Game Review: Project Cars

Everyone has their moment in Project Cars.

Mine came during the Brands Hatch round of the Ginetta G40 Junior Cup, rounding Druids and watching a full field of 19 other Ginettas in an assortment of liveries tumble down the circuit’s iconic first corner, Paddock Hill Bend, at dusk.

As a baseball fan, it reminded me of playing MLB The Show on PlayStation 4 for the very first time, beholding the immaculately-rendered new Yankee Stadium in all its grandeur, hearing the crisp roar and boom of the crowd with a depth and a fullness that no other sports simulation had ever matched before.

I’ve played many racing games in my life, and some have been very good at simulating the sensations of driving a car. None, however, have been this good at simulating the event of a race; the grandiosity of motorsport. None have made me feel the way I felt when I went to Brands Hatch, and watched Ginettas fly around the track between BTCC rounds. Project Cars did, and that’s no small feat.

It’s likely that your first experience with Project Cars will go something like this, if you’re using a gamepad: you’ll climb into a low-powered car, maybe a Renault Clio which seems inoffensive enough. You’ll leave the pits, apply braking pressure with ample room before the first corner, turn in and immediately spin off track.

This probably happened for several reasons, not the least of which being the fact that you’re new. That aside, the second most important reason you spun is because your tires were cold. You never had to plan for that in Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport. But you do now.

You’ll have to think about a lot of things that before would have only crossed your mind on a Sunday morning as Lewis Hamilton’s armchair engineer. These are the things that make Project Cars insanely rewarding, and simultaneously inaccessible for most people. If you’re not most people, welcome to racing nirvana.

The philosophy here is that racing, and the satisfaction of a hard-fought win should be rewarding in and of themselves.

The bread and butter, as you’d expect, is the career mode. Unlike any console racing game in recent memory, everything in Project Cars is open from the moment it boots up. All its cars, tracks, and racing disciplines are there for the taking, and the game leaves it up to you to decide where your career shall begin, much like a sports game would.

You could start at the bottom and work your way up to Cars’ equivalent of Formula 1, or the World Endurance Championship. You could also skip all of that and go straight there, though I’d recommend that building your skills over subsequent classes will ultimately improve your driving. Either way, point is this is not a game that holds the player’s hand. It doesn’t dangle cash, upgrades, or vehicles in front of you as motivation. The philosophy here is that racing, and the satisfaction of a hard-fought win should be rewarding in and of themselves. Fortunately in Project Cars, they are.

While I cannot say Project Cars is necessarily the most fun racer I’ve ever played from a physics standpoint, it is one of the most realistic and satisfying. You will spend a fair bit of time fighting snap liftoff oversteer in many rear-wheel drive cars, and barge-esque understeer in a couple front-wheel drive hatchbacks. You’ll find cars you like, and cars you don’t. Some are easy, some are hard, and not all of them are a blast; that’s life, and life is Project Cars. But when you find one that fits your driving style, and you get it right, few feats in gaming will match the satisfaction.

That surge of accomplishment will be multiplied ten-fold in close races with the A.I., because my god does the computer fight a good fight. Of course, difficulty is modifiable to the player’s liking (on a scale ranging from 1 to 100, no less), but the game will make you work for your podiums if you let it. These aren’t the mindless, anemic drones you remember from Gran Turismo, nor do they follow Forza’s example of emulating a grid composed entirely of Pastor Maldonado clones. They’ll avoid you, but they’re also not afraid to strong arm you when they have to. They’ll make mistakes and occasionally frustrate you, just like real drivers do.

To call Project Cars ambitious is an understatement; few racing titles have attempted to replicate such a wide array of motorsport disciplines, and the ones that have typically lack crucial features, like weather effects, day-to-night transitions, or even pit stops. None of that, however, makes Cars truly unique among its competitors – though they are certainly valued inclusions. No, what really makes this game special is the sheer number of vehicles it can fill a circuit with.

If you hail from a background of PC simulators, none of this will be new. But if you’re a disciple of the church of Gran Turismo or Forza, Project Cars’ max of 45-car fields will be a revelation. Obvious as it seems, you can’t have a realistic representation of most motorsports with just 15 competitors. Jacking up the grid size allows Project Cars to faithfully recreate the 24 Hours of Le Mans, for example. It creates an environment where it isn’t necessary or even preferred to win every event every time, because the moments when you’re pushing through the middle of the pack are the ones that will shine brightest once the race is over.

Granted, the game will often stumble delivering all those cars on track at a consistently high framerate, resulting in spontaneously jittery gameplay that, at its absolute worst, might cause you to lose control at crucial points during a race. Throw weather into the mix and Project Cars will struggle to crack 40 frames-per-second on PS4. The story isn’t any better on Xbox One, making framerate the single greatest reason why the PC is unequivocally the best option here.

Mind you, if a console is your only choice, you won’t come away disappointed. Many events are held to 20 or 30 competitors, which the PS4 can easily handle when rain isn’t involved. It may or may not be encouraging to know that the issues that ultimately hold Project Cars back will appear regardless of the machine you use to play it.

I’ve crossed the line in second only to be awarded with first. I’ve entered the pit lane only to learn – then and not a moment earlier – that my teammate was occupying the box and I’d have to drive through and try again next lap, ruining an otherwise flawless run. I’ve been automatically started on extreme wet tires because I finished the previous race on the same compound. Some of these are blatant glitches, while others are simply design flaws that need to be addressed. And they’re not all that surprising given the title’s massive scope. Fortunately, I’ve never encountered an issue with racing online, which is quite surprising given how many other games are failing in that department despite exponentially higher development budgets. Sony’s social-centric racer Driveclub suffered from crippling server capacity issues at launch that were only rectified two months later. I’m glad to report the same is not true for Project Cars.

There’s so much more to say. I could talk about the game’s killer track roster and small but varied selection of cars. I could talk about the little things, like how each vehicle has a deep selection of fictional liveries that raise the authenticity of the experience. I could talk about the graphics, remarkable level of detail and excellent lighting that perfectly set the atmosphere. Point is, I could go on – but much like actually going to a race, you need to experience it for yourself to really understand.

All of Project Cars’ glitches and bugs could be ironed out; whether or not they will be is another story. And nothing the game brings to the table is strictly revolutionary on its own. We’ve seen titles before with weather, or large grids, or day-to-night cycles, or full race weekends – but very few have them all. What makes Cars special is that it unites all these disparate innovations in one package. In doing that, it becomes the most realistic racing simulator on the market today, not simply in terms of how it drives, or how its A.I. operates, but how perfectly it captures the spectacle of motorsport. And as a racing fan, I cannot think of any greater praise.

 –Adam Ismail

Project Cars was reviewed on a PS4 with a DualShock 4 controller.

Photos courtesy of Project Cars’ Flickr photostream