“Try to catch that car in front or just bring it back in one piece.” These are the deflating words of my pit manager when skidding around in last place on the final lap in Project Cars.
Project Cars is tough. With no driving aids turned on for my first play session with the new racing IP, I can't help but feel the pressure mount as every time I look up in the Bandai Namco offices, I see a Dark Souls II poster - judging, mocking and not helping my blood temperature one bit.
Things improve though and despite the harsh challenge, which comes mainly from the handling rather than the AI (but more on those guys later), I found myself keen to iron out my racing sim wrinkles and lose those pesky kart racer habits. To be fair, it's not like PS4 is exactly packed with skill-honing racing sims right now.
The initial cause of most of my accidents was trying to find a suitable camera angle. The game will spoil you for choice including low road, bonnet, roof, following, interior middle, interior driver's side and a helmet cam which puts you directly behind the eyes of the driver, complete with the helmet's inner cushioning viewable underneath. The new take on the helmet cam is slightly let down by the blurring effect during hard braking and tighter turns, it’s a real strain on the eyes and hopefully something we can toggle in the final build. Surely pro-drivers don’t get this much motion-blur in real life or they’d be filling their helmets with vom all the time.
The more realistic a driving game is, the more I find I prefer the interior viewpoints as the handling seems too removed with my arcade-favourite follow cam. This is very much the case in Project Cars too, although some of the tracks with upwards slopes can be extremely difficult to see what lies ahead over the rise from the interior views, but if anything, that’s better for anyone craving further realism.
What’s not particularly great though is the corner map, which includes alternative track layouts for different events, but they’re only slightly greyed out compared to the turn you should be taking. So during numerous events I found myself taking the wrong turn and having to embarrassingly reverse back to the race. Once you know the tracks better, this will be less of an issue. But it’s an odd problem to even have in a racing game and I can’t say it’s ever happened this often to me before. When playing a different build at the EGX Expo the day after I found a helpful racing line had been switched on, saving me some embarrassment in front of my fellow gamers.
The version of the game I played at Bandai Namco was with the driving aids turned off for maximum realism, which meant careful acceleration to avoid spinning out, harsh punishments for late braking or attempting to turn while piling on the breaks -a guaranteed way into the gravel if ever there was one. The AI was an angry and hungry bunch too, seemingly keen to risk a crash themselves in order to get back onto the hallowed racing line. The majority of the racing pack over a three lap race were clustered tightly too, but there was no sign of rubber-banding. Spinning out early on would mean a tough struggle to fight your way back into contention or even catch up to the pack at all.
To make matters even tougher, there are wet events to compete in. Taking place amongst the greyest of storms that the UK adores, a soaked Brands Hatch race showed off some realistic patchy puddles on the track, although the rain effects themselves were hit and miss. Interior angles made it look like black dust of the sides of the windows, with individual droplets not really making a notable appearance. Switch to the roof cam though and fat droplets splatter the screen to almost trippy effect.
The handling suitably changes in the wet, but thanks to taking tremendous care in dry conditions with my previous races, I found myself relatively well-prepared for the slippier conditions. Seeing the forked lightning tear open the sky is a fantastic touch that made the hairs on my neck stand up every time it and certainly caused my gawping mug to leave the track more than once.
For those of you worried that Project Cars sounds a little too tough, don’t be so keen to dismiss the game (and thanks for reading this far). There are two reasons you’ll want to keep an eye on this one. One: There are no straight up arcade racers coming to consoles anytime soon at all, sad but true. Two: Despite the lack of options during my first afternoon with the game, the EGX Expo demos were much approachable. I couldn’t tinker with the options themselves, but I welcomed the addition of the driving line, complete with braking hints, noticeably more docile AI and the handling was much more forgiving and responsive. So it would seem that the final game will have options to adjust the experience to your own skills and enjoyment. Hopefully there will be plenty of variety in the middle-ground as I found most players were winning races at EGX without much effort at all.
That’s not to say they weren’t enjoying themselves though. Gamers were coming away from each race smiling and everyone commented on how gorgeous the game looked. Compared to the indifference as they finished the other racers at the expo, it looks like Slightly Mad Studios are striking a chord with the racing fan.
After trying the game on PS4, Xbox One and PC, I found I really enjoyed each version. It’s worth noting that the PS4 controller is much better suited to racing games than the PS3 one ever was thanks to the curved and springier triggers offering a fantastic degree of flexibility when deciding how much acceleration you want. I don’t need to tell XO owners how great the controller is for racing games as they’ve been enjoying Forza since launch.
I’ve heard some press about the PC version being better looking than the consoles, but I found this difficult to judge at the expo as the only PC version was playing on a considerably larger and better quality TV and featured a chrome Aston Martin that wasn’t shown in the other versions. But boy was that thing gorgeous. While queuing for a go, my eyes kept getting lost in the reflections in the bodywork. All versions would benefit from the trackside stadia getting some extra detail, but the tracks and cars (plus the interiors) themselves are arguably the best in gaming.
Having played all the upcoming racing titles at EGX, it became clear that Project Cars was way out in front of the competition and is an early contender for the hottest racing title in stores this Christmas. Racing has had a slow start on the new-gen machines, but Slightly Mad Studios seems to be more on track than the open-world ambitions of The Crew or the development hell and mixed messages saga of DriveClub. We’ll see you on the starting line November 21st.