, this is clearly a game that’s been playtested by experts – and only by experts. The AI has not been designed, or at least not designed very well, to cope with people making mistakes. If you, say, fluff your braking and only just make it round a corner by the skin of your teeth, it might not only be the addition of a few precious seconds to your lap time that you need to worry about. In such a situation, AI will sometimes overtake you with a speed and skill that you can only respect. Other times, they’ll smash straight into you (despite having ample time to avoid your car) and ruin your chances of keeping up through no fault of your own. Simply because the AI can’t cope with imperfect driving. The fact that there’s no rewind mechanic leaves you with little option but to grit your teeth and restart the race.
There are problems that affect even the best players. Online, some skilless gits will purposefully smash through you at the beginning of a race to give themselves an advantage, with no penalty that actually matters applied to them. And when people drop out (we once started a race of 14 people which ended with just 4), the poor soul at the back is still recorded as finishing last.
Remember when the industry went mad for lens flare? Slightly Mad Studios do and, while it isn’t overused, there are occasions where it reaches the ridiculous point that you struggle to see the track properly for a few seconds (even if your car has a tinted window edge). There are a few technical gremlins yet to be exorcised, too. The examples we found both occurred during a rolling start; once we melded with another car for a few seconds, which was odd but far from disastrous. Another time, the game decided that for some reason the rolling start should solely consist of our car trying to drive through a barrier. Needless to say this meant we had a heck of a lot of catching up to do from the first second, and restarting the race didn’t fix the problem.
At its best, Project CARS is an undeniably exhilarating experience; a sumptuous-looking racing simulation with an amazing sense of achievement in each twist and turn. At its worst, however, you simply wish that the developers had remembered that they were making a videogame rather than a piece of training software.