In the world of mainstream simulation racing there are only two names; Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. If you move to PC you get the fanatical following of iRacing, but otherwise, there is little room for another simulation racer. Project CARS looks to change that by muscling its way onto all three platforms. From first blush, the game has the goods to be a legitimate competitor, but despite some seriously strong bones, there is little of substance under the pretty skin.
To be a successful racer in today’s market you need to have four things; cars, tracks, good looks and fun.
With 35 course locations, and more than 100 track configurations total, Project CARS has nailed the tracks part of the formula better than any current-gen racer available. There are a fair number of small tracks that many people won’t recognize like Ruapuna Park in New Zealand or the handful of British Karting tracks, but there is also a nice collection of big names on this list. The Nurbugring, Mount Panorama, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, Road America, and more are all included. Then there are the special road courses that Project CARS brings to the party that really make for some dramatic events. The Pacific Coast Highway from California and Azure Coast from Southern France make for incredible point-to-point races while also adding a nice dash of beautiful scenery.
Then we move to the cars, and things start to fall apart for Project CARS. As of this writing, there are only 89 cars in Project CARS. That includes every single piece of DLC or extra content listed on the game’s website, as well as six yet unnamed vehicles. If you have just the base copy of the game like I do, you have even less cars to choose from. I sadly have more bad news. From that already small list of cars, fourteen are Karts or open-wheel racers, then there is large handful of Le Mans prototype cars clogging up that collection. If you are a fan of cars that could ever be road legal in some way, you are left with closer to fifty to choose from.
There is also a pretty big brand deficiency. You will find nothing in Project CARS that wears the name Lamborghini, Ferrari, Chevrolet, Dodge, Porsche, Subaru, or Volkswagen. You won’t see Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Maserati, or Bugatti either. Thankfully, there are at least some interesting sets of wheels from the small list. There is the Lykan HyperSport, a trio of Paganis, five different McLarens, some great classic Audis, and several legendary BMW models as well. All that said, when you have substantially more track layouts than actual cars to race on those tracks, I feel there is an issue.
There is not a lot of cars, but every single one of those cars is presented in the most realistic and beautiful way I have seen yet in a video game. The level of detail and realism built into Project CARS is beyond anything available currently. The shine of the paint, the deep detail on the creases, wheels, body lines and more is stunning. The interiors show that same level of detail, and your driver even shows the benefit. Your driver is equipped with a set of racing gloves, and you can see the slight fuzz of the suede, and you can count the stitching on the gloves. On levels like the PCH in California, the sun shines through the window and casts great shadows across the interior. When the weather changes, you get reflections in puddles, the light scatters and is obstructed by heavy downpours, and the spray that flies at you when you are chasing someone down a wet road is amazing.
So Project CARS has the tracks and the looks down, but it lacks a bit in the car department. That just leaves us with the fun factor. As it turns out, this is what will make or break the game for about 90-percent of people.
Project CARS is a simulation racer, and that title usually comes with a certain level of hesitation for a lot of casual and console gamers. If you spend your time on the couch with a controller, your simulation racer world consists of little more than Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. If that is the bubble you live in, Project CARS will pop it faster than an airbag hitting you in the face after a crash. If you start turning off the safety aids this game is extremely brutal, especially to new players. The physics are some of the best I have ever seen in a console game, but that means that it can be harder to succeed. This game has been built to take full advantage of a steering wheel setup, and controller inputs are just not calibrated properly out of the box. If you have a wheel setup, you should be ok, but it might be time to invest.
If you are a PC sim racer, and you have logged in many hours on a game like iRacing, then you will feel right at home as soon as you fire the game up. Once again, the only caveat is your input choice. Trying to play this game with a keyboard is laughable, and using an Xbox 360 controller is suicide. The issue with those is a lack of gradient input. A keyboard input is either on or off, and the Xbox 360 triggers are too shallow to allow for good pedal application. Basically, in every turn you are going to light up the rear and tires and spin. If you have the newer Xbox One controller, you can use it after a fair amount of time tuning sensitivities.
Moving on from the control issues that players may experience, the actual racing in Project CARS is a lot of fun. The AI cars are aggressive and they won’t just let you pass around every corner, and the advanced physics stops you from just lowing around everyone in a huge drift with the throttle nailed. The various tracks keep things feeling fresh even after several hours of playing. In fact, I spent the first six hours just playing around with various cars and tracks, and I never once revisited the exact same circuit layout twice.
This is a pure racing game though, and there is absolutely zero progression built into the program as far as unlocks go. From the moment you turn it on, you have access to every car and track. While this is a great way to let me get right into the exact type of racing I want to, it takes something away from the game. Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, and even Need for Speed games are all built on this idea that as you play, you get better and bigger rewards in the form of more tracks or faster cars. Without that incentive, I find myself less drawn to play Project CARS. I am in the small collection of simulation racers that really loves the incredible challenge this game can provide, but I still don’t yearn to play it. In games like Forza, I find myself playing just so I can get that next reward, that new car or that new track. Even if I have been playing for a couple hours, I will give myself “one more race” because I am so close to affording that new Ferrari. With Project CARS I play until I’m done, and then I turn it off. It can’t hold me in and keep me playing.
There is a multiplayer mode for Project CARS, and that could potentially make the game even better, but I have yet to play a single match. The small player base, and pretty much broken matchmaking system means that despite my best efforts, I was never able to engage in a race with another living human being.
So let’s recap. Project CARS is the most beautiful looking and realistic racing game you can currently play on any console, and it has more tracks than any of its competition, but there is a very small collection of cars, it almost forces you to buy a racing wheel to get the most from it, and the multiplayer is laughably broken. If Project CARS was a PC only game, it would make a lot of sense. PC racers are usually more heavily invested in the genre and will likely have racing wheels to play with. For Console gamers who are used to a more casual experience, Project CARS will be a harsh wake-up call to the realities of simulation racing games.
I was discussing all of my thoughts with a colleague, and he came up with the perfect way to help me describe Project CARS. Games like Gran Turismo and Forza are just that, games. Project CARS on the other hand is much more like a tool that can be used to make you a better driver and racer, much in the same way that Formula One teams use sims for driver training. I personally found myself enjoying this game a lot more than I have any right to, and if you want a tool to make you a better driver, Project CARS is perfect. If you are a gamer that likes cars and just wants to have some fun, you are probably better off waiting for Forza 6 to arrive this fall.
This review of Project CARS was conducted using a PC copy provided by Slightly Mad Studios as well as an Xbox One copy that was purchased at a local retailer.
OUR TEST RIG
Project CARS is a visually demanding game, and it will perform differently on various computer setups. We are providing our current test-bench setup here. This is not a recommendation for you to follow to play this game, but merely a point of comparison for you to use against your own gaming computer.