A bold experiment in game creation, Project CARS comes from an experienced driving game developer and its own community focussed crowd-funding platform to deliver what it hopes is the most authentic racing simulator to hit our machines in years. Slightly Mad Studios has aimed for the championship win with the game they’ve delivered, though it feels at times that the pit crew lets the whole team down.
Project CARS is a pure racing simulation, there’s no arcade action to be found here. Be prepared to know how to drive a racing line, setup a limited slip diff, feather the throttle, and patiently wait for the right moment to overtake. There’s no tutorial mode or easing you into things, only a nicely spoken woman explaining what the different modes are coming out of the controller speaker… and that’s the point. The key differentiator here is that this is your game to be played how you want. Delve into the ridiculous amount of options to personalise the game, adjusting everything from the rules and regulations to how much g-force affects the bob of the helmet cam. Finish tinkering then it’s a matter of choosing which discipline to start racing in, and away you go into a world of nicely rendered sports cars and a mix of real world and fictional tracks. It’s no DriveClub in terms of looks, though it’s not the same type of game and the increased variety in here obviously means a compromise in visual fidelity, and with no detriment to the gameplay.
The ultimate aim is to achieve the Hall of Fame targets defined by the SMS team, which consist of historic goals, getting endorsements, and generally being the best at everything. The flexibility of approach means that choosing a path doesn’t lock you into that series forever. The “career” is based around a calendar of events, with each year being a season where you’ll race in your chosen area (like karting), but get invitations to take part in other series depending how well you do. At the end of the season there are likely to be contract offers that enable a discipline switch, a team switch, or just the option to carry on with what you know. There’s a logic to the structure that makes it feel like you’re pursuing the right route, and an openess that can be used to hone in on certain race types, or skip them completely if they’re not to your taste. One thing’s for sure, it’s difficult to get bored with the tracks – all 110 of them. Vehicle wise it’s not as comprehensive as other games, but it’s not lacking either with over 70 to jump into immediately; ranging from karts, through sporty sedans, past GT racers, and on to faux F1 cars.
Choice flows through into how the individual race weekends are tackled too. Most will be full practice, qualifying then race affairs, and the length of them can be adjusted before starting each weekend. Equally, if practice and qualifying aren’t needed (or just boring), results can be simulated and it’s possible to jump straight into the race proper, though it usually means starting at the back of the grid. From an opponent standpoint, Project CARS offers some decent competition where one-on-one will give you room to race so it feels like a battle… if you’re near the front. Start at the back of the pack and it’s a crazy free-for-all with swerving, banging and crashing with up to (an impressive) 44 AI drivers. Adjusting the difficulty is as easy as moving a slider before an event, so once again you’re not restricted to a decision made at the beginning of the season if you’ve over estimated your skills.
Given that Project CARS is a crowd-funded and developed game (it stands for Community Assisted Racing Simulator), it’s no surprise that the freedom of the single player continues in the multiplayer. It’s easy to get into and start racing, though you might spend a bit of time waiting for lobbies to fill up. To level things out the setups are fixed for everyone, which can be a shock if you’re used to your own preferences. A reputation system is in place that rates you on your performance, and lets others see what you’re like. No more having to put up with people who deliberately crash into others because it’s funny, this gives people who want to race properly the tools to avoid them. It works too, racing is a bit chaotic in the early stages, then settles down as individual battles form over the field, and there’s a sense of achievement when you make it to the end.
It’ll come as no surprise that the tuning options are as comprehensive as the ones from the main menu, every facet of the car setup can be tweaked, depending on the current ride. Usefully, saving a setup at one track can be copied as almost a global setting so there’s a decent base point to work from when visiting somewhere new. There are also detailed notes that explain what each variable does, and what effect increasing and decreasing the values will have. All very nicely done so you feel in control. Unfortunately, this is where things go downhill, and am sorry but this is going to get a bit ranty from now on. See, fine tuning a race setup is an art and during practice or qualifying you’ll want to play with various options. However, each time you access the tuning section from in a race weekend, all settings are returned to default values so you have to remember exactly what you did before, replicate it, then alter the values to what you now want. Saving a setup for a specific track from the garage area will solve this, but why you’d want to go there before stepping into the car – especially if you don’t know which car you’re going to be driving because a number of events it won’t tell you until you’ve loaded into the race weekend – is beyond my understanding. The garage also doesn’t let you test the changes and see how things are handling, and it can’t be accessed from anywhere except the main menu because even using the shortcut from the career screen only takes you to the vehicle of your current discipline and locks you out of all the others. There’s even a little padlock symbol against the car selection part!
Tuning problems started out as my biggest bug bear, closely followed by the ubiquitous “TIME INVALIDATED” statement that you’ll see each time you dare to drop a wheel off the race track. The penalty system (not the race rules) is fixed and can’t be turned off, and sliding wide on a corner in heavy rain and losing 2 seconds off your lap time is treated as harshly as cutting the chicane on the Cote d’Azure circuit. Don’t dare make an error in the last sector because you’ll then get your next lap invalidated as well, wasting precious time in a qualifying session. If you decide to drive into the pits and reconsider your options, you’ll find yourself just driving through. Unless “Return to Pits” is selected from the pause menu, all ventures into the pits are treated as a fuel top up and tyre change, which isn’t how real practice and quali sessions work in any motorsport. Forget any support from your engineer either, it’s hit and miss when he decides to talk to you in a race, or just puts up distracting text to read at the bottom of the screen.
On top of this there are some really bizarre design ideas that just don’t gel with convincing the player to keep going. The default menu option after an event is exit or quit, it’s like Project CARS just doesn’t want you to continue. Why would you make it so easy to accidentally hit a button and wipe your current season progress? The community events are a great idea but are starting to crop up with DLC cars needed to take part forcing anyone interested to spend more money. Damage affecting handling and performance is exactly what you want to see, except that it always seems to result in the engine blowing with the worst smoke effects I’ve seen since the PS2. There’s also the photo mode that’s pointless in the garage area because it makes the cars look terrible, and doesn’t even export a clean image (you’re better just using your hardware’s screen capture option). Furthermore, there are things that are just plain broken. Simulating the session results from in a race weekend just hangs the game, only a reboot will solve it and that means losing progress. Bringing the PS4 out of rest mode will mean you can’t load a race event, it just gets stuck on an infinite loading screen. There’s no chance I’ll be trying to do a 24 hour race through a suspend/resume option, I’ve no confidence the game will cope.
Project CARS is the type of game that shines when it focusses on the track action; there’s nothing like being in the cockpit of a powerful car, nailing every apex and mastering whatever weather is thrown at you. Off the track you get bogged down in poor menu design, bugs and insane design decisions. Some things are being patched as it goes along, but they aren’t really making the game more accessible, they’re just superficial updates. The devs are continuing the crowd-sourced feedback, so no doubt this will mean improvements over time, and there’s a tonne of free content to come too. Unfortunately, it might not help early adopters who have to persevere with the annoyances to get the best out of the game. For me it makes the game one that I relish switching on, but ultimately have to limit my game time to avoid being too frustrated.