Project CARS is all about the driving. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “well, of course it’s all about driving; it’s a racing game.” But let me reiterate: It’s all about the driving. There are no cars, car parts, or events to unlock. In fact, there are no unlockables whatsoever. You don’t have to start your Career driving vehicles you’re convinced would lose to the car you’ve got parked in your real garage. You don’t have to fulfill certain obligations to unlock any one element of the game. It’s all available right out of the gate and how you progress is entirely up to you. To me, this wondrous freedom and complete focus on driving is a double-edged sword.
Firstly, as you probably guessed from all the footage developer Slightly Mad Studios has delivered over the past year, the game looks fantastic. The car models are absolutely stellar, as both the exterior and interior detail is highly authentic. The weather effects are especially impressive and the beautifully designed tracks are both realistic and captivatingly presented. The team really honed the visuals to a razor sharp point; everything is carefully crafted and even the pit crew animations are pretty solid. There’s very little to complain about (besides a few wonky effects during crazy crashes) and driving aficionados should be pleased.
The sound is another highlight. The pit crew voices are great and the narrator, while sometimes a tad intrusive when you’re first learning the ropes, is also quite good. Of course, in any driving simulator, it’s the track noise that has to be spot-on, and Project CARS delivers. When inside the cockpit, I think the shift sound is a little too robust, and some of the higher-end cars don’t sound quite right to me. Aside from that, everything from bumping and grinding to going full-throttle down a straightaway is top-notch. However, I don’t like the idea of the pit crew voice coming through the controller; it’s just gimmicky. Put it into my headphones, please. Oh, and the soundtrack features an interesting – and only slightly overly dramatic – selection of gorgeous music.
Anyway, as I stated in the introduction, this isn’t about satisfaction via direct reward. You’re not entering a particular event to earn a new car or unlock a new race. You’re not restricted in any way, which is par for the course in an industry that has fully embraced the “open” concept. Project CARS is really the sandbox version of a simulated racer and I do believe it’ll appeal to all the gearheads out there. They don’t really care about the video game side of it; they don’t have much interest in the fantasy. They just want to race. They want to pick a car they like, do whatever they wish to it (in terms of mechanical upgrades and alterations), and hit the track. Any track, anytime, anywhere. For the most part, you have free reign in this game.
I’ll get back to this structure in a minute but first, let’s tackle the modes: You begin with a quick Solo Race to get your feet wet, and then you can engage in Career and Online modes. In Online and Solo, you can customize to your heart’s content; you can select the number of cars and the number of laps, you can specify motorsport restrictions, alter the realism settings, and fiddle with the weather. You can’t do this in Career mode but you have the opportunity to practice in every conceivable situation. Right out of the gate, it’s clear that the game is designed for hardcore racing enthusiasts, those who want to drive . And if you’re looking for an authentic, challenging experience behind the wheel, it’s right here.
However, while you can select from a wide range of cars, there are some disappointing absences. No Ferrari? No Hondas at all? And why can’t I find certain legendary tracks that I’ve raced in games like Gran Turismo and Forza ? Thing is, Slightly Mad’s production is a very different beast. They’re not focusing on what you can get ; they’re focusing on what you do on the racetrack. They want you to learn how to drive and they want you to excel without cheating. You’ll get a warning for going off the track (so, no flying across the dirt to eliminate a corner), you’ll get disqualified if you don’t do a mandatory a pit stop, and playing “bumper cars” with other racers is a seriously bad idea.
After you’ve selected your Tier (i.e., the type of racing you wish to tackle first) and signed with a team in Career Mode, it’s time to hit the track. Here’s where the game starts to adopt a more linear feel, as you’ll have to tackle one event after another; there’s a certain progression, as you would expect from Career. There’s a calendar of events and your race days will depend on the motorsport you’ve chosen. Once you begin, you can enter a Practice round and do the Qualifying run before the first race. You can also dive into the nuts and bolts of your car, tinkering until you’re happy with the result. Obviously, you’ll get a better idea of what you need to alter after you take a few practice laps. Getting a feel for each track and your car is absolutely critical and a testament to the game’s realism.
This is where you have to abandon your standard approach to a racing game. Down through history, it’s usually the same, even with simulators: Go into a race, do the best you can, and if you screw up and can’t win, restart. Keep doing this until you finally cross the finish line in first place, thereby unlocking a new event, track, or great new car. But if you take this approach with Project CARS , you won’t get into the ebb and flow of the Career. You don’t win every race; you’re not expected to win every race. And there’s no reason to keep killing yourself, trying to come in first all the time, when it doesn’t really give you anything. This is simply about the driving experience. It’s about learning as you go and accepting that on some days, you’ll end up with crappy results. On other days, you’ll be in the zone.
Furthermore, because it’s so difficult to actually win, you’re always wondering: “How can I make my car better? How can I take this turn better? Where are my strengths and weaknesses on this particular track?” That’s what true racers always ask themselves and hence, Slightly Mad expects you to ask yourself these questions. When you factor in the length of certain races (some are very long), random weather (sudden rainstorms can really put a damper on your day), and the number of competitors (there’s a big difference between 5 and 25 other racers), the entire experience comes together. I understand the goal of the developers and I know why it can work for many hardcore driving enthusiasts.
At the same time, simply from an entertainment standpoint, I have to question the game’s overall appeal. The presentation is slick but it’s also devoid of personality; it’s borderline sterile. They put such a heavy emphasis on the act of driving that everything else is purposely downplayed. I’m just not sure it works as well as they think. After all, this is a form of entertainment and I’d say the majority of gamers out there aren’t quite so meticulous and dedicated. They may adjust some of the simpler tuning elements, and they might dig in and attempt to really master a track, but the level of dedication this game demands may only appeal to a select few. That’s why I get the feeling you’ll see a lot of trade-ins on this one; the graphics swayed many, but most realized they just couldn’t do it.
Plus, when it comes to interactive entertainment, a sense of progression is paramount. On the one hand, you could argue that this sense comes from learning the racing ropes and improving your skills. But that’s not really the same thing. Without any set goals, the whole experience just loses a lot of luster. I know it’s completely unrealistic to lock certain cars, equipment and events unless you win a certain race. I get it. However, this always provided one with a real sense of progress and attainment. You felt like you did something, like your efforts were rewarded with something besides a pat on the back. I know the driving purists don’t care but this is still a video game and as such, I believe we need some semblance of goal-oriented progression.
There’s also no handholding whatsoever. There aren’t even any tutorials, really. You’re just tossed to the racing wolves, so-to-speak, and you’re expected to succeed. Again, the problem is that even if somebody wanted to learn a little more but wasn’t quite so educated on the subject, the game might turn them off for being stark and unapproachable. Brief tuning descriptions don’t tell you exactly how your adjustments will affect the car on the road and very often, you have to spend a lot of time on the Practice track, just experimenting with a new set of tuning options. Then you have to try and determine which alteration caused what effect…it’s just a tedious process and could make the game feel out-of-reach for a lot of people.
Project CARS is indeed about the driving experience and don’t get me wrong, that experience is great. The cars feel just about right on the track and even if the AI is erratic (sometimes they’ll drive you right off the course; other times they’ll ignore your presence altogether), the gameplay is a definite highlight. This is for the die-hards, those who love to fiddle and tinker, people who love the idea of building their own hotrod. The rewards aren’t material or cosmetic; they’re mental. It’s the knowledge that you simply did well out there. Personally, I don’t think that’s enough. I think a lack of any sense of progression and a highly restrictive structure that basically says, “if you’re not ardently passionate, get out,” is a detriment. I don’t think a simulator needs to be quite so…aloof.
But if you’re in that hardcore driving fan category, it’s a no-brainer. Get this game now.
The Good: Fantastic graphics with intricate detail. Great track effects, both audio and visual. The sandbox approach to simulation gives you complete freedom. Realistic, demanding driving. A huge amount of tuning and customization options. An experience for the true driving fanatic. Wide variety of content.
The Bad: Almost no instruction or assistance. Lack of material goals and rewards can lead to a lack of motivation. Erratic AI. Perhaps too exclusionary overall.
The Ugly: “That one mistake you swore you wouldn’t make during this race? You made it, and now you want to break something.”