I don't often start a preview with a disclaimer, but when a publisher invites you to Brands Hatch for a day behind the wheel, I suppose you probably ought to mention it. Within minutes of emerging from the pedestrian tunnel, I found myself abusing the traction control of a beefy BMW and taxing the patience of a trained racing driver as he patiently -- oh so very patiently -- explained where I probably ought to be braking and hitting the apex to avoid going all kinds of sideways.
This might sound like an old-school journalistic junket, but when I traded the real thing for the PS4 version of Project CARS, on the same track in the same weather conditions, I discovered that it was actually my training.
See, Project CARS is designed to be more than a soulless simulator. It may be underpinned by reams of official engineering specifications and raw data, but every facet of the game has been pored over and tweaked by real racing drivers to give it the human touch. As such, every piece of advice I received on the track was instantly and completely relevant in the game, while the virtual course looked and felt like the real thing.
It's the sort of authentic design philosophy that could well put Project CARS into pole position this Christmas, even as it stares down the barrel of Driveclub and Forza Horizon 2. The fact that it's drop-dead gorgeous, VR compatible, 12K-ready and powered by next-gen tech is probably not going to hurt either.
Former Stig Ben Collins, Nicholas Hamilton and Oliver James Webb have spent the last few months working closely with Slightly Mad Studios to ensure that the cars and tracks feel absolutely right. "At Brands Hatch, there were a couple of kerbs that had been laser-scanned in," Webb explained when I asked him about some of the corrections he'd made, "and I'd raced there after the laser scanning process. Turn two had more run-up where there used to be gravel, which means you can fit two cars side-by-side, which could have been the difference between someone winning a race or not in the final manoeuvre."
"Or the sun coming up in Le Mans, the sun actually blinds you all the way down the straight rather than defending it from the trees which some other games might do, so it's easier for the player. You wouldn't know it unless you'd actually driven there in real life." Small features, perhaps, but just two of hundreds of little tweaks to track and machine that all add up to a more authentic experience. Considering that we'll be playing in realistic events, even including real-time 24 hour endurance races for the masochists among us, that extra authenticity should go a long way.
The handling benefits from similar attention and feels fantastic, both played on a Dualshock 4 and the Thrustmaster T300RS Racing wheel. Boasting scalable assists or pure manual everything-off simulation, the best thing I can say is that the car in the game felt much like the car I actually drove, on the track I actually drove it on. Right down to where I needed to change gear and brake. Take from that what you will.
Much has been made of Project CARS' visuals, which look jaw-dropping in the press screenshots captured from a flame-gouting monster PC build, though don't quite live up to the trailers on PS4. Which is to say that instead of utterly stupendous, the PlayStation version merely looks great. The attention to fine detail is impressive, with plenty of on-track and off-track detail occasionally betrayed by recycled crowd models (hey, at least they're full 3D), but the cars are the stars of the show.
Lavishly-detailed 3D cockpits, alongside lustrous reflected surfaces, lens flares and fluid rainwater sliding off a helmet visor, really does help Project CARS 'next-gen' credentials and makes up for the relatively small number of cars. Unlike its competitors, they're focused on choosing the 'right cars' rather than offering the 'most cars,' and we'll have to wait and see whether that strategy pays off.
Lighting and dynamic weather effects aren't just cosmetic, rather they influence the way the game feels. As Webb mentioned, the time of day and light conditions can prove divisive, whether you're staring into a blinding sunrise or contending with terrifying pitch-black night racing. Weather is fully customisable, allowing you to tweak and choose exactly how you want each race to evolve (and take advantage of accelerated time compression), with racing on rain-slick tarmac requiring an entirely different mindset.
In terms of Virtual Reality, Project CARS will be out-of-box compatible with Oculus Rift and plans to support Project Morpheus once Sony releases the PS4 headset. I was lucky enough to sample the Oculus Rift build at Gamescom, and frankly, it really is one of the leading lights of the scene at the moment. Resolution and fine detail does take a hit -- remember we're dealing with a dev kit here --but otherwise it's deeply immersive and proves once again that racing games and simulators are ready-made for VR.
Oh, and in case you're still wondering what "12K-ready" means, you're able to play Project CARS on three 4K screens if you can afford them. And your PC is powerful enough.
This being a preview session, I didn't have time to test out the tuning and pit stop mechanics, nor validate Project CARS' claim of being "the most authentic, beautiful, intense and technically-advanced racing game on the planet."
What I can say, though, is that it's certainly shaping up to be a serious Christmas contender... because it's clearly authentic, genuinely intense and obviously technically advanced. We'll find out whether Slightly Mad Studios has a hit on their hands when Project CARS releases on PC, PS4 and Xbox One this November.