I was very much interested in Project CARS ever since its crowdfunding days, back before Bandai Namco took them under their wing. I admit I was first taken by the beauty of the title. After all, it was all I could go on until finally getting my hands on it. However, my excitement also came from the developer, Slightly Mad Studios, as they're responsible for the rather underrated Need for Speed Shift games; Two titles that broke away from the dude-bro culture that NFS games presented, and shifted from open-world street races to structured closed circuit competitions. After finally getting my hands on the game, I can certainly see the influence from Shift, but Project CARS takes the genre forward in a lot of good and meaningful ways.
At the core of Project CARS lies the Career Mode. Here you'll create your racing persona, their fake Twitter handle, nationality and race number. You then have the freedom of choosing one of the three car classes, open-wheel, GT and touring, and prototype, with each one having multiple Tiers. For example, The only two options in Tier 8 and Tier 7 are the open-wheel cars, Karts and Super Karts, while Tier 3 and 2 are Formula B and A respectively. Essentially, each Tier is a speed-gate of sorts, and serves as a sort of difficulty marker.
You're never forced to start at the worst Tier in either of the three classes either. You can hop straight to Tier 1 and it's high-speed Le Mans Prototype 1 cars, if you so choose, or start off racing Karts and gradually work your way up each Tier after each racing calendar year.
Admittedly, I didn't love the career as much as I would have hoped. While I love the freedom it presents, it doesn't really offer anything in the way of new unlocks or personal goals. Sure, the better you drive, the more opportunities you have of being noticed, and other sponsors can invite you to race a certain event that's outside of your Tier, but what does it matter if money is irrelevant and non-existent. Sure, there are three Historic Goals that you can choose to pursue if you want, that are presented to you on your driver creation page, but they don't really serve any higher, over-arching purpose.
What I do love about Project CARS are the diverse options of difficulty. It's also why I love the Forza franchise, which offers a suite of options to make the game accessible to new players, and realistic to the hardcore. In the very beginning of the game, you're given three options as to what kind of player you are, and how hard you want the game to be. But all of that can be tweaked further. Racing lines, steering and breaking assistance, stability control, driving assists, damage, tire wear, fuel usage and even the automatic starting of your engine, can all be toggled to suit your preference.
There are even various settings before each race that allows you to modify the game's difficulty. A 100 point scale slider is probably one of the most unique ways I've seen a racing game handle difficulty. Other racing games will have you set your racing AI to Amateur, Novice, Pro, etc. But in Project CARS, you can tweak the driver AI ever so slightly, giving you complete control of how hard or difficult you want your opponents to be.
Slightly Mad Studios' previous Shift games were all about choosing to either drive aggressively or passively, awarding you and shifting your profile accordingly. Things like that don't really fly in Project CARS. If you try to skip a part of the track through the grass, or slam into an opponent, your track time will be invalidated. Aggressively slam into an opponent, and you can be disqualified completely. I actually prefer this system of checks and balances, as it forces me to play smarter, and think about the perfect opportunities to pass an opponent, instead of trying to bump them off the track.
Much like other racing sims, there is no soundtrack blasting through your car speakers as you race. Instead, the aggressive sounds of your engine essentially scream at you as you're shifting through the course. I also love the muffled sound of each car when using the helmet view. It's the little things. You'll also get various radio chatter from your crew that will advise you on various aspects such as how to tackle the next section of the course, play it safe, or complement you on your sweet maneuvers.
But there is so much life outside of the Career Mode as well. Everything from Quick Matches that allow you to pick any car and any track, online modes, to community events posted by the dev team that can not only earn you bragging rights with top spots on leaderboards, but the chance to actually win some real physical items as well. There's also a create feature that allows players to craft their own challenges and then upload them online for others to play.
The game's visuals are also complemented by some gorgeous dynamic weather, that will of course alter the race track. Every time I see rain I tense up a bit, because driving some of the Prototype cars on a slick road is no easy feat, but damn if it doesn't look gorgeous. Aside from the helmet view, which is actually also a feature that was originally in Shift, you have a slew of alternate views that should more or less cater to your playstyle. Likewise for the game's HUD, which is completely customizable. You can drag, re-arrange and even completely turn off various parts of the HUD, which is impressive and a first for a racing game, at least as far as I can remember.
I played a few matches online and have to say that I experienced zero lag. I didn't have a problem connecting to other players (reviewers) and racing against them. After being able to connect effortlessly on both the PC and PS4 version, and actually race against a slew of online opponents, I can safely say that the game works as advertised.. As a footnote, the PC version can support up to 32 players online, while the console versions support up to 16. I haven't experienced either of those high numbers yet.
I played the game both on PC and PS4 and despite the PC version having the upper hand in the graphics department, the PS4 version still looked phenomenal and ran at a smooth 60 frames per second. I do have to hand it to the PC version for being so damn well optimized, as it ran beautifully on our lower end computer as well, while still looking absolutely gorgeous.
Project CARS is very much a passion project, and it certainly shows. While the car selection didn't speak to me as much as say Forza games do, the variety and distinct handling each one had, as well as the extensive detail on both the exterior and interior were extremely impressive. The title also touts Project Morpheus and Oculus Rift support, which is great, but silly since neither of those are available for consumers yet.
If you're very much a fan of the more recent Forza Motorsport games (not the Horizon series) and its approach to a calendar-like career progression, you'll enjoy the offerings of Project CARS. While I would have preferred some sort of progression system that either unlocked new cars or allowed me to purchase them and add them to my garage, other players might appreciate the freedom of allowing players to step into the drivers seat of all the cars from the get go. It's technically impressive, gorgeous, accessible yet challenging and definitely worthy of your gaming collection.
It's technically impressive, gorgeous, accessible yet challenging and definitely worthy of your gaming collection.