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Project Cars GOTY / 13th of May 2016

On consoles, the driving simulator market isn’t exactly a competitive one, Sony have Gran Turismo and Microsoft have Forza Motorsport, and that, is pretty much it, anything else that attempts to carve open an area within their respective domains for themselves is usually doomed to failure. Project CARS from Slightly Mad Studios might just be the exception to that rule, and not without good reason. It may not be as accessible as its competition and it is obviously not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but through a combination of advanced physics, excellent visuals and a developer with a clear passion for driving, it has just enough about it to position itself as a viable alternative to the mainstays of the genre, and with a little more work, it may, one day, have the better of them.

What is perhaps most surprising about it is that there’s nothing to unlock, there’s no money to earn from racing and no aftermarket parts to buy. There is a career mode – which will undoubtedly come as good news to the PC gamers out there – but unlike Forza/GranTurismo, there’s no sense of progression as there’s no need for the player to work their way up through the motor sporting ranks, though you can. Everything is available right from the get go, every vehicle is available to drive, and the career – which is organised into eight tiers of events – can be entered into at any level, from lowly 125CC karts all the way up to prototype racers.
As one would expect from a simulator, every vehicle feels wholly different too, so whilst on paper it’s the career mode that will take up the bulk of your time, this isn’t necessarily correct. The real joy that Project CARS offers is in learning how each vehicle behaves, there are tons of tuning options for the more technically minded as well, and these are the people for whom the game has primarily been targeted. It becomes important to study the many courses too, but to have any chance of matching the best players, it’s at least as important to tinker with a car’s set-up to match both the terrain and weather. Whilst I personally still prefer Turn 10’s depiction of rain, there can be no doubting that a change in the weather mid-way through a race can mean that hours of preparation can go right out of the window, which, along with the intense level of focus that the game requires, means that every race is a rather tense affair, all the more so as there are no rewinds to offer players a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Beyond the career mode, there are also free play and time trial options, along with an online mode known as Driver Network. This is similar to Forza’s Rivals, challenges are posted online – a set car on a specified track – and it is simply up to the community to play it over and over again in search of their fastest times. This can become an immensely time consuming affair as good lap times are not the result of fluke performances but honest, hard work, from learning the corners of the track and nuances of the vehicle used. This is perhaps what best differentiates Project CARS from the rest, it’s content may pale in comparison to Forza or Gran Turismo, but it’s the motor sport obsession of gamers that Slightly Mad were looking to home in on, and they have achieved this with aplomb.
Speaking of obsessiveness, the detailing on the one hundred and twenty-five cars included in the GOTY edition is simply astonishing, the interiors are all captured with breath-taking accuracy, and the body work is equally strong. Tracks are also captured in superb detail, from the dunes of Laguna Seca to the “Green Hell” of Nürburg, and the weather effects manage to add an extra layer of gloss as rain drop trickle across windows or crepuscular rays filter down through a break in the clouds. I encountered a couple of minor graphical glitches, but ultimately, Project CARS is a very good looking game indeed. A similar level of attention has been paid to the audio too, with engine noises sounding as good as I have ever heard them, it’s just a pity that the same can’t be said about the game’s menu music!

As I said earlier, this is a game for tuners, there are loads of characteristics than can be customised in every car, each of them all make their own impact upon vehicle performance, but sadly, almost none of it is ever explained, so unless you already know what you’re doing, learning what everything does is going to be a slow, arduous process. Each section has a short description, but there’s simply nowhere near enough information to help include the rest of us who don’t work day jobs as automotive engineers, and that will hurt the game in terms of how well most gamers take to it. Project CARS wants you to play it on its terms, but when so few will have any understanding of what it’s demanding of them, they’re unlikely to give it the time of day, or simply attempt to play it as they would any other racer – presumably without success.
Another major issue with the game is its lack of licences, there are no Ferraris, no Subarus, no Lamborghinis, no Hondas and more, and this impedes my own interest in the game, as I’m sure it will others as well. But there are aspects that is gets so right, injecting an anxiousness into racing, and providing a good mixture of circuits and point to point races, which, in addition to its beautiful visuals and sublime audio work make Project CARS a real contender. It’s appeal simply isn’t going to be broad enough for it to do any real damage to either Gran Turismo or Forza’s sales figures at present, but with a few tweaks, its impending sequel might actually be a wholly viable alternative. As it is though, Project CARS is an excellent, technically advanced driving simulator, designed by driving fanatics for driving fanatics, there’s undoubtedly room for it to grow, but Slightly Mad have gotten off to a rather impressive start.
James Paton
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