Project Cars Preview: Looks like a Thoroughbred

Project Cars Preview: Looks like a Thoroughbred

Project Cars is almost ready to roll out of the garage, and by the looks of things, Gran Turismo and Forza might well have new competition.

I've had my eye on Project Cars ever since I took it for a spin at E3 2014. Even though the demo was short, it was impressive – starting out as a night race, with the sun slowly rising until you crossed the finish line in the early morning sunshine.

Since then, I've been dying to play it again, and I finally got the chance to do just that at a Namco demo event last week thanks to the PS4 demo they had on display.

The product of British developer Slightly Mad Studios, Project CARS is set for release initially on PC, Xbox One and PS4, with later versions slated for Steam OS and Wii U. The game differentiates itself from the more established racers with a sandbox approach to competitive driving. From the very start, all cars and tracks are unlocked, and it's up to the player to decide which path they'd like to take through the game, from Kart and Track Day racing all the way to high-end GT and Les Mans Prototypes.

The action is focused heavily on the racing experience, with events taking place over several days and incorporating shakedown, qualifying laps and the races themselves. Weather also plays an important part of the proceedings, and conditions can change dynamically during races, and from day to day.

Project Cars features almost 70 marques, which isn't many when compared to the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza, but then again, they're almost all racing vehicles – except for some exotic road cars - so there's at least some focus on a specific car type, rather than the very broad spread other games tend to offer. The game also features 52 different circuits, and two point-to-point road courses, which is very impressive, and will help deliver a wide variety of races once track variations are factored in.

For my first session, I chose a Ford Focus RS and the Brands Hatch Indy circuit, which I know quite well, having driven it in real life. What's immediately impressive is the quality of the graphics. Brands Hatch is very faithfully rendered, and the game captures its changes in elevation exceptionally realistically. Trackside graphics and the overall lighting are both very lifelike, and the end result is a game that can easily stand up to the best of them – Project Cars certainly gives Forza 5 a very good run for its money.

I played using a steering wheel setup, and found the game accurately simulated the characteristics of the car, with heavy understeer when driving too quickly into a corner, but with hints of lift-off oversteer when I aggressively backed off the throttle mid-corner. It was very fun to drive, and after a few laps I felt very comfortable with the way the car was set up.

Next up, I moved onto an old E30 M3 racing car and tackled the full Silverstone course. Again, the car's handling characteristics seemed to be faithfully captured, with the old Beemer oversteering into corners at excessive speed, or when the power was put down too early into mid corner. Once I started to tidy up my driving, the car handled perfectly – light, responsive but needing a little respect on the throttle to keep everything in line. Again, the track was rendered very realistically, and after a lap or two, I was so involved in the action, I almost forgot where I was. This is a great, great driving game.

For my last session, I switched to an Audi R8 and took to the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca course – another track I've driven in real life. The more powerful car took a little getting used to, but once I'd gotten a feel for the Audi's speed and steering, the car again felt very realistic, delivering an impression of weight transfer more akin to Gran Turismo than the slightly lighter-feeling Forza. Ultimately, it was very fun to drive, and I managed a couple of clean laps before over-doing it and spinning out on Rainey Curve, a little further down the track from the Corkscrew.

I finished my sessions feeling very impressed. From the graphics to the sim-like handling of the vehicles, Project Cars is looking absolutely top-notch. I really like the concept of having a completely open game, and working your way through what is essentially a driving career – it definitely positions Project Cars differently to most other racers out there. I also like the lineup of cars. Ranging from classic open-wheeled racers thought GT3 and GT2 cars to Le Mans prototypes, the game features a broad range of track-focused cars which deliver almost every kind of driving experience imaginable.

If I'm sounding enthusiastic, then I'm saying the right words: I'm really keen to play the production version of Project Cars to see whether the quality of this demo extends throughout the rest of this game. If it does, it looks like we're in for quite a rare treat. Fortunately, we only have just over a month to wait: Project Cars is set for a March 17th release.

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