Slightly Mad Studios raised over $5 million in 2012 with its crowdfunding campaign to finance a racing game the developers wanted to make, breaking free from the huge publishers that had funded its previous efforts. Project CARS is the result.
In the intervening years, what started life as a hardcore simulation has morphed into something that more casual players can sink their teeth into, yet Project CARS has still managed to keep its hardcore, PC gaming roots on clear display.
There’s a decent, if not gigantic car list, with road cars like the Caterham Seven and Audi’s R8 V10 Plus, fictional Formula 1 and Formula 3-style open-wheel racers, tin tops like the Ford Sierra RS500 and GT-class cars such as the Ginetta G55 and the Aston Martin Vantage GT3. All are beautifully rendered and accessible from the off, with no in-game unlocks required to gain access to the cars you bought the game to drive.
Even in the career mode, which follows a conventional, choose your own adventure-style path from go-karts up to “Formula A” and top-level endurance racing, you can start anywhere if you want to, skipping the championships you don’t fancy. It’s a very open model and one some gamers will appreciate, even if it does diminish the feeling of progression.
^The dynamic lighting in Project CARS is jaw-droppingly good
Every race is subject to a robust and unforgiving physics model that veers towards the utterly impenetrable on some cars, but often in strange ways. Step into a high-speed slicks ‘n’ wings Formula C racer and there’s oodles of grip and a lot of fun to be had, but take a step down to Formula Rookie and your steering wheel feels completely disconnected from the road. It’s great fun drifting through your opening lap in a front-wheel-drive Renault Clio Cup car on cold tyres, but classics like the 1967 Lotus 49 Formula 1 car manage to be both be extremely tail-happy yet tiresomely understeery at the same time.
Compared to its key sim racing rivals, Project CARS’ GT3 and road cars aren’t as fun to drive as they are on Assetto Corsa, raw RWD touring cars aren’t as visceral as on RaceRoom Racing Experience and single seaters lack the thrill you get from iRacing. It’s not a bad model by any means but it just doesn’t feel as refined out of the box.
Inexperienced drivers will appreciate the numerous driving aids, with controller users getting a surprising amount of customisation options, but this will take a lot of tweaking to find your perfect setup. Racing wheel users will also struggle, as we couldn’t find a force feedback setting that worked with all cars at all times. You have to make changes from the main menu, meaning leaving a race session, tweaking your settings and then starting a new session to test them. It’s frustrating not to be able to make these kinds of tweaks from the pause menu and means your first few hours might be spent tinkering instead of racing.
^ There’s a mix of real-life and fictional road and race courses
Maxed out on a high-spec PC, Project CARS looks stunning. The lighting effects and dynamic weather are particularly eye-catching, although some of the 2D trees in use on some tracks look a little out of date. Keep your eyes on the road, though, and you’ll be utterly immersed, particularly if you’re driving from the in-helmet view.
Sound is more of a mixed bag. While all the cars definitely sound something like their real life counterparts, many of them exhibit an unpleasant, synthesised characteristic. This isn’t the case in all cars but it certainly can’t match the likes of iRacing and RaceRoom Racing Experience in this regard.
^ The damage model is unforgiving, which is a particular danger when AI rivals drive like they’re from Mad Max
Beyond career mode, offline single player is enormously customisable. You can choose session length, opponent difficulty, time of day and weather conditions, which range from clear skies to torrential rain. Project CARS is at its best when transitioning between wet and dry conditions, when the track feels different on each lap as you hunt for grip, pushing as hard as you dare without flying off the road. Push too hard and your tyres will wear, making the end of every race a real nail biter as more conservative rivals start to catch you up.
There’s a wide selection of UK tracks, with the rarely seen Cadwell Park and Snetterton circuits making the cut alongside other British stalwarts Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Donington Park. Overseas there are representations of Spa, Le mans, Monza, Brno and Road America, to name but a few. They’re all beautifully rendered, although we spotted instanced where accurately modelled tracks had their start/finish lines mislocated by up to 100 metres (making a difference to the way races play out) and pit lane entries and exit speed limit lines out of place. It may seem pedantic to point out such inaccuracies, but this is a racing simulation where being as true to life as possible should be top priority.
Depending on track and car combination, your AI competition can range from fearsome rivals to moronic amateurs as they slow down excessively for corners, drive on to the grass and crash into one another. This is particularly bad on the first lap of most races; the AI slows down to a complete standstill as they try and figure out where to go. This means you can often make up a dozen or more positions on the lap of a race. Even worse, on some tracks, the AI doesn’t understand the track limits, meaning they strictly adhere to the white track boundary lines instead of following the behaviour of real life drivers, who enter and exit many corners with two wheels off-track for a faster lap time. This lack of consistency really upsets the single player experience, and for each track and car combination you’ll need to adjust the difficulty settings to ensure you’re getting a proper challenge.
^ The cockpit view is both customisable and extremely detailed
Online racing doesn’t feel hugely refined, at least on PC; there are plenty of problems with players on poor connections leaping all over the track and causing chaos, and the server list is rather unclear about what sort of game you’re joining. It’s even possible to end up in a race with the wrong car, only to be subsequently kicked from proceedings despite the fact you weren’t given a choice on which car you wanted to use. When you do eventually get out on track and past the chaos of turn one, there’s plenty of fun to be had, but actually getting there is currently too difficult and confusing. There’s also no “official” or “ranked” races meaning there’s no sense of progression when playing online.
Project CARS does a lot of things right: it looks stupendous and its handling model is, for the most part, very good. However, the tedium of racing against AI halfwits, getting your force feedback settings just right and the half-baked career and online modes take away from the enjoyment. Right now, buyers will feel more Try-hard than Coulthard.