Game Review: Project CARS

By Winding Road Staff

May 11, 2015

As gaming hardware becomes more sophisticated and simulator setups more elaborate, our expectations for racing games that are touted for their realism have grown to leave little room for compromise. Additionally, racing titles that see release for both PCs and gaming consoles often lean toward the latter in terms of accessibility and, in turn, are fundamentally compromised as simulators.
Project CARS has sought to remedy this issue by incorporating the direct involvement of their PC user base throughout the title’s development process, yielding what is undoubtedly the most honest depiction of wheel to wheel racing seen thus far on traditional gaming consoles, offering a hardcore approach to video game racing that was formerly available only to PC gamers by way of games like iRacing.
With Gran Turismo’s latest entry likely still years away and the Forza franchise aiming their current focus on the more casual, arcade-style Horizon titles, there’s a niche left to be filled for console gamers looking to get an authentic racing experience without shelling out the coin required to get a PC capable of properly running the latest racing simulators available. Enter Slightly Mad Studios with Project CARS.
What’s the idea behind Project CARS?
Slightly Mad Studios is best known for their work on the Need for Speed: Shift series, which splits the difference between arcade and simulation racing in an approach similar to games like GRID. With Project CARS (Community Assisted Racing Simulator) Slightly Mad Studios took an unconventional route, creating a program in which the title was crowd funded by the gaming community, and in turn backers were given access to elements of the game as development progressed so creators could use their feedback to help shape the game’s design.
Four years later, the studio is ready to offer Project CARS to the public, sporting more than 100 different courses among 30 locations, and over seventy vehicles which span karts, production and production-based race cars, open wheel racers, and even LMP1 prototypes. Development is said to be on-going even after the title hits the streets, with more of everything expected in the coming months.
In contrast to the current console racing simulator standards, Project CARS will be available on a wide array of hardware, with the game initially launching on Windows, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 this month, and subsequent releases for Steam OS and Wii U scheduled for later in 2015.
What’s the gameplay like in Project CARS?
If you’ve been longing for an uncompromised racing simulator experience on a console and find current list of options to be lacking in authenticity, Project CARS will likely be right up your alley. However, if you prefer simplicity and a forgiving learning curve, you might find yourself frustrated by the game’s painstaking efforts to provide a realistic experience.
Throughout the game, be it on-track or simply going through the steps of career mode, there’s a general expectation of familiarity with the processes involved in wheel to wheel racing, be it in the form of things like practice and qualifying sessions before race events, or the fact that the game lacks a traditional progression system like you’d normally find in a racing title, meaning that you’re provided with immediate access to all of the game’s cars, tracks, and race events from the first time you fire up the game with no licensing or other tests required to get started.
In line with that approach, Project CARS doesn’t make much of an effort to accommodate those seeking an arcade racing experience   – you will not find a “rewind” feature here to rely on in case you overcook a turn, and the kind of ham-fisted inputs and paint-trading that are often tolerated in more forgiving racing games can and will send you into a tire wall in Project CARS, often requiring you to restart the event. Much like in real world racing, patience is truly a virtue here.
So, despite our initial desire to immediately jump into a high-horsepower race series, dialing our ego back and starting off in karting classes ended up being ultimately more rewarding. While moving straight into GT3 seemed appealing, the kart classes offered less frustration and a greater understanding of Project CARS’ sensitive and nuanced controls, as the wider margin of error allowed us to staying competitive while learning the limits of the car and our skill. This gradual progress made moving up the ranks to faster cars feel more like a natural transition rather than an exercise in maintaining restraint.
Whether this is a breath of fresh air or an invitation to throw your controller across the room ultimately depends on what you’re looking for in a racing game.
What are the physics like in Project CARS?
Project CARS touts a “class leading suspension and tire model”, and while it’s true that both grip and car behavior feel like some of the most true-to-life depictions we’ve experienced in a racing simulator, there are some areas that could still do with a bit of polish. Seeing a car’s composure around a corner change based on which tires are loaded up with the car’s weight is a level of detail we haven’t really experienced in a racing title before, and adds another level of strategy and immersion to the proceedings.
Unfortunately some of that immersion is taken away by the collision physics, which might remind some of the “bumper car effect” found in Gran Turismo titles in which cars seem to bounce off one another without much weight behind the impact – an element of the physics model where Forza Motorsport still feels more completely realized than Project CARS.
Additionally, while we’re not entirely sure if this is a product of the game itself or simply the limitations of a traditional thumbstick controllers, we found at times that it was frustratingly difficult to make worthwhile mid-corner corrections – more often than we’d care to admit, it simply ended up in a spin, or the game seemed to simply ignore out counter-steering inputs entirely. To be fair, obviously a number of other factors can attribute to this (throttle input, the corner, the car, entry speed, etc). Your results may vary, and this also may simply be an excuse to move up to a proper racing wheel setup for more precise control.   
How are the visuals and sound in Project CARS?
Project CARS promised to be a graphical powerhouse since screenshots first started rolling out years ago, and the finished product doesn’t disappoint. While it’s become obligatory for racing simulators to use incredibly detailed car models, and Project CARS certainly does, it’s the racing environment which often impresses most. Lighting will change dynamically throughout a race based on weather and time of day, creating not only dynamic changes in grip, but in visibility as well, be it from the wake of another car in the rain or the change of the position of the sun over the race course.
Similarly, Project CAR’s sound design is top notch, not only in terms of capturing each car’s unique roar, but also with its attention to details like wind noise, differential whine, and the onset of tire slip. When it all works together, it works extremelywell.
Final Thoughts
Project CARS saw a slew of delays while in development, pushing the game back nearly a year and half back from its initial release date. After spending a few hours with the game, even at this stage it’s clear it could do with more time in the workshop to polish out the rough edges. That isn’t to say the game is broken on any fundamental level, and there’s no shortage of elements that are executed beautifully in Project CARS, but it does feel a bit unfinished, which does detract from the overall experience on a tangible level.
Further development of the game with assuredly continue as more content comes down the line later this year and beyond, and the game’s minor issues will be quelled accordingly.
Those who’re willing to stick it out and tolerate the game’s current imperfections in the meantime will find plenty to like about Project CARS – assuming they know what to expect from this unapologetic racing simulator going in.