Project CARS, or the Community Assisted Racing Simulator Project, is a driving simulator from Slightly Mad Studios, developed with the help of bespoke crowdfunding and latterly, Bandai Namco’s publishing expertise. It’s a true physics-based piece of technology which clearly belongs to the PC but is also on the current generation of consoles, with some design executed with that in mind. It’s here for petrolheads to delve deep into and do whatever they want in any number of cars they want, in various locations around the world. It’s also here for Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport fans to pick up and play their way through a sparkling - or otherwise - career. It’s a jack of all trades, then, but remarkably also a master of one. That is, the driving.
As a driving simulation it’s hard to imagine what more could be afforded to anyone interested in such things. First of all you have the breadth of vehicles you can drive, race in and compete with. There is karting and Formula One analogue vehicles (Project CARS doesn’t have any fancy licences, alas), many formulae in-between, touring cars, Le Man Prototype racing and you can just get out there in many real-world cars from the Pagani Huayra to the Lykan HyperSport. You can tackle any of these vehicles anyway you like. You can free drive, organise a solo race weekend, build a career - and here, you can start at the bottom or at the top, whichever you prefer. Or both if you fancy multiple career saves running concurrently.
The career mode is what those used to the aforementioned console superpowers of driving would be likely to gravitate towards. The twist here is that you do not need to earn your shot at Formula One, or Le Mans racing. You can jump straight in at the top tier if that’s what you fancy. Everything is unlocked from the get-go. The cars, the tracks, the levels. It’s rather unsettling at first as you don’t know what to do. It also runs the risk of letting people loose with extremely powerful vehicles before they’re ready. It’s not the case though. Once you choose how you’d like to play you’ll learn through doing at that level. Taking on a kart is different to a touring car and that in turn is different to a prototype racer. Sure, you lose that curve from slow to fast but in practice everything else you need is there, as long as you’re happy with that choice.
Career mode is a decent attempt at such things. It lacks the polish and pizazz that might be expected, but it does help build the excitement and echo the disappointment achieved on-track. You start off accepting one of multiple drives and from there embark on various events as detailed in your calendar. Each event is the full shebang, with practice, qualifying and the race (or races) itself. You get championship points from how you place, but also bonuses from elsewhere, like grid position and so on. It means the whole weekend is engaging if you want to play it all. You can simulate certain aspects - and more once you’ve raced enough laps yourself - so if practice isn’t your thing or you think you’ve aced qualifying straight off the bat, you can move to the next stage. Racing itself is remarkably entertaining. It’s a simulation, yes, but as long as you’ve been taking notes through qualifying you’ll be competitive. The AI is good in its role. Unlike games like Gran Turismo the other cars on the track have different minds, rather than all ambling around the exact same line at the exact same speed. They’re all proper racers, so you won’t necessarily get meaty one-on-ones around every overtaking opportunity, you’d need to go online for that, but it all seems real enough to punch the air if you get first place at the death. Outside of the races your career is followed by fans who tweet you, sponsors and other teams who (hopefully) want you and more of that ilk, reminiscent of Grid and how that racer built the meta-world around the actual game, that is, the driving.
The driving itself is excellent. It’s a pleasure to take out your chosen vehicle and have it behave as you’d expect it to behave. The handling and physical aspects of the engine Slightly Mad have put in place here is glorious, in all honesty. A kart handles differently to another car which itself handles differently once again to others. The subtlety of difference in the feel and use of your chosen car extends past just that first choice, too. Every single aspect of the setup is changeable. You can alter tyre pressure to impact under and oversteer. You can change the camber, the fuel load and many more options which will mean something to enthusiasts and little to others! Some guidance to each setting is provided in text format but there’s no real tutorial or anything. You do have an engineer who can help you troubleshoot though. It’s flabbergasting the extent of customisability you have over your car. You can apply global settings for all cars you have, or save a setup for each. You can also save setups for a car in particular circumstances, i.e. endurance racing or wet weather (the dynamic weather effects are brilliant). The same is possible regarding pit stop strategies. You really can do whatever you want and the changes are all noticeable in-game. Early on I was consistently understeering in the faster cars thanks to my preferred, aggressive, style of racing. To combat this I dipped into car setups and changed tyre pressure and camber to give me less understeer and generally better control when cornering. Immediately I was better in races. The game is designed to use a steering wheel of course, and whilst this is absolutely the best way to enjoy it, use of the DualShock 4 was surprisingly good, something unexpected given the simulation nature versus arcade style driving. Some might find they need to play with the gamepad settings to get the sensitivity right, alongside the car setup, but it is a suitable way to play the game.
If real, in-depth simulation is not for you then Project CARS isn’t really for you either. The career mode is not as involving or polished as something like Gran Turismo and car collecting is not the driver of progress. It’s all about performance, times and manipulation of the drive in-hand. If you only ever play things like Driveclub or the Need for Speed series, then this is unlikely to work for you, and in fact will become quite frustrating early on. Graphically the game works well, and all tracks are lovingly recreated as you’d expect, as are the cars. But outside of the tracks themselves things are uncluttered and simple, belying the lesser budget nature of the game and missing something compared to the current pinnacles of driving game visuals, Driveclub and Forza Motorsport 5. When weather gets going, or lots of things are happening onscreen slowdown can occur too, taking the 1080p60 output and dropping it noticeably. It’s minimal but off putting when it happens. You have multiple views to choose from, helmet cam being the obvious one for the purist - and one which shows just how difficult driving these beasts in real life must be.
Online lacks some polish, too. You can join or create any kind of race and the netcode is very well implemented meaning that races can be joyous, especially if you gather with a group and a particular aim (racing around the Nurburgring in an Ariel Atom with no assists, for example). However you either find a session from the list available, or wait whilst others fill your creation. There’s not much helping you find exactly what you want and this, plus just waiting for lobbies to fill-up, can lead to many wasted minutes.
Slightly Mad Studios should be commended for what they’ve achieved here. A true simulation with driving that handles fantastically, is sensitive to setup changes and feels true in the hand. They’ve wrapped this core up inside a simple but freeform career enabling anyone to jump in where they’d like and take it from there. It’s all done with very little fanfare or explanation, and this can mean folks are overwhelmed, or just unknowing. Progress is what each individual wants it to be in the end, and many will find the lack of structure an irritant. As a piece of technology it’s clear the effort has gone into the physics - rightly so - but it leaves the whole presentation slightly behind the competition. Having said that, this is quite simply the best driving simulator available on the current generation of consoles, and is probably the best overall package for PC racers as well. If you want to learn how to drive the vehicles you can’t get ahold of in real life, this is for you. If you want a real racing experience this is for you. If you want to collect them all, or have a bit of fun, then you’re better off waiting for Gran Turismo or getting an arcade racer instead. For the most realistic driving simulation available though, Project CARS is all you’ll need.