Project CARS review

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It’s common knowledge that racing simulators are not easy, or cheap, to design and produce. Simply getting the physics modelling as close to perfect as possible takes multiple experts working many hours, let alone the effort that needs to go into visuals, sound, artificial intelligence and online components. For that reason, the genre’s biggest and most successful players are Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport – games backed by the money of Sony and Microsoft, respectively.

Taking into account such financial pressures, this is not a genre that’s at all straightforward to penetrate on a mass scale. Slightly Mad Studios, however, has a bit of an advantage in that it’s an expert in the racing genre – having developed Need for Speed: Shift, Test Drive and others – so it already has a core understanding and set of technologies at its disposal. It also helps that it managed to garner much of the development funds for Project Cars through a hugely successful crowd-funding campaign, ridding them of the need to yield to a publisher’s whims.

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The result is a racing simulator aimed at the mass market, but in a way that is most unlike the aforementioned competition. So many of the traditional rules governing this genre have been broken that it wouldn’t be entirely remiss to say that Project Cars is more an example of racing game evolution than simple continuation. For each element it shares with Forza and Gran Turismo, it brings something that is entirely new.

Most obviously and dramatically, it’s the way that the single player career is structured that sets this apart. Without a cash reward system or experience point bar in sight, the idea of ‘levelling up’ in order to unlock new cars and events is a thing of the past. Almost everything is open from the get go, progression coming from completing seasons racing for a given team in a given vehicle category and division.

One season, you might choose to race go-karts for a small start-up operation, only to find that, five or six seasons later, your stock has risen and you’re now being head-hunted by the biggest names in Touring Cars and beyond. You’re under no obligation to change teams or compete in a certain event, though. If you like, you can opt to jump straight into a Le Mans car and stay in it for your entire career – winning and defending championships in a bid to be recognised as the best driver the sport has ever seen.

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For those that want more career direction there are three incredibly lofty goals to aim for, which you can target individually or, for the truly ambitious, tackle as a collective. The longest and most gruelling of these is ‘Zero to Hero’, the task being to work your way up from the karting ranks to the heights of the Le Mans series (and win it). Another, ‘Defending Champ’, challenges you to retain your championship for three consecutive years in one of the top-tier tournaments, while ‘Triple Crown’ focuses on variety by asking you to win titles in three different car divisions.

Alternatively, you can ignore them all and drive whichever cars you want in the tournament that suit your mood at the time. It’s a liberating and genuinely absorbing way to go about a racing simulator career, completely removing the grind associated with racing the slowest cars in order to eventually be rewarded with the fastest. By taking away the idea that you need to win races to fund the purchase of new cars, you feel much more like a race driver working up the ladder than you ever do in Forza or Gran Turismo. It’s the racing that matters – not your bank balance.

The sentiment is mirrored in the handling model, which is geared much more towards the ‘hardcore’ racing fan than the majority of racers to ever have appeared on a console. If you’re racing with a number of the optional assists on then you’ll have little problem, but as soon as you enter a race naked and without any help then problems will start to reveal themselves for many potential players.

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Project Cars’ handling model is so sensitive that a racing wheel is required if you’re playing without the assists. Yes, you will be able to get the car around the track using an analogue stick, but your level of control will be lacking. To get the most out of this game you are going to need to invest in a new piece of hardware.

That might put off some people, but there’s enough content here to make the upgrade worth the expense. As well as your ever-lasting career, there’s the online realm to tackle with 16-player races across every track and car combination… all unlocked from the off, of course. Finding a good group of people to race against for an evening is a joy given the volume of options available, from full race weekends with variable weather and an hour-long (or even longer) race through to quick three-lap sprints.

The number of car options available to you immediately makes a career exclusively focused on multiplayer a legitimate option. If you don’t want to, you don’t need to touch the single player game at all to get the most out of this package. That’s the real achievement here: that you can play it however you like. By removing any elements of linear progression, Slightly Mad has proven that players are smart enough to come up with their own direction through a game like this. Long may this approach to design reign.

9
The kind of shake-up that this genre badly needed