For quite a few years now, if your gaming has been console based and you wanted a racing simulator that was at least marginally grounded in reality, your options have been more or less limited to two franchises – Forza Motorsport, which is exclusive to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and Gran Turismo, which has been exclusive to Sony’s PlayStation line of consoles.
While each franchise offers their own merits, they also bring their own set of drawbacks to the table as well. Long the gold standard in console racing simulators due to its massive car count, extensive roster of tracks, and gameplay that prioritized realism over casual entertainment, in recent years Gran Turismo has fallen out of relevancy largely due to the Polyphony Digital’s obsessive design philosophy, one which saw GT6’s development take more than half a decade and arriving on the PlayStation 3 already appearing dated compared to its rivals.
And almost two years after the debut of the PlayStation 4, a current generation follow up in the series is still nowhere to be found, which only compounds the problem for the franchise.
While the team at Turn 10 have been diligent about getting new Forza releases out the door on a regular basis, which includes two titles already out in the wild for the Xbox One, the franchise’s new focus on casual, open-world racing with the Forza Horizon series has racers who’re in search of a hardcore racing simulator looking elsewhere for their fix. Of course, all this is aside from the fact that Forza and GT require owning separate consoles in order to play both of them.
That’s where Slightly Mad Studios sees an opportunity to offer a viable alternative with Project CARS, though it’s worth noting that if we bring Windows users into the conversation, PC games like iRacing and Assetto Corsa also offer a similar approach to Project CARS’ emphasis on realism.
Getting The Community Involved
Best known for their work on the Need for Speed: Shift series, Slightly Mad Studios took an unconventional approach to the development of Project CARS (or Community Assisted Racing Simulator) when they devised a program in which the funding for the development of the game would be provided by the community and the developers themselves through the WMD (World of Mass Development) crowdsourcing program, with various levels of contribution offering PC gamers access to different elements of the game as the beta process progressed, as well as a profit sharing model that compensates contributors for the first three years after the game’s launch.
Nearly four years have passed since funding got underway, and in the interim, Project CARS content development has been on-going with close input from their community of racing sim fanatics. The title boasts more than seventy cars and fifty real-world tracks available at launch (as well as a few fictional ones), with more said to be on the way as development continues to be on-going after the initial release.
Unlike Forza and Gran Turismo, Project CARS doesn’t play favorites with console hardware. The game initially launched on Windows PCs on May 7th and will debut on both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on May 12th, with subsequent releases for Steam OS and Wii U due later this year.
Racing Taken Seriously
Right off the bat, something needs to be made clear: if you’re looking for an arcade racer, Project CARS is not for you. The mission of this title is to create a sincerely realistic racing simulator, and that means you won’t be hearing a playlist of pop hits as you careen through the corkscrew at Laguna Seca. Instead, you’ll hear differential whine and wind noise, like you would in an actual race car.
Continuing that theme, the game is presented with the assumption that you have an understanding and interest in the minutiae of racing. Instead of a traditional progression system like those you’d find in a typical racing title, all cars, tracks, and series are available to you at the very start, no licensing or other tests required to dive in without delay.
While that has some initial appeal for those that seek instant gratification, Project CARS does not suffer fools well – a GT3 race car is a handful in real life, and it requires similar finesse and familiarity within the game to avoid pitching it sideways into a wall. There is no real-time rewind feature – if you make a mistake and put your car into a tire wall at speed, your session is most likely over, much like it would be in real life.
Expect to go through the processes of racing and race events – for instance, you will qualify for grid position before your race. If you have previous experience with racing simulators, you might try to start out in a Formula or GT series, only to find that you want to go back to the karting classes to ramp up progressively, rather than find yourself frustrated by the game’s lack of compromise and steep learning curve to be competitive in the faster tiers.
Depending on what you’re looking for in racing simulator, this is either a breath of fresh air or an invitation to throw your controller across the room, but ultimately, Project CARS rewards patience and persistence much the way competitively piloting cars around road courses in real life does.
Getting (a) Grip
The physics in Project CARS are a curiously mixed bag. On one hand, the levels of lateral grip and your car’s behavior when inputs are ham-fisted rather than progressive offer a very realistic driving experience – one of the most true to life we’ve seen. What might be seen by some as unruly or bizarre handling characteristics can often be attributed to real-world factors like which wheels are loaded with the vehicle’s weight – a crucial element of detail more or less ignored by most racing games. In a similar vein, imprecise corrections in conjunction with the wrong combination of brake and throttle inputs can often lead to a spin that might seem inexplicable but make sense given the natural behavior of high speed maneuvering in the real world.
On the other hand, there are still areas where the physics logic seems either unfinished or simply baffling – collisions with other objects (cars or otherwise) yields an unnatural reaction that might remind some of the “bumper car effect” seen in the Gran Turismo series. It’s still a far cry from the approach used in Forza Motorsport games, which remains near the top of the food chain in that regard.
A Feast Of Sight And Sound
Since the first screenshots began to roll out years ago, one of the most compelling features of Project CARS has been the promise of an incredible graphical showcase, though what’s seen in screenshots and what the actual gameplay offers can sometimes be two very different results – especially when it comes to racing games. Fortunately, that’s not a pitfall for Project CARS, as it is undoubtedly one of the most visually impressive racers seen to date.
Dynamic lighting that changes based on the time of day (and lap to lap), weather effects which cause reflections to dance in every direction, and a lineup of some of the most detailed car models we’ve ever laid eyes on make Project CARS genuine eye candy, while the sound design effectively captures the natural intensity of racing, and each car’s aural personality is lovingly recreated with incredible fidelity. In terms of immersion, both of these elements go a long way toward both the game’s credibility as a simulator and our ability as racers to settle into the natural rhythm of competition.
Jumping The Gun?
On the road to development, Project CARS has seen numerous delays which pushed the game nearly a year and half back from its initial release date, and to be honest, it’s clear why – on the whole, the game feels unfinished. Beyond a host of small quirks that pop up throughout the game, we encountered some fairly annoying recurring audio issues on our Xbox One in race, though they mercifully corrected themselves after a few seconds of choppiness and distortion each time.
The fine tuning of Project CARS remains ongoing and we’re sure that not only will more content come down the pipe as time goes on, but also a more cohesive and polished presentation for the game overall as well. That might be less of an issue for PC gamers who’ve grown accustom to the “perpetual beta” status of many pieces of software released in this day and age, though it’s a bit more jarring for console gamers who’re used to seeing a bit more refinement in release titles.
For those who’re willing to stick it out and accept the game’s current imperfections, there’s no shortage of things to like about Project CARS, and if you’re a console gamer looking for a hardcore racing simulator for the current hardware on the market, there’s no question that Project CARS offers the most honest and unapologetic representation of wheel to wheel racing available today.