Project CARS is out today in the UK. This isn't a review.
Having covered this crowd-funded British racing sim from inception to hands-on previews and through the delays, I still need a little more time to fully test the multiplayer before slapping on a score. We only received a review copy the other day and these things take time. What I can tell you, though, is that Slightly Mad Studios have accomplished something really rather impressive.
It's almost a middle ground between the sterile science of Gran Turismo and Forza's irrepressible love of cars, a blend of simulation and soul. However, instead of instead of setting out to please everyone, Project CARS is a thoroughbred designed to cater specifically for diehard petrolheads. There's not an inch of fat on it, no bumf or unnecessary filler. Just 65 sumptuously realised cars, impeccable handling, terrifying dynamic weather effects and lighting that will take your breath away.
A beautiful thing, but perhaps not for everyone.
Take the handling. Project CARS feels like you're really driving. From the whip of a go-kart's acceleration when you hit the throttle and turn, to the nervous jittery open wheel cars that make you feel like a God half the time and near imminent death the next, it's astonishingly scalable and uncompromising. You can tweak the feedback you receive to the finest degree, the forces, the assists or even the field of view (on consoles as well as PC). It feels real, hardly surprising since Slightly Mad worked with real racing drivers to absolutely nail the details instead of relying solely on raw data.
But by the same token, it requires intense concentration and a degree of precision that's often hard to match on a controller if you don't have a racing wheel. Fans of sliding sideways or drifting about in arcade racers might find that this isn't their cup of tea.
Then take the cars themselves. 65 is not a big number compared to the hundreds offered by competing racers. Customisation options prove few and far between, especially on the visual side. They're all unlocked from the get-go, too, so there's no arbitrary progression system keeping you hooked in a cynical drip of slow-release content. If you're a sucker for unlocks then you're fresh out of luck. But you love racing, no, driving, you'll love the selection here. There's a little slice of everything, open-wheel to hypercars, rally cars and even go-karts. They're all gorgeously detailed inside and out, perfectly balanced and weighted. The sound right. They drive right. They're spot on.
As producer Pete Morrish once told me, they're the "right cars," not the "most cars." It's refreshing to play a game that has strives to be the best, not the biggest. Isn't that right, The Crew?
Visually Project CARS took a little time to grow on me, seeing as I'm reviewing on consoles. It's handsome to be clear and the cars are utterly eyepopping, but in brightly-lit daytime races the game slightly lacks the level of detail of DriveClub or Forza. It's pretty, not gorgeous... at least until it starts to rain. Water and weather suddenly bring a whole new visual dimension to the game, pooling up on track, running down your visor, splashing on your windscreen and forcing you to hit the manual wiper button. Mist knocks visibility to a minimum, lightning picks out stark shadows. Night racing, meanwhile, is genuinely terrifying seeing as the tracks are pitch black save for headlights and dynamic light sources.
Better than anything else, though, is when the sun finally shines after a torrential downpour.
It glares out, reflecting off every puddle and refracting through the raindrops. It realistically blinds you as it occludes through tree branches, exactly like catching the low winter sun in real life. I've rarely experienced 'wow' factor in a racing game like it, even though I'm not smashing through a building or being pursued by a helicopter.
Career mode is intriguing. A little like a Milestone title, you'll accept contracts from different teams, enjoy reading social media alerts from virtual fans and compete in various events throughout a constantly-refreshing racing calendar. The entire race weekend is simulated too, so you'll participate in practice sessions, qualifying and several race events, all of which can be scaled in terms of time and difficulty or even simulated in real-time. The magnificently psychotic among us can even participate in endurance events that last an entire day. But like the cars, nothing is locked at the start. You can hop from open-wheel racing to go-karts or GT, enjoying the differences between them rather than progressing through them in linear fashion.
Despite the glowing praise I've heaped upon Project CARS so far, it's worth noting that I've encountered a few niggling issues. Worst of all, an Xbox One-specific audio bug is proving to be intensely irritating, which occasionally leads to sound effects becoming choppy, distorted or even cutting out entirely. I've also clipped straight through signposts and even fellow racers on the pit approach every once in a while. The lack of an animated pit crew is disappointing on all platforms, though this will apparently be patched in later. Or technically patched back in seeing as the pit crew were present in beta, but issues saw its removal from the latest builds.
Nothing game-breaking, though, and Project CARS remains a fiercely unique proposition. Though in the middle ground, a simulator with soul, it's not designed to be all things to all gamers. It's designed to be a game for people who love driving cars. Not levelling up, earning XP and unlocking stuff. Driving cars.
If that sounds like your cup of tea, I'd recommend it without hesitation. Stay tuned for our full review next Monday.