LOOSE IN THE CORNERS
With the current generation of consoles still waiting on its first true simulation racing game, long-anticipated title Project CARS arrived on the scene last week after spending years in development. Slightly Mad Studios’ racer is as deep in simulation as the genre offers, but the game’s tires spin a little bit off the line. How does it hold up through the rest of the track?
Simulation racing fans fond of the Gran Turismo or Forza series will feel at home with Project CARS, but it’s tough to recommend it to a Sunday driver looking for a Need for Speed experience. The game required 5-8 hours of adjusting game settings in free practice before I felt comfortable hitting the tracks in a competitive nature. While someone can find these sets all over the Internet now, each player is going to play a little differently and will therefore find an optimum set by adjusting on his or her own.
At first glance, Project CARS (which stands for Community Assisted Racing Simulator) is a visual beauty. After 15-20 hours in the game, its visuals lose some luster but still stand strong. With a limited roster of 60 cars out of the box, Slightly Mad Studios was able recreate each car’s unique bodywork with great fidelity and the view from inside each car is even more stunning.
For fans of the genre who usually zip around the track with the camera following the vehicle, this game gives damn good reason to jump into cockpit view. The level of detail allows players a look through the eyes of a professional driver and provides a lot of fun, despite a competitive disadvantage with a limited line of sight compared to other views. The give-and-take is worth it though.
The car classes are distinct and a pleasure to learn. You’ll be pleasantly satisfied with the difference in physics while pushing a Renault Clio through a turn versus slinging a McLaren 12C GT3 around the same spot. With a range of classes, it does take a while to become accustomed to every group the game offers, almost making it a necessity to stick with one class as you familiarize yourself with the game.
One note about the cars and tracks: everything is available from the get-go. It’s nice to have a full buffet of supercars to jump into without needing to unlock anything, but working toward a goal and receiving a new vehicle or track in return for my effort, like most racing games, is sorely missed.
The game’s 100-plus courses are varied and surrounded by location-accurate scenery, an aspect occasionally overlooked in games. Seasoned racing fans will be delighted to experience the familiar sections like Laguna Seca’s corkscrew and Donington’s Old Hairpin.
Once you have completed the (sometimes painfully time-consuming) car setup and you’re in the driver’s seat at the starting line, putting the pedal down and zipping through a race brings a relieving rush. The cavalcade of settings for both the game and each individual car can be overwhelming, but posting your best lap times due to a recent change in tire pressure or gear ratio provides the greatest amount of satisfaction. I have yet to run into an issue that couldn’t be fixed by tweaking my car in the pit box.
One poor aspect of raceday in Project CARS is the lack of utility from the racing engineer. His voice (there’s no female engineer in the game) pops up every so often to inform you of lap times and your relation on the track to cars in the positions in front of and behind you, but there’s little offered in the way of what actual engineers do — adjusting the car and/or driving tactics. If the game notices that you’re consistently braking late or for too long, it would be nice to be informed.
Online competition presented a smooth experience, and lag, always a potential pitfall in racing games, was a non-issue for the most part. Occasionally, the other human players’ cars would squirm unnaturally around the track when in sight, but the only time it became a hassle was while closely trailing a car into a corner. That’s one crucial place you really need to read a player’s actions to follow braking patterns.
Career mode is decent and presents some entertaining features, for instance, a list of tweets in the mode’s Home screen that updates after each race. Your fans and the experts certainly pull no punches when describing your most recent result. But they’re also quite congratulatory after a big win or podium finish. You receive emails from both your team owner and race engineer throughout the season to keep you abreast of activities, but these emails mostly serve as fluff and rarely did the engineer have anything particularly useful to offer. The focus of career mode is clearly on the track, as the game lacks depth outside of race weekends.
One of the superior design choices for Project CARS’ career mode is the ability to jump directly into any level of racing from the moment you pop in the disc. That means if you want to start in Karts and see how quickly you can make your way into Formula 1 racing, you’re more than welcome. Or you can simply go straight to Formula 1. There’s no need to wade through the pool of competitions in the underpowered road cars or earn licenses to earn advancement.
If you do start at a lower tier of racing, you’ll advance via contract offers as you prove your mastery of vehicles and tracks. A string of solid finishes in Karts and all of a sudden you’re off to the Super Karts. You don’t have to win to reel in these contract offers, but you do have to consistently finish in the top half of standings. If you don’t race well enough to jump to the next tier, your current team may choose to offer a contract extension or you may be seeking a new crew for the next season. Different teams run different cars, however, so the change is sometimes welcomed.
Once you’re locked into a season of racing GT3 cars, for example, you’re not necessarily limited to racing just those. You’ll receive invitations throughout the season to participate in special one-off events, like a Formula B race in North America. It’s a realistic and efficient way of battling burnout for your usual competition.
Despite Project CARS’ solid framework, technical issues do creep their way into the coding and hold the game back from a perfect lap. A common pattern developed as the game would frequently freeze in the loading screen for the first race of a gaming session. After restarting, however, it was back to normal. A couple other hard freezes popped up while entering the car setup screen immediately after beginning a career. These freezing problems seem limited to menus, for what it’s worth.
The Xbox One version suffered significantly more serious problems than the PlayStation 4 and PC titles, however. Many users reported the game being unplayable on controller as opposed to racing wheels due to a signal input issue, rending the cars uncontrollable or severely delayed. While I did not experience this, I did notice instances of pop-in with track walls and scenery and some framerate dips.
The Verdict: 8.4 out of 10
If you’re already familiar with the differences between a rear-wheel drive vehicle and a front-wheel drive or how downforce is affecting your ability to exit a corner, Project CARS is a powerhouse of a console racer. If you have the patience to learn a little bit (I’m no expert, after all), the game is a fun adrenaline rush for those who tend to favor monitoring tire temperature rather than outrunning the cops or drifting around corners. There is a learning curve, however, and that’s certainly going to hold some people from picking this title up.
But if it’s simulation racing you’re looking for, you’ve found your next fix. Fans of the genre will enjoy the effort put into creating lifelike car physics and the beautiful aesthetics in each track’s location. The circuit options are aplenty and SMS has promised to release a free car via DLC each week, plus paid DLC car packs, so the vehicle roster will eventually grow to a more respectable amount.
See you at the starting line, assuming you get past the loading screen.
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Brian Hoerst has seen enough spinouts and track penalties for a lifetime. Follow him on Twitter. Or find him on Xbox Live @bongyiing and see the spinouts for yourself!