In automotive terms, Project CARS is an absolute beast.
While Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport have been honed into luxury vehicles that do a fine job balancing performance and comfort, Slightly Mad Studios’ crowdfunded racer is very much a silly sportster, the kind of car Jeremy Clarkson loved to call “daft” on Top Gear before he punched his way into retirement. Don’t expect to find any hand-stitched leather or GPS navigation here. Don’t even expect floor mats. CARS is an uncomfortable carbon-fiber monster whose every nut and bolt has been designed to stay out of the engine’s way, for better or worse.
At least it’s an impressive piece of hardware under the hood. Project CARS’ simulation engine is arguably the best on the market, and you don’t need to know the gritty technical details of tire physics to appreciate its success. Just heading out on to a course and powering around a couple of corners is enough for anyone to notice how right everything feels. No matter how gentle or harsh you set the assists and other gameplay settings, there’s a real sense of integrity to the driving, and every perfect corner and straightaway pass feels deserved.
Since we’re talking about those gameplay settings, it’s worth noting the sheer volume of switches and sliders Project CARS puts at players’ fingertips. While you’ll start out by picking one of three basic difficulty settings, you’re free to fine-tune just about everything at any time, from the expected tweaks like toggling individual driving aids to almost unheard of settings like full HUD customization and graphical options. Tuning of the cars themselves offers enough depth to satisfy the most obsessive gearheads, and you can even set up custom pit strategies to shave seconds off your refueling stops. Perhaps the most surprising outcome of this philosophy is the single-player campaign, where objectives are more of a suggestion than a mandate, and you’re able to set the number of laps and the ability of other racers.
Depending on your perspective, though, that approach might also be where Project CARS’ biggest flaw starts to creep in. What Slightly Mad has built, more than anything else, is a sandbox. On the one hand, that’s fantastic. You can boot the game up and immediately appreciate all of its cars and courses—the former a decent enough lineup and the latter a fairly staggering assortment of real-world tracks—without needing to jump through contrived hoops and XP unlocks.
On the other hand, it’s a bit aimless. While the single-player campaign does offer all sorts of boxes to check off and a day-by-day racing calendar to help you plan your career, it doesn’t exactly feel guided in the traditional sense when you can just constantly decide how difficult you want your opponents to be. I generally left the slider in the default setting, not because I felt it was always an adequate challenge for my skill level, but because I didn’t really see the point in making things more difficult on myself without any real reward on the other end. I’ll cop that it’s partially my own fault for being coddled by a generation of handholding games, but I’m not sure allowing me to reduce my competition to timid driver’s-ed students without any penalty is a great solution.
Multiplayer is similarly laissez-faire, with no real progression system to speak of. If all you’re looking for is a chance to hop in against other players, you’ll probably be satisfied, but if you’re like me, you’ll wish there were some sort of skill-based ranking or transparent standings to count on. You’ll also grow to hate the long periods you’ll spend in the lobby waiting for everyone to ready up, as well as the fact that the host can force whatever insane settings he or she wants on everyone else. I once participated in a race where every single car in the game was available, and while it was amusing to see superkarts buzzing around Formula cars and hatchbacks, I wouldn’t exactly call it competitive.
Project CARS’ numerous rough edges don’t help matters. Most frequently infuriating is the fact that menu navigation seems randomized and intentionally confusing. Sometimes after finishing a race, the after-action menu defaults to “Continue,” and all that’s needed is a quick press of X to be on your merry way. More often, it’ll decide to select either “Retry” or “Exit” by default, both of which can erase the result if you’re not paying attention and just idly trying to skip to your next event. Hysterically, the campaign calendar seems to always load up with “Abandon Career” selected, taunting you to just throw it all away with an absent-minded button press or two. I’ve developed my own gentle brand of PTSD simply navigating Project CARS’ menus, where I’m terrified that I’ll lose everything if I’m not careful.
Less dangerous but equally perplexing shortcomings abound. The framerate, though tolerable, is decidedly not the smooth 60 frames per second promised, at least not on PS4. Sometimes a race with 30 cars will only actually keep track of a handful of them, meaning you can finish a distant third and still win—because, I guess, those two cars in front of you were just there to have fun. On longer races, there’s a feature that lets you skip to the end after a certain number of laps, but it’s so horrendously broken that, at one point, I used it to go from dead last to first place with a six-minute lead over second—in a race that only took me five minutes total. The tire-wear meter will switch from green to red and back, seemingly at random. (Admittedly, that one may be a way to simulate the rubber graining, but it’s a strange implementation and not explained in the manual if that’s what’s actually happening.) The game has so many obvious bugs and shortcomings that I can’t help but wonder if it was a mistake for Slightly Mad to outsource some of their QA work to community contributors, rather than qualified professionals.
More than most games, Project CARS is an experience that’ll treat you vastly differently depending on what expectations you bring and how much you’re willing to put into it. Diehard sim racers who love challenging themselves at every turn will likely be able to look past the quirks and lack of direction and have a great time. Players reared on more traditional racing experiences might not. Normally, I wouldn’t be quite as bothered by a lack of accessibility or polish, but Slightly Mad Studios has clearly tried to position Project CARS as a sort of minor populist revolution, built on the generosity of fans and capable of being all things to all people. Here, however, the game once again apes that beastly sportscar: It’s a great fantasy, sure, but most of us would probably be happier and better off in a comfy sedan.
If Slightly Mad Studios wanted to prove they could build an engine to compete with the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, Project CARS is a definite success, with driving that feels as realistic as anything else out there. If they wanted to compete with the polish and robustness of those bigger titles, though, they’ve come up slightly short.
Slightly Mad Studios
E – Everyone
|Project CARS is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|