Project CARS isn’t for everybody. It’s a serious, deep, and demanding racing simulation for people who like their motorsport pure. There’s no pop punk soundtrack, or explosive takedowns, or generous rewinds. Developer Slightly Mad Studios set out to capture the experience of manhandling a real racing car around a long list of some of the world’s most famous racing circuits, and has thoroughly succeeded. Tough but satisfying and cruel but fair, Project CARS is a truly fantastic racing game with the potential to become a real force in the genre.
It is, however, for anybody – and this is an important distinction. Project CARS is probably the most user-friendly racing sim I’ve ever played. Even a layman who wants to learn can delve into Project CARS and be able to find a series of settings and options that will massage it into an experience that suits them, because the list of things to tweak is frankly exhaustive. There’s a lot to admire here, from the incredibly authentic handling to its lavishly detailed cars and tracks and its potent sound, but I’m seriously impressed at just how malleable this game is.
Project CARS features all the typical crutches, from braking assistance to stability control, but the options keep coming. Don’t like where the on-screen track map sits on your HUD?
Do you play with a steering wheel peripheral and find it distracting to see an on-screen steering wheel too? You can delete the wheel from the dash. It’s exceedingly well thought out.
What I like most, however, is the way Project CARS allows us to fine-tune the overall AI difficulty and race length before every single session. The AI operates on a slider from zero to 100, which gives you the freedom to find a sweet spot that matches your ability. Find yourself out-qualifying the pack by several seconds? Maybe dial the AI up a few notches until they’re on par with you. Settled on a satisfying level of challenge but need a little more race time on a short track to realistically challenge for top spot? Increase the amount of laps for this event. Racers like the Forza Motorsports series traditionally offer similar scope to increase or decrease the overall challenge before races, but the implementation here is markedly more elegant and nuanced.
Project CARS is at its best with evenly matched opponent cars, where every overtake is a small victory and it may take a lap (or several) to set up for a pass, but if you prefer to feel like a hero and blast past the whole pack in two laps from last place on the grid you can do that too. You can ask Project CARS to be either of these extremes and it will instantly oblige. Low-level opponent AI is quite nervous off the start line but, in general, all opponents display good situational awareness and are satisfyingly aggressive without being total bullies. I’ve found myself tagged by passing cars only occasionally and, for the most part, opponents seem pleasingly adept at avoiding race incidents. On one occasion I was beaten by a jerk AI driver who (illegally) didn’t make his mandatory pit stop until the last lap of a race and won by passing the finish line in pit lane, but it’s otherwise mostly well behaved. The autodrive needs a little work though; on one occasion I got hung up against some kind of invisible barrier while stopping for tyres at Bathurst but as you don't have manual control during pit stops I couldn’t rectify it and had to quit the race.
Project CARS’ player-first philosophy extends to its meaty career mode too, which is divided across open wheel racing, touring and GT racing, and prototype racing. They key point of difference is that, while there are a series of tiers available in each to progress through, you can start your career wherever you’d like. Want to start in karts and work your way up through the various open-wheel racing leagues before you finally land a seat in the top LMP1 league? Not a problem. Rather go straight to the top? Also not a problem. Enjoying your stint in GT4? Re-sign for another season, and another. You don’t have to move up if you don’t want to. Start where you want, stay where you wish.
It’s not entirely dissimilar to Codemasters’ Pro Race Driver games, and the more recent Grid Autosport; the idea is to simply earn drives with various racing teams. Offers for stints in upcoming race seasons from team principals will come through your career email; all you need to do is accept the one you want. The team provides the car, so there’s no need to grind for cash or purchase cars. You just need to perform as well as you can over the whole season. I like this as it properly tempted me to challenge myself, and there is a lot more satisfaction to be gleaned from a real dogfight to defend a top-10 finish in Project CARS than there is farming first place trophies for cash in other racing games.
You can also have multiple careers on the boil if you wish. I began my first career in a one-make Renault Clio championship and moved up to GT4 racing, but I wanted a crack at the Endurance racing and LMP1 racing, so I started parallel careers in both of these.
The only rigid part of the career mode is the three career goals – Zero to Hero, Triple Crown, and Defending Champ – that are available for you to attain, but it’s entirely up to you whether you try to achieve them all or focus on one in particular (or none, I guess).
A taste of other forms of racing outside your active career(s) is available by diving into Project CARS’ one-off race weekends. The individual race weekends differ from the events you enter during your career by allowing you to determine things like how the weather will change throughout the race. You can activate several weather “slots” and choose what will happen in each, as well as how fast the weather will shift. I ran into an odd glitch here in this mode that hasn’t occurred elsewhere; it seems to try and place two opponent cars in the same spot on the starting grid. It causes a bit of a fuss but it doesn’t ruin proceedings.
You get a similar level of control when setting up online races. The online racing has seemed robust and reliable on track during testing, although there are some quirks in the race set-ups that have emerged that will need addressing. In one case, a player that had joined our session after the warm-up period was driving an LMP1 vehicle that drastically outclassed the GT3 cars the rest of us had to choose from in the lobby. It’s unclear to me why this was possible.
Project CARS is an extremely handsome racing game across PC, PS4, and Xbox One, but it’s the little touches I like most. The leaves whipped up in the wake of cars ahead of you. The shards of light stabbing through tree tops obscuring a low-hanging sun, or the bobble of the rubber marbles accumulating just outside the racing line as cars rumble past. That’s a subtle flourish only perceptible in replays but programmed in nonetheless. The effect of rain on windscreens isn’t as remarkable as it is in Driveclub (it isn’t sloshed around by the wiper blades or cornering/braking forces) but the weather effects overall are great, and the tracks look spectacular in the wet. It makes up for its minor shortfalls (the animated pit stops present in the pre-release builds have been removed for the moment) with some cool attention to detail elsewhere, like the ability to monitor your opponents’ section and lap times from the garage during qualifying sessions.
Project CARS’ vehicles also ooze detail, and are certainly on par with the competition. The range of vehicles varies across a large number of categories, from GT cars, to Le Mans prototypes, to a smattering of tracks toys, hypercars, and classic racing cars. Most, but not all, are licensed models. I’m not quite as smitten with this vehicle roster as, say, the slightly more rounded selection curated for Grid Autosport, but I still found quite a lot to like about it, even though some of the categories are a little less populated than others (and Japanese marques are virtually unrepresented).
That said, the vehicles in Project CARS feel far, far more distinct from one another than the cars of Grid Autosport do. The difference between a purpose-built race car and a regular, road-going hatchback is expertly translated by Project CARS’ supremely capable handling model. The former feel light, agile, and grippy; they’re stable in corners, but when pushed to the brink they snap in an instant, and it takes a deft touch to rein them in. Road cars feel almost whale-like in comparison. Even a performance hatch like the Focus RS feels heavy and understeers like a pig when you try to wrestle it through bends.
The effect is amplified tenfold with a steering wheel, but survives translation on a gamepad too, although I found it worthwhile to play with the controller filtering sensitivity and other settings to find a feel that suits best. Either way, forget the problematic input lag from Slightly Mad Studios’ previous racer (the otherwise underrated Shift 2: Unleashed). I will say I don't like the karts in Project CARS, though – they're just too frenetic for me.
The important thing is Project CARS makes me feel like a racing driver, just like FIFA puts players on the pitch in their favourite football team. When my race engineer told me someone in my virtual pit crew had just fumbled a wheel nut in a particularly time-sensitive stop, seconds felt like hours – as they likely would to a real race driver. Exiting the pits after a botched stop is tricky; I wanted to curse and push hard to try and claw back some time, but was invariably on cold tyres. It’s not a good feeling; it’s annoying, actually. But it’s not like getting annoyed at a cheap glitch; it’s a simulation of the kind of pressure on a driver suffering the consequences of a pit lane mistake. It’s a new feeling, a realistic one – and it’s one I’ve never had before in a racing game. And that, I appreciate.