It’s the creaking in the back that gets me. I want to turn round and find out what it is. Is the roll cage coming loose? Has something been ripped off? Why is it so noisy? It’s something I notice every time I use the cockpit view, sitting myself behind a virtual wheel, trying to nail the racing line. It’s the same with hearing the music blaring from a campsite as I sweep around a hairpin in Cadwell Park, or the way the puddles grow larger in the troughs in the track as rain gets heavier in Interlagos. Project CARS 3 is all about the little details in order to bring the racing closer to home, and with the tweaks Slightly Mad Studios has made to the Madness engine it’s wonderfully playable. But – and there’s no hiding from it – there’s something desperately off about the way attention to detail on track is missing from virtually everything else. Add to this the move from pure sim to accessible racer and it’s probably going to go down as the most polarising game of 2020. It’s both brilliant and terrible, beautiful and ugly, rewarding and stingy. So is it even in with a fair chance?
The third entry in the series, and the first since Codemasters bought up the studio and likely the last to be published by Bandai Namco, Project CARS 3 ditches the hardcore sim nature of the last games and opts for getting into the thick of the action as quickly as possible. Set up more like last year’s GRID than Project CARS 2, it’s got the aim of taking the player from grassroots motorsport up to the high power, high pressure worlds of elite international competition. Buy something cheap, race it to earn a bit of cash, upgrade it, race some more, qualify for the next tier, improve the car’s performance or swap to something new… it feels like a journey and smacks more than a bit of a simplified Gran Turismo. It then layers on customisation that gives a decent degree of freedom to bring to life the fantasy of taking your own car racing around the world; and whilst it lacks a tutorial, the structure and objectives in each event are geared towards teaching race craft and the nuances of each class of vehicle. Achieve these and more tracks and new, exciting motors beckon as the XP increases and the money starts to roll in.
Determined to wow with the amount of variety on offer, Project CARS 3 goes all out with over 200 vehicles, nearly 100 racetracks, a full day/night cycle and all-season all-weather conditions. Add on top up to 24 AI competitors and that’s enough to make sure every event feels different. Then there’s the handling model itself which is solid and predictable to give confidence through the controls, yet is definitely subject to whatever is happening on the track at any given moment. There’s grip when there should be, traction that’s loose but manageable, and a sense of speed that comes at you through every inch of what’s being rendered in front of your eyes. It’s actually really hard to describe how enjoyable it is to drive any of the cars around any of the tracks. With something new to learn on each lap and consistent improvement in times, it just doesn’t seem to get dull. Of course, the constant feedback has something to do with it – XP is awarded for mastering corners and sticking to the racing line, as well as drafting, drifting, speeding and overtaking. This gentle encouragement makes it feel great, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s pretty generous with it too. Is it forgiving though? That’s another matter.
Moving away from its sim roots hasn’t meant that Project CARS 3 has left everything it learned in its rear view mirror. Those that remember the pedantic way it decides whether it’ll allow a lap time to stand can start their P.T.S.D. therapy again. Returning is the way that it lulls racers into a false sense of confidence that sees gravel traps and barriers become more familiar than the tarmac. However, both these have been neutered to a degree. Stringent track limits are in place, but only really affect non-race events, and helping keep things in bounds are the assists that can be toggled at pretty much any point. In fact, if there’s a particularly taxing event with lots of retrying, it’ll subtly move the cursor over the assists option to suggest taking a look. Switch all the aids off and even the more modest saloons are a handful, but with a bit of consideration of driving style it’s easy enough to dial them in to find a preferred feel. Nearly everything available to drive is tail-happy and will go sideways more often than a crab, and that should be frustrating. Maybe it’s the almost total lack of focus on tyres and fuel, or a honing of the returning LiveTrack 3.0 system, it just feels more playable and there’s not too much ground lost to the AI when mistakes happen. They tend to suffer from the same effects too, and with decent frequency they’ll make errors that give an opportunity to slip past. Arguably they’re a bit more predictable than human opponents online, though the Rivals mode available means at least you can’t get taken out by ghost data.
Difficulty levels are tamable for the others sharing the same bit of track, and are a bit like the assists in that they are always on the pre-race menu. Adjusting aggression as well as skill can bring out some interesting results. Even at relatively low settings, the AI block, barge and sideswipe at any given opportunity. On narrow twisty tracks it feels like you’re being hemmed in and pummelled until a gap appears to make a break for it. There’s rarely any let up, and it makes for some great action, especially as most of the starting positions are from the middle of the pack. As a counterpoint there are Hot Lap, Pace Setter and Breakout that are solo affairs. The first is a single high speed lap with a target time to beat; the second a target average time across 3 laps; and the last is almost like a trick event where the goal is to plough through polystyrene boards to score points (that one’s a lovely diversion). Mixing the modes within the 10+ career sections is well done with most providing enough different types of activity that it doesn’t get stale. There might be a need to buy a specific car for some challenges, so that adds in something extra and forces you to stop using that same one you’ve been upgrading from the start. Not that there isn’t some satisfaction in taking a beginner class Civic and tuning for full on race spec. Money doesn’t grow on trees though and is only earned by levelling up, so it pays to be frugal if there’s a particular beast you want.
So there’s a lot of amazing stuff in Project CARS 3 and every thing has been coded to perfection, right? No, sadly not. It pains me to say it because I cannot convey enough good things about the racing, but it’s broken in places. For every wonderful touch it adds to make you feel like a pure blood racer, it smacks you in face with debris from your own car. Objectives are the currency of event progression, every one has three to complete and they open up further events. They are vital to getting anywhere. The first 16 events in the Road E class (the absolute beginner level) will make you feel fantastic, then you’ll move to Road D and take part in Hot Laps and Pace Setter challenges that will make you feel like you’ve driven the course in reverse and blindfolded, so far away from the target time will you be. I’m sure there are sim racers out there who could beat these, though none are coming forward right now, but what would possess you to put something so difficult (and potentially impossible from some of the Reddit investigations going on) in the early stages of the game? There’s a Pace Setter event later on that’s becoming notorious as the auto-drive at the very beginning drops you into an immediate lap time invalidation, making the whole event useless as it won’t calculate an average of the laps.
It’s not limited to objectives, customisation menus are possessed by demons that don’t want to stop cycling the items. Textures have horrific artefacts that appear as white streaks streaming from cars during races and create some of the ugliest sights ever seen for interior views. Liveries default to stock colours at random between races. The photo mode options for depth of field and focus don’t work. I could go on with another 1,000 words of issues I’ve seen, but I’d just depress myself. It’s in such desperate need of patching out some of the problems, and there’s no word from the dev team at all. I worry that it will never happen and this will be the state of the game forever. Project CARS 3 has some great looking pieces and some immersive audio, including one of the most verbose and accurate race engineers I’ve heard, yet it lets itself down so badly with what should have been picked up in QC well before release. One last thing that will seem broken is the controls using a joypad. With a lot of hyperbole about the best controller feel yet, you’d be forgiven for shouting “LIARS!” when first trying it. It’s awful. Don’t give up though, a couple of tweaks are needed to get it responding better, and after that it’s genuinely great to play with a pad. The wheel support almost goes without saying – they work, and they’re great too.
For those not willing to give the racing a chance, the niggles and glitches will make it seem like it’s stalled before getting off the line. That’s a crying shame because, for me at least, this is hands down one of the best feeling racing games I’ve played. Look past the woeful UI issues, the graphic hitches that need fixing, and the progression blockers and it’s a huge amount of fun for both casual and serious racers. There’s an almost intangible pleasure in the way each cars weight shifts in the breaking zones and through the corners and how that translates through the screen to you. It comes across as authentic, yet it’s also accessible. No doubt the things that I love about the way Project CARS 3 plays will be horrifying to those who got the most out of the more sim focused versions, but this game is trying to be different to what has come before. It takes the ideas that work – the handling, the live track, the superb weather changes – and it takes out what got in the way of the driving. This is aimed at a wider audience and it should be appreciated by one, but it’s done the gaming equivalent of not ensuring the wheels were tightened up after a pit stop.
This review is based on playing on a PS4 Pro, and Project CARS 3 is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £45.