After an agonising wait spanning several years, Project CARS has finally arrived on PC and consoles, ready to take the world by storm as the first simulator-style racer available across all platforms. With current-gen racers limited to the likes of Forza, Driveclub and The Crew there was a huge gap for a game like this, and Slightly Mad have delivered with an extremely good, and extremely accessible racer.
Several things hit you very quickly when starting up Project CARS. The most obvious is just how incredible everything looks. Dozens of trailers and replay videos have been available for months, but it’s easy to disregard these and assume they’re running on top-end PC kit and nothing like the console versions. And yet it’s entirely acceptable this time to believe what you’ve seen, with some stunningly realistic visuals, whether it’s the marbles on the track, the cars themselves or the circuits they’re racing round. Weather effects are fantastic too; this is definitely a good looking game.
You can experience this straight away too in whatever way you want. From minute 1 every car is unlocked, every track is available, and every included livery is there to be used. You can do a 2 lap race around Donington with a field of Renault Clios, or take to Laguna Seca for a 30 lap epic in an Aston Martin GT3 car, complete with pit stops, tyre wear, realistic damage and dynamic weather. Even the career mode gives flexibility, with the choice of starting wherever you want in the motorsport tree, from karting through to Touring Cars, Le Mans racers and even an F1 style series. It’s a refreshing change to the usual insistence racing games have of starting you at the bottom and only letting you get hold of the powerful cars once you’ve spent weeks getting to grips with low grade pedal cars.
This freedom extends to online games too, with dozens of lobbies always on offer, with a full range of options to let you customise your races, even down to including practice and qualifying sessions. As good as the lobby system is though, it feels a little outdated in terms of how it works, abandoning matchmaking in favour of the lobby system. While this means you can narrow it down to a specific racing series, event lengths and circuit types it’s common to try and join a lobby with places only to be told it’s now full, or join one offering GP3 races only to find it’s changed to karting while you were joining. While I can see a lot of value in this method of playing online, I’d like to have seen some preset playlist type options offering playlists of a specific discipline with track voting or something similar. It may come in an update – there’s a fair bit of “coming soon” labels dotted around the menus – but right now it’s not a perfect solution.
But the racing itself is excellent, and that’s what we were most cautious about. As a more sim-like racer there’s no chance you’ll be flinging yourself round Spa without applying the brakes once, drifting round each corner like a rally driver. Instead you’ll be trying to hit your braking points, using intelligent lines and cutbacks to overtake opponents and planning your pitstops to maximise your chances of keeping your hard-fought lead. The great things about this is that these considerations apply both online and against the AI, with the computer controlled racers being aggressive opponents who fight for their positions and don’t let you rest once you’ve got your nose in front. There are a few odd moments, with the starts ending up being more like bumper cars as half the AI drivers brake for no apparent reason, but again this could theoretically be sorted in a future patch. The awesome weather effects make a difference too; your foot to the floor opening laps will mean nothing when the rain starts to fall, catches you out on a fast corner and pitches you into the gravel. Water builds up slowly on the track in just the same way that it dries gradually when the weather improves, so the decision of whether to take your chances and tackle the rain on old dry tyres or take a slow pitstop to get some more suitable rubber under your car. They’re decisions that real racing drivers have to make, and they’re now ready for you to figure out.
One thing is for sure though, if you want to show off to your friends just what your shiny new console can do, save some of your replays and send them to anyone who will take notice. They look amazing, and while some of the heavier rain effects seem to cause issues with things like shadows under cars, the general impression is amazing. This is true, genuine new-gen stuff we’re experiencing, and has totally raised the bar when it comes to realistic visuals. Driveclub was hugely impressive with its replays and some would argue (myself included) that it still very much holds its own in terms of how great everything looks, but fans of motorsports will lap up the Project CARS replays which look incredibly close to watching an actual TV broadcast of a race at their favourite track. It’s a shame, then, that the photo mode is so limited in what you can do. There’s no option to move the camera freely, so those dramatic shots when three cars are going into the same corner in the rain while the sun sets can only be captured from a single viewpoint, which does prevent some potentially addictive photo sessions. But let’s not forget that Driveclub only added that option later down the line, so (and it hasn’t gone unnoticed that I’m saying this for the third time in this review) maybe a future update could add that feature.
What’s also impressive is how driveable the cars are with both the controller and a steering wheel. We had a huge deadzone when using a wheel, but once you find the settings screen you can customise an incredible number of variables to make sure your driving preferences are met, and as this includes the option to totally eliminate the deadzone in the steering you can set your wheel up perfectly so that even the slightest movement is picked up and reflected in the steering. While the controller is an entirely viable option, the game most definitely comes alive with a steering wheel, and the added control of tiny steering inputs and more controlled accelerating and braking certainly makes it a far more exciting prospect. Stick to the in-car view and you’re also treated to some of the more spectacular visual effects, as rain and dirt affects your vision and makes those tricky corners all the harder to master.
There is plenty here though which could have been a little better for the initial release. The aforementioned online system could do with a bit of work, and it’s a shame that there aren’t more relevant cars on offer; it seems a huge pity that there are some of the great BTCC circuits on offer, and yet none of the current crop of cars which race in that series can be taken to the tarmac. My jealousy of the Forza livery designer remains strong too, and while the PC community have been coming up with some incredible designs, console gamers seem to be restricted to those which the developers want us to use. The first free livery pack was a nice touch, and if we get regular new liveries to try out then I could forgive the lack of designing options, so we’ll see if that happens in the weeks and months to come.
But Project CARS is pretty much everything I wanted it to be. It looks amazing, sounds incredible and offers some of the best racing I’ve experienced on a console. While the areas for improvement are slightly frustrating it’s impossible to ignore the quality which sits at the core of the game. As such, if you’re a racing fan and currently don’t have this sitting in your console you need to do something about it. Very, very good indeed.
Reviewed on PS4