Available on Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed), PC
Project Cars has been one of the year’s surprise success stories, to the extent that Slightly Mad Studios has just announced a sequel while the first game’s barely two months old. It’s not hard to understand why. The partly crowd-funded racer has tapped an audience that other racers seemed to be ignoring. It turns out that not everyone wants a social racing focus, Top Gear tie-ins, American racing superstars or the world’s best photo mode, but lots of people do seem to want a game with a fairly straight race-by-race, championship by championship career mode, the option to play full race weekends, a realistic approach to tyre wear and damage and AI racers that are neither robotic nor psychotic. Project Cars delivers on all these counts.
In many respects, it’s maturing nicely too. Now on its 1.04 patch, the PS4 version is smoother running, has cleaner edges and is less prone to the menace of screen tear, all of which make for a slightly better experience. And while we can’t say whether it’s a combination of patches, our own control tweaks or just experience that have done the trick, we’re finding the handling more predictable and consistent these days. Some classes of vehicle – particularly the open wheel racers and karts – can be a nightmare to drive, but that’s what we’d expect. This isn’t a game you can play like Forza 5 or Gran Turismo 6, screaming around the corners with the brakes on and hoping for the best. It requires a little more of the thought and discipline you’d find in PC’s sim racers, though with driving aids on it’s more approachable than Assetto Corsa and the like.
Having had more of a chance to experience multiplayer, it’s a little bare bones and lacking in excitement, but you can find a race quickly and the action’s pretty stable. The community seems predisposed towards longer racers with multiple sessions than quickfire sprints with hot cars on fantasy tracks, but in a way that plays to the game’s biggest strengths. If you want arcade-style online racing, you’re better off sticking to Forza 6, DriveClub or The Crew.
We’ve also been tackling the PC version with a steering wheel, and it’s unquestionably the best way to enjoy the game. The wheel provides smoother handling and better feedback than a console controller and – matched with the game’s visceral in-car views – makes Project Cars one of the most immersive racers we’ve ever played. It’s even better than last year’s GRID: Autosport and arguably the best all-round racer on the platform.
In short, we’re growing to love Project Cars, but it’s still falling one step short of greatness. We’re still not 100% sold on the career structure, which feels like a grind over longer sessions, and it’s telling that, with the PC version, we’ve mostly stuck to single race events. We like the way that the game focuses on the nuts and bolts of racing, not on tinkering or social rivalries, but a little more interaction that way wouldn’t hurt. What’s more, while we appreciate the lengths Slightly Mad Studios has gone into making the game so customizable, it’s a shame you have to put the effort in to make it work for you. Only after following online guides have we been able to set-up a PS4 configuration that really works for us. With rival racers, we’ve been happy to leave most settings at the defaults.
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Most seriously, while Project Cars has dazzling graphics, beautifully-modelled cars, convincing weather and a great tyre-wear and damage simulation, it still feels slightly rough around the edges. We haven’t had any problems with the PC version, but players across all three platforms are complaining of a range of issues, and just last night we encountered one where the car becomes all-but-undrivable shortly after a mandatory pit-stop, as if the engineers had sucked all the air out of the tyres and left you driving on the rims. When you’ve worked hard to put yourself in first position, this kind of stuff isn’t fun.
Needless to say, the developers are on the case, but we still feel that Project Cars isn’t quite as polished as it should be. Our hope is that the team will fix these and any other issues before it turns its attention to the sequel.
When everything works and with the right control configuration, Project Cars is the strongest sim-style racer on console platforms, and the best all-rounder on PC. Less serious racers may find the career a bit of a slog, but if you prioritize quick thrills over authenticity and challenging racing, then Project Cars is not the game for you. Our only real gripe is that it’s still a little buggy, with new issues creeping in with the 1.04 release. There’s nothing wrong that the developers can’t fix, and if they do they’ll have a game that will still be a formidable contender when Forza 6 rolls onto the track.
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Perhaps the biggest criticism you can aim at Project Cars is that it tries to be all things to all racing game fans. It’s being pushed as a sim-style racer in the Forza/Gran Turismo vein, yet it’s closer in spirit to the pre-GRID Toca Race Driver games that Codemasters was pushing out ten years ago. It’s clearly angling for a mainstream audience, yet it also wants to impress those looking for a serious driving sim in the vein of Simbin’s GTR. It tries its best to please everyone through a mixture of in-depth configuration options and variety of cars and tracks, but it’s a little muddled and inconsistent as a result. We love Project Cars, but we can’t stop thinking that Slightly Mad Studios bit off more than it can chew.
Still, let’s start by praising all the good stuff. Like those old Codemasters racers this is a racing game with all the nonsense stripped away. You’re not here to fill your garage, earn style points or build a better, faster Mustang; you’re here to sign up for championship seasons, enter races, qualify high and finish higher. The Career mode plays like the old Race Driver career mode, but with all the old cut-scene chuffing filtered out. This has its bad points – and we’ll come to those later – but it’s good to see a racing game where the racing is so much the focus.
Project Cars has depth and variety as well. We don’t simply get GT and open-wheel racing, but a rich mix of karts, superkarts, open-wheel racing and road races, all organised into seasonal championships and one-off invitationals. Amongst the courses you’ll find a good range of homegrown UK favourites, European classics, the same US and Aussie tracks we’ve seen in Gran Turismo 6 and Forza 5, plus a handful of fantasy road courses based on the Cote d’Azur and the Californian freeways, amongst others. The car list might be no match for Forza or GT, but most of the big marques and models are in place, with a few real beauties like the McLaren P1, the Gumpert Apollo, the Pagani Huarya and the Aston Martin Rapide S. Whatever you want to drive and however you want to drive it, there’s something for you.
What’s more, it all looks magnificent. Right now this is the best-looking racer around (sorry Forza Horizon 2), crammed with beautiful cars, gorgeous, detailed scenery, rich, naturalistic lighting and superb weather effects. It’s cockpit views might not be the last word in authenticity, but they’re impressively immersive, going one better than rivals with a helmet cam that begs for a VR racing setup. The great thing about Slightly Mad’s last game – Need for Speed: Shift 2 – was that it made racing such a visceral experience, conveying the impression that you were being knocked around in the seat of a stripped-back sportscar, just inches from catastrophe at any time. Project Cars manages the exact same thing, then does it better.
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And when Project Cars gets the racing right, it gets it really right. The AI plays smart without playing mindlessly aggressive, so you need to work to keep ahead and playing well demands a certain level of skill. You can adjust everything from race lengths to pit stop strategies and car setups, or simply coast from event to event with the tyre wear and damage dialled down, taking pit stops when you’re called in. It’s up to you.
All the same, this isn’t the Forza-killer we hoped it might be. In some respects that comes down to the handling. It’s not so much that it’s dull – though it sometimes is – or that it’s weirdly skittery – which it sometimes is – but that it’s just so inconsistent. With some disciplines, some tracks and some vehicles you’ll struggle to keep your vehicle going in a straight line. Touch the edge of the track, you’re off. Brake slightly too late on your way into a turn, you’re off. Get tapped on the rear corner by a rival racer and – you guessed it – you’re off. It drives you mad.
Then you race a similar vehicle on a similar track, and the handling seems to go the other way. You feel almost glued to the track. You qualify first, start the race and barely see another driver all-race-long. Sure, the frustration has gone, but so have the thrills.
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We're not sure if this is just a subjective feeling, or the complex interactions of different cars, different setups and different tracks, but it seems odd that you can go from not winning anything to winning everything within the space of a season though nothing has changed. It was something that we found with preview builds of Project Cars too though.
And while you can fix the worst bits of tea-tray-on-an-ice-rink handling by switching the steering assist into play, this has the effect of dampening everything down to the degree that it’s no long exciting. It’s like going from GTR to the early stages of Gran Turismo in a flash.
Let’s not go overboard. When it settles down – or you settle into it – the handling is very good. It’s just that where Forza seems to have found a happy halfway house between authenticity and tyre-squealing, back-end sliding thrills, Project Cars can feel like it’s giving you a choice between dumbed-down racer and more hardcore sim. Those who love GTR and Assetto Corza may be in hog heaven, but – for some of us – this will mean Forza still comes out on top.
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Meanwhile, the career structure doesn’t do the best job of exposing the riches on offer. The plus side is that you’re left to focus on your current contracts and championships without being whisked off for some rubbish drift event, but the downside is that you can be left stuck in a rut, waiting for something new to come along and break things up a little. Where Forza tries to mix things up with one-off challenges and previews of treats to come, Project Cars only throws in the odd invitational to expose the cars and tracks it’s keeping back for now. Again, this isn’t a deal-breaker – you have a choice of starting events and the options grow as the game goes on – but it makes all the good stuff that little bit less accessible.
Finally, this still isn’t a perfectly polished release, even after numerous delays and a day one patch. The game-breaking AI and physics bugs of the previews seem to have gone, but we’ve still encountered off graphical glitches – weird, patchy on/off lighting is a favourite – a handful of console not car-related crashes, and some isolated gameplay problems. Worst examples included a disastrous pit-stop where the AI driver took over when I was too close to the barrier, then wasted sixty seconds trying to grind its way through it, and a car that flipped in front of me, stopped on its side, got stuck by supernatural magnets to my bumper, then couldn’t be disengaged no matter how I drove forwards, steered or reversed. This isn’t good.
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Yet here’s the funny thing: all this bad stuff is fixable, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Slightly Mad fixes it within the next few months. A few AI tweaks here, a few handling changes there, some adjustments to the career structure and balance, and Project Cars could easily go from being a very promising but oddly flawed sim-style racer to being the best around. In terms of looks, style, ambition and attitude it’s already on the right track. It would only take the kind of attention we’ve seen Evolution Studios put into Driveclub to transform it from a contender to a champ.
You’ll notice that we haven’t mentioned multiplayer. We’ve yet to have the time or enough players to really get to grips with what looks a fairly comprehensive range of online racing and social options. We’ll update this review as soon as that changes.
Project Cars has the looks, ambition, style and attitude to take on racing’s big guns, but at the moment the execution isn’t quite there. The problem isn’t the odd minor glitch so much as inconsistent handling, unpredictable difficulty and a career mode that seems to hold the best stuff back for later. Slightly Mad’s game is hugely configurable and still a major treat for motor-racing fans, but it’s going to take a little more polish to become the all-round racing great it so clearly wants to be.