There's a reason why "CARS" is capitalised. Project CARS is all about the love of cars, the joy of driving them, and it couldn't give a damn about anything else.
While other developers love cramming the most vehicles and the biggest bloated feature sets into their games, Slightly Mad Studios have been obsessed with getting everything absolutely right. The result is a true track special: a lean racer that's all muscle, no fat, designed to let you get into a selection of superbly-realised racing machines as quickly as possible without grind, unlocks and frippery.
Perhaps more importantly, it also brings excitement and soul to the simulation genre thanks to its reliance on real drivers, not raw data. Following months of delays and setbacks, the finished product is the sunshine after the rain... which coincidentally is also one of the most beautiful weather effects it has to offer.
If the name didn't tip you off, the start screen will. Project CARS lays out its options: career, free racing, multiplayer. No messing. Just a choice of whether you want to experience its cars via a season-on-season calendar with contracts to sign and social media to bask in, infinitely-customisable race weekends and one-off events or no-nonsense online races. The campaign is an enjoyable way into the proceedings, like a slightly less in-depth but more versatile Milestone career mode, and does a great job of showcasing the variety on offer without forcing you to grind away at a linear progression system.
See, every car is unlocked from the start. Every track is unlocked from the start. This isn't a game about gradually bulking out a virtual collection, it's a game about racing for the sheer joy of it.
There's an impressive number of tracks on offer, including marathons like the Nurburgring to legendary British courses such as Brands Hatch and even go-karting arenas, all of which have been beautifully rendered with input from Nicholas Hamilton, Oliver James Webb and former Stig Ben Collins. They've locked down the little details -- the angle of the sun, the placement of a gravel trap or corner -- leading to a degree of authenticity you can't get from just scanning a track and shoving it into the simulation. Whether you want to lock into a gruelling real-time endurance race over 24 hours or just enjoy a blast over the Golden Gate Bridge, there's something for you here.
Race weekends are a particular highlight, which allow you to experience every stage from practice, through qualifiying and the events themselves with time compression and mandatory pit stops complete with customisable pit strategies.
What really matters, though, is the cars. Instead of bloating the car list full of functionally similar vehicles, Project CARS' 65-strong roster offers a unique archetypes from various disciplines; everything from various Open Wheel racing leagues to stock road cars, hypercars, rally cars and even go-karts. Every vehicle has been meticulously detailed inside and out, handling in a unique and recognisable way, while also sounding superb thanks to painstaking recording work. Though there's very little to customise in terms of vehicles and kits, the point is that you're driving the right cars, not just a skin-deep selection of cosmetic models.
The handling is impeccable. Though they've collected plenty of raw data from manufacturers, Slightly Mad's tame racing drivers strove to ensure that each vehicle actually handles the way they would in real life, and feel the way they should especially on a decent racing wheel. The neck-jarring whip of a go-kart's acceleration when you hit the throttle and turn feels spot-on, in sharp contrast to the nervous jittery open wheel cars that make you feel like a God half the time and near imminent death the next, or the reassuring playful grip of a hot hatch. Tyre and road surface feedback feels absolutely authentic, especially through a force-feedback wheel or Xbox One Impulse Trigger.
It's stern stuff, though, despite some fairly basic assists for newcomers. Project CARS makes no bones about being a simulator and doesn't suffers drift-heavy arcade fans gladly. To make the most of it you'll need to tweak the astonishingly scalable options, which let you mess about with throttle, clutch, brakes and steering sensitivity to suit your tastes, not to mention a host of car-specific settings too. Experimentation pays dividends, but as a tip I'd recommend pushing up the steering deadzone to comfortable limits when playing on a controller to compensate for its lack of fine precision versus a racing wheel. Remember that you can tab through some incredibly detailed real-time metrics while driving to iterate and lock down your chosen settings.
The AI is charitably described as competitive and best described as 'lary,' once again completely scalable via a slider rather than making you choose from preselected options. Rival racers are willing to race, both with you and each other, sometimes shunting and shoving in an effort to get ahead while making some pleasingly human mistakes from time to time. There's nothing more aggravating than being given a little tap, but there's little more satisfying than watching the same happen to a racer in front of you as you slip past into pole. Again, it adds a pleasing sense of soul and competitive edge to what could have been a dry and sterile experience.
Weather effects and lighting add another layer of authentic realism as opposed to just eye candy. Sunlight stabs and occludes through the treeline, blinding you so realistically that you'll unconsciously reach for the sun visor. Night-time racing takes place in pitch blackness, the only illumination stemming from the dynamic light sources of headlights and reflections, leading to white knuckle adrenaline-fuelled terror. Rain lashes down onto your windscreen, realistically forming globules on your bodywork and requiring you to thumb the dedicated windscreen wiper button, pooling on the track and massively altering the handling model (rememeber to change your tyres!).
Storms and mist both look incredible while totally changing the way you drive, while what's even more impressive is the way you can optionally choose to segue from one weather condition to another mid-race, with seamless and natural transitions creating unique driving conditions. As mentioned, perhaps the most breathtaking effect is sunlight bursting out after a torrential downpour, glinting off puddles and your gleaming bodywork, looking and feeling exactly like it does in real life. Sensational stuff.
Visually, Project CARS is a handsome racer (that even offers a host of technical settings on consoles as well as PC), especially in terms of car models, lighting and those sumptuous weather effects. DriveClub may be the prettiest racing title about, but Project CARS packs an impressive level of detail. It's worth noting that the Xbox One version lacks a little clarity and crispness due to its upscaling from 900p, while both console versions can suffer from FPS drops during tightly-packed sequences or pit stops due to the unlocked frame rate, but it's largely cosmetic as opposed to a dealbreaker.
Sadly, despite the delays, there are still a few small yet noteworthy technical hiccups. The Xbox One version suffers from an annoying audio bug that can occasionally lead to distortion or even periods of total silence. There are sadly no animated pit crews at launch due to a last-minute hitch, while clipping into bollards and signposts isn't unheard of. Patches are thankfully in the works including a performance bump on Xbox One (somewhere between 5-7%), and I'm pleased to report that the multiplayer is stable (though doesn't offer traditional matchmaking).
We also have to issue a word of warning: Project CARS is not for everyone. Its lack of grindy progression will annoy those strange types who play games to arbitrarily unlock things, perhaps leaving them cold fairly quickly. Its on-paper paucity of licensed cars, not to mention customisation options, may make Gran Turismo and Forza fans scoff. Despite being a middle ground between the fun of arcade racers and the authenticity of simulations, it sets out to do its own thing, not pander to the masses.
And that's fine. Ultimately Project CARS isn't Gran Turismo or Forza. It's a simulator with soul, a contender built from the ground up to be a car lover's paradise for those who genuinely love to drive. If that sounds like your cup of tea, Project CARS is an essential purchase.
- Impeccable and scalable handling, great archetypal car roster all feel authentic and unique
- Impressive visuals, detailed car models and glorious weather effects change the way you drive
- Loads of varied tracks and disciplines, pleasingly competitive AI
- Refreshingly focused and matter-of-fact, no grindy progression holding cars to ransom
- Intimidating no-nonsense approach and lack of unlocks may deter some players (but that's down to you)
- Relatively few licensed cars and limited customisation options compared to other racers
- Unlocked frame rate leads to inconsistent console frame rate, annoying Xbox One audio bug
The Short Version: A simulator with soul, Project CARS strips the bloat out of the racing genre to focus on what truly matters: the cars, handling, tracks and exhilaration of real driving. Sensational weather effects and impressive visuals make it well worth the wait.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platforms: PC | PS4 | Xbox One
Developer: Slightly Mad Studio
Publisher: Bandai Namco