Slightly Mad Studios’ Project Cars, another Kickstarter darling, finally hits shelves after months of delay. Does it make pole position, or spin out on the first corner?
A lot has been made of the hype surrounding Project Cars. From its stunning visuals to its much touted realism, the game has been eagerly anticipated by racing fans everywhere. It’s safe to say that the game itself is probably one of the hardest I’ve ever had to pass judgment on.
Let’s start with the positives. Project Cars has content in spades. Over 65 licensed vehicles and 110 different tracks from over 30 locations, all unlocked from the start, means that there is a bevvy of things to play with and you can dive straight in and throw a super car round the Nurburgring should that take your fancy. There are options for weather conditions, time of day, even time of year – all things that show the games strengths in its sandbox nature, as well as optional driving assists allowing the player to tweak the game to feel more of a sim or more of an arcade racer.
The level of customisation exposes the games PC roots – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a console game where there’s the option to tweak graphics and remove things like bloom lighting and DOF. There’s also a menu where the controls can be tweaked, widening dead zones and adjusting steering sensitivity, however all of these options are presented as sliders with labels and numbers and very little in the way of guidance as to what your tweaks are doing – it’s shockingly easy to render the controls unusable and, with the only way to test the impact on performance to go into a race, the act of fine tuning controls can be a long and laborious task.
The game visuals are, disappointingly, a bit of a mixed bag. Cars are modelled in loving detail and could almost be the real thing. Tracks are also beautifully designed and feel authentic and accurate, with the weather looking particularly delicious, however the visual clarity in the environmental decoration feels drab and boring. Scrutinise trees and grass at the side of the track too closely and they look flat, obviously fake. When you’re speeding along that really doesn’t make a big difference, but put next to, say, DriveClub with it’s incredibly realised locations, cherry blossom falling from the trees in Japan, distant mountains cresting the horizon in Norway, it’s hard not to feel disappointed. It should also be noted that, while the game averages out at a generally smooth 60fps, running at 1080p, there were noticeable frame drops and screen tearing in certain sections.
For a single player, the game has the aforementioned sandbox mode as well as a career mode. As with the sandbox mode, you can jump into your career at any point you wish, whether that be with simple Go Karts, or with high end Formula 1 cars. Progress through races and you’ll get invitations to one off races as well as the ability to branch off into different race types along the tier you’re currently competing in. It feels organic as you can see which other races are going on around you (although you can’t watch them play out which would have been particularly good) and there is a strange, pseudo Twitter feed that you can view between races to gauge public opinion of your current performance. There’s also a solid online mode with lobbies. Performance here is generally favourable with a few stutters noticeable from time to time. A decent feature of the online modes is the ability to create custom race weekends to upload and challenge other players with.
Unfortunately, the menus are a bit lacking, loosely tying these modes together in a way that makes them feel like separate games. The appeal of, say, Gran Turismo where there is a natural career progression through different types of race, unlocking and buying new cars as you go is lost here in favour of realism in the career and of having all of the cars available in the sandbox mode. To a degree, that does make the career slightly less compelling when played with the knowledge that there is no real in-game reward for performing well other than being able to advance further in the career mode.
Where the game really begins to fall apart, however, is when the player begins to take the training wheels off and the steep difficulty curve rears its head. At its heart, Project Cars wants to be a hardcore sim and it succeeds very well in recreating the stubbornness and unpredictability of driving high end cars, almost to its detriment. Start removing the racing assists and you quickly realise how twitchy the default controls are for a console pad. The game certainly feels like it’s been set up for the more nuanced control that a wheel would provide, and using sticks can lead far too often to sending the car snaking across the track in an attempt to correct a skid that really shouldn’t have happened.
There’s also an overwhelming number of tuning options for the cars which can help you in the races however, as with many of the menu options, the game doesn’t offer to teach the player what impact these are likely to have on the car outside of a basic paragraph. A good example of this is tyre heat; something that I never realised was being modelled as the game never explicitly points it out. Racing from cold means that your tyres need to have time to warm up before they reach optimum grip on the track and you can start to be more daring with your cornering. A lack of knowledge of this leads to many moments of “Why is my car behaving like this when I accelerate? It doesn’t seem natural!”
Now, I’m not saying that all games should cater only to the arcade racer crowd and there is certainly room on consoles for the type of hardcore sims that have been present on PC for years now, but Project Cars isn’t really being marketed specifically as a sim. It certainly requires a knowledge of racing and car maintenance that the average player is unlikely to have and it’s possible the game will frustrate with its impenetrability. It also feels like a missed opportunity to actually educate players in the heavier sim elements and help them gain a better understanding of motorsports.
While Project Cars deserves recognition for its technical achievements, its almost impenetrable structure, steep difficulty, lack of immediate guidance for its sim elements and twitchy default controller settings makes it a tough sell for those expecting an experience closer to that of Forza or Gran Turismo.