Project CARS, or Community Assisted Racing Simulator as its acronym stands for, has been in development for almost four years. Originally destined for PS3 and Xbox 360, its protracted gestation has resulted in its rather welcome transition to new generation consoles (as well as its primary platform, PC).
On Xbox One it faces stiff competition in the form of a couple of Forza titles, while on PS4 it has an easier time up against the slightly disappointing DriveClub – although it will eventually have serious competition in the form of Gran Turismo, whenever Polyphony finally decides to ship its much-anticipated racer.
Yet despite being up against fierce competition, I don’t think Project CARS has much to worry about. Firstly, it's a damn good game in its own right, but secondly, it's a little different from all the aforementioned racers in that it's a hardcore racing sim. There's no winning cars in this game, or indeed a rewind feature. It's all about building a career by racing cars in competitive series that usually play out with multiple practice and qualifying sessions.
While that mightn't sound like much of a differentiator, and indeed it is a subtle thing, comparatively, the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo feel like racing games compared to Project CARS much more sim approach. The former games start you off with basic cars, with the objective to earn cash by winning races so you can afford to buy even more powerful cars, and ultimately grind your way to the game's top tiers of vehicles. There's structure to those games, and a – convoluted, admittedly – path through them.
Not so Project CARS. The player starts… wherever they want, because nothing in the game is locked. All the cars and tracks are available to drive from the get-go. Instead of being given a humble hot hatch or the like, the first thing that happens in this game is that the player selects a career path, which can start at the very highest competitive echelons of if they so wish – Le Mans Prototype racing. Of course, only the very brave or extremely experienced sim racers will want to do that – most will likely opt for one of the lower-end series, such as Kart or Touring Car racing. Once a career path is selected, a couple of contract offers come in from racing teams and you get a car to drive in the series of your choice.
The choice of starting races is very interesting indeed. There are two tiers of karting, three levels of GT races, a touring series, an endurance series, five open-wheel races, and four sports prototype series that go all the way up to Le Mans LMP1 vehicles. Most racing games feature the same types of vehicles that are featured in Project CARS, but they don't necessarily feature as many formal championships as this game does – there are a ton of class races, as well as a wealth of single-make series.
Once you've chosen your inaugural racing series, the action begins with practice sessions, followed by qualifying and then the race proper. Here's where Project CARS begins to show its true sim chops as you try to qualify on a busy field of other cars so that you place well on the grid. And just take note here that qualifying means running a clean lap without running off the track at any point. Yep, like I said, Project CARS is a hardcore sim, and it doesn't take kindly to any nonsense like cutting corners or hitting other cars. If you fail to run a clean lap within the qualifying time limit, you'll start at the back of the grid – which considering races feature upwards of 20 competitors will dash any dreams you might have of a podium place…
One of the concessions the game makes in terms of niceties is the level of the AI racers' abilities. I'll say at this point that the AI is generally good, and the computer drivers race intelligently (apart from on packed starting grids where they can be somewhat temperamental in very heavy traffic). What you can do, however, is decrease the level of your competitors' speed, and dial it all the way down to a point where it's possible to lap 19 other competitors in a two-lap race. If that's fun for you, that means you can pretty much set up the game so that you don't have to worry about running qualifying laps.
Tailoring the game to suit your racing prowess or lack thereof is one of the most important aspects of Project CARS, and it caters very well to players in this respect. There are a wide variety of parameters that can be fiddled with so you can set up your game in a way that's perfect for you. If you want slow AI and all the control assists turned on, you can do just that. Likewise, you can dial the AI up to extremely skilled, turn off all the assists, turn off the racing line, turn on damage and tire wear, and have at it in a highly realistic sim-like fashion.
The sheer level of customization is one of the game's real assets and lets you set up Project CARS pretty much to suit your style. And you need to, because when it comes down to racing itself, the game can definitely be very challenging – especially on practice and qualifying laps where tires might be cold and slippery, and even more so when it's raining and the conditions are even more challenging. This is where the game holds no quarter. Some tracks are also more difficult to drive on than others. There are a few tracks that feel like bumpy, pencil-thin ribbons of tarmac, and staying on the road at speed can be very tough – especially in more powerful cars.
I noticed this fairly early on in my career. I started off driving a Renault Clio, and then moved up to a GT5 Ginetta, both of which were fairly easy to drive. Thanks to me being successful in both those races and getting the attention of other racing teams, I then got invited to a historical touring car race where I found the Ford Escort RS1600 very hard to drive – especially at Oulton Park, which is a quite challenging raceway anyway. The car's brakes were not great, and it didn't seem to have much in the way of grip, and I just couldn't keep it on the track.
The following season I moved up to GT4 and drove an Aston Martin Vantage, which I found was quite straightforward to drive, but then I got invited to a track day and drove a Caterham Superlight R500, which was pretty much undrivable for me. Your mileage may vary, of course, but what I'm ultimately saying is that some of the cars and some of the tracks in this game are extremely challenging, and even with the game set up the way you want it to be, you still might have trouble driving in certain situations. So be prepared to put in a lot of practice to master some of the higher-end cars.
One of the highlights of Project CARS is its variable racing conditions. From bone dry sunny days and driving at sunset into the darkness to dark and dingy overcast weather and racing in a torrential downpour, this game offers an incredible range of dynamic driving conditions – some of which can be very challenging to drive under. I got invited to a Ford Focus RS invitational at Sonoma and had to drive in what was without doubt the most atrocious conditions I've ever seen in a racing game – I could barely see the car in front in front of me. I ended up coming in at the tail end of the race, simply because it was so difficult to drive. This sort of situation isn't untypical of Project CARS. I've had any number of races start out dry, and then a weather system rolls in and the final few laps end up being raced in a downpour – or indeed start out in the rain and end with the sun peeking through the clouds. It certainly makes for interesting, varied, and often quite challenging racing conditions.
Graphically, Project CARS is top-tier. It does have the very occasional glitch – the odd strange pop-up on certain landscape features and filtering overlays that are a little too obvious – but for the most part the game is beautiful to behold. The atmospheric and light filtering effects are absolutely terrific, and ultimately the game is very realistic to look at. The audio is excellent too, and the racing cars all sound very convincing. Again, there are a few sound glitches – I've had the engine sound drop out a couple of times – but generally speaking, it's a great-sounding racing game.
The AI can also glitch under certain situations. I've come into the pits and spun into the wall, and watched as the AI took well over a minute to figure out how to get back onto the road – which cost me the race. Also, opponents can spin into walls and get stuck too, and like I said, the AI can sometimes bunch up and drive very slowly on packed grids – which happens on most races. It can make fast starts quite challenging since cars are weaving back and forth as they jockey for position. I'm wondering if a future patch could fix these problems. I hope so. It's not like the game is riddled with bugs, but they are definitely there, and while they're not exactly game-breaking, it would be good to get them ironed out.
Apart from its occasional bugs, the only other aspect of the game that feels a little weak is online. While it's possible to set up any kind of race you want – there's a huge roster of different conditions and parameters you can set – there's no matchmaking. You have to search using rather rudimentary tools for an interesting racing series, and then wait in a lobby for everyone to start. As a consequence, finding a decent race ends up being quite time-consuming – especially since it seems people drop in and out of lobbies and races all the time, which can make it rather frustrating.
There are community events to participate in, but those too are simple: laps around a specific track in a specific car. There are leaderboards associated with each event, but there are no ghosts to download or anything like that. I guess that fits with the somewhat hardcore nature of Project CARS, but I'd have liked to be able to download a competitive ghost to help me improve my lap times by learning from other people. It just seems to be an opportunity missed.
But otherwise, Project CARS is a truly brilliant racing game that offers an impressive number of racing locations and some really exciting cars to drive. It's a game you have to work with to set up to suit your own style, it does have some uncompromising elements, and some of its cars require a lot of practice and patience to drive well, but there's no doubting that it delivers absolutely terrific, very visceral-feeling racing action.
While it doesn't quite feature the sheer wealth of cars of other racing games, its selection is broad and interesting. There's something for everybody, and the in-depth tuning options mean that this is more a racing game where you'll choose your favorite vehicles and make them your own through endless tuning and fettling, rather than filling your garage up with cars that you'll only drive a few times.
I don’t think Project CARS is for everybody – despite being very accessible in terms of the sheer volume of customization, it's not an easy game to drive – but for those who are up for one of the most interesting and involving racing challenges money can currently buy, it's a must.
Complex menus are generally well designed to make using the game quick and easy.
The sheer volume of parameters that can be tweaked, and the incredibly deep car tuning options make this a racing game with huge potential lasting appeal.
Visceral-sounding engine noises make the game sound highly authentic.
Absolutely stunning-looking. Exceptionally realistic, and its lighting and atmospheric effects are brilliant.
Project CARS features an excellent roster of cars and tracks, and delivers some of the most exciting and visceral racing action money can buy. It's not for everyone, since driving the game can be quite tough, even with all the assists turned on, but for those who are up for a challenge, few other racing games are as involving and potentially rewarding as this.