Thick clouds cover the Sunday skies above Snetterton Motor Racing Circuit in Norfolk, England. The hum of 16 open-wheeled Formula Rookie vehicles start to fill the air as drivers take to the starting grid for the second and final race of the championship; the first race weekend of 2015. With an impressive qualifying result the day before, driver Bartek Pagacz started on pole and finished the first race maintaining his position, adding 25 points to his championship standings. He would be starting on pole for the race ahead.
Starting in twelfth is newcomer Nicholas Simonovski, who, after running out of fuel during the qualifying session had to claw his way to take second in the first event. Disappointed yet determined, his goal was to improve upon yesterday’s result and claim pole from Pagacz with hopes of taking out the championship in the process. Twitter was already ablaze after of his debut performance and Nicholas wasn’t about to let his new found fans down.
The staging lights begin to turn red. Nicholas turns on the lights of his odometer to see the instrument cluster before him more clearly. With the needle bouncing off the redline and his tires slightly warmed, the final lights turn green and the race is underway. Seeing an opportunity, he drives through the starting grid, climbing from 12th to seventh position by the first corner. Knowing full well that neither his tires nor brakes are near optimal temperature he tackles the first lap cautiously, but by out-braking his opponents and sticking to the racing line he is able to claim two further positions and is now in fifth as he crosses the start/finish line into lap two of six.
With his tires and brakes now adequately heated, Nicholas increases the daringness of his attack on the four opponents before him. Using the slipstream of the other drivers he is able to climb a position a lap and as he enters his sixth and final lap. Pagacz is within a second’s reach. The clouds have now begun to dissipate and the glare from the sun begins to shine through, a blood-orange shade now replacing the dull grey of the track. Careful not to make contact for the fear of losing control and spinning out, Nicholas continues to trail Pagacz up onto the middle straight of the circuit.
As he had done before, with the aid of Pagacz’s slipstream, he makes a daring overtake and brakes late into the corner, cleanly taking the lead. It’s now just a matter of holding position until the finish line. Hitting the apex perfectly coming out of the final corner, Pagacz now half a second behind, Nicholas knows he’s done what he needs to bring it over the line. He takes the chequered flag, the 25 points and brings home his first championship win of his driving career.
This is Project CARS.
With such a drawn-out development cycle and the constant reminder that the game has been made alongside actual racers and with continual feedback from the community, I’ve always held this expectation that Project CARS would offer the complete and greatest racing experience on consoles to date. With that, the best place to start this review, as with all racers, is to talk about the physics. Gladly, it is here that I can safely announce that Project CARS delivers.
In this game heat is everything. Dan Greenwalt once spoke about how important and difficult it was to implement true tire physics in Forza Motorsport 4, but it really hasn’t been until Project CARS that I’ve actually understood what he meant. From the very first corner you’ll see how every aspect of your vehicle’s performance – from your ability to brake late into corners, hold traction and build momentum as you navigate around the track, is centred around the temperature of both your tires and your brakes.
It was when I started to realise how precious my qualifying and practice times were as I lost three minutes in warming my tires after leaving the pits, that I began to acknowledge how different the racing experience is in this game. For the first time, restarting your session and not just powering through now has a consequence associated with it.
But of course, physics extends beyond just tire and brake temperatures, and Slightly Mad have done well to ensure that each class and vehicle feel unique too. With CARS I decided to turn off all assists bar ABS and automatic gears, and part of the fun (and dare I say, frustration) has come with having to struggle with and learn how to properly navigate each vehicle around the various tracks. Feathering the throttle, braking in straight lines and being careful with steering input has never felt so properly connected, precise and rewarding as I’ve experienced with this game. Despite sometimes feeling like there could have been a larger roster of vehicles, the replay and longevity comes not from having 500 cars to drive, but learning to master the 60 or so instead. In this respect I appreciate the smaller list and even after 10 hours with the game I’d only scraped the surface of the vehicles available to me.
As part of offering that complete racing package, Slightly Mad Studios have focused a lot of attention on weather effects, and in Project CARS it is as instrumental to your racing as it is aesthetically amazing to look at. While there’s certainly a level of beauty that comes from racing around a track like Spa in the early hours of the morning, seeing the dark skies and stars on one end and then the sun slowly rising in the other, it adds another dynamic entirely when both weather and lighting come together to really alter your race conditions.
A powerhouse like the McLaren P1 is challenging enough to drive in its own right, but when you combine that with an event held at night and during a thunderstorm, where your only visibility comes from the few metres in-front of you that your headlights illuminate, and that’s only in-between the moments that your wipers clear the heavy rain droplets from your windshield, that you experience true difficulty. For those brave enough to tackle this game without the plethora of assists available to you, you’re in for a real and unparalleled treat.
Now of course this review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t discuss perhaps the most impressive aspect of this game leading up to its release – the graphics. My first memories of Project CARS were of those screenshot galleries featuring what had to be the greatest looking environments and car models I’ve ever seen. Now that I’ve played the final version of the game I have to admit, at least on the Xbox One, I’m slightly disappointed. Make no mistake Project CARS looks great, but there have been moments when I feel it falls short of expectations. Some cars will look incredible while others slightly less so, and there are moments where it just feel that cars further ahead in the distance seem to lack finer detail and sharpness.
Disappointedly, there are even the occasional moments when you’ll spot textures pop in or a very brief frame-rate drop. You’ll notice ever-so-small white jagged lines surrounding the edges of certain vehicles and the finer details like dashboard buttons and sponsorship banners/decals aren’t always perfectly crisp. It reminds me of games like Forza Motorsport 2 and I just expect better by 2015. Something that also continues to bug me is why the rear-view mirror of racing games always have worse resolutions than what you see in-front.
Despite this though, in the areas where CARS fall short it certainly makes up for in another. While it might lack detail in something like the wording of a button on the centre console, it compensates in other areas that you may have never really noticed (or seen) in other racing titles. While some racers have included wet weather, only CARS has implemented a comprehensive and evolving weather system where you might begin the race in the rain, which clears after a few laps and then for the remainder of the event you have sun glare and bloom sneak through the clouds.
Watching your side mirrors shake from vibrations as you redline your motor on the starting grid, being held up in a pit stop as your crew try to locate a wheel nut they’ve dropped during a change of tires and the sight of your suspension moving in-accordance with the elevation and camber changes on the circuit all come together to provide a truly immersive feel that few games have come close to matching in the past.
Unfortunately, there are a few other elements that I’m afraid sour the racing experience and detach from the overall fun this game provides. At the time of writing this review there is no animated pit-crew, so when you enter the pit lane you’re speed is automatically controlled and the camera is forced to the dashboard. You sit waiting in the pits with someone holding a brake sign before you, but with no timer to indicate how long you’ve been waiting and without being able to see what’s actually happening, it does ruin the mood. There’s also inconsistency in the fact that you’re never able to exit the pits in a flying lap (meaning you have to exit via the pit lane and complete a full lap before your times to start counting) but you’re able to jump to the pits at any time from the pause menu.
Furthermore, despite all the work that’s gone into creating a great and extensive damage model, returning to the pits always fixes both mechanical and cosmetic damage. By not including a rewind option and even being able to turn off restarts from the pause menu, Project CARS does well to implement a real sense of risk vs. reward, but it seems counter-intuitive that I can fix even the heaviest of impacts by driving or teleporting to the pit lane. A personal gripe of mine, the option of restarting the race/session is also the second option from the bottom of the pause menu, meaning you need to press down approximately seven times if you make a mistake and what to start again, and this quickly becomes frustrating when the game can be so punishing off even the smallest mistake/collision. It just strikes me as strange that these weren’t picked up by the community during the years of testing.
Unlike games like Forza Motorsport 5 or Forza Horizon 2 that knew they were gorgeous and everything was based around reminding the player of this, Project CARS focuses on delivering a solid racing experience and that it does well. To my disappointment it isn’t the absolute ‘complete’ racing game I dreamed of, but what it does well (which is a lot) it does very well. The track list is as large as it is varied, and I can appreciate any game that introduces me to tracks I’ve never raced on before.
The audio in this game is second to none, where each car sounds as unique as it drives – and believe me, they sound amazing. There’s no music in this game for the pure fact that you don’t need it. The bellow of a V8 or the crackling of an F1 car require no accompanying rap or rock soundtrack. Player choice is also at the heart of every aspect of this game, where you can customise each element of your races, how you tackle your career mode, your car setups and pit strategies (just to name a few).
The occasional graphical and racing let-downs aside, Project CARS excels. There is no slow start with a family hatchback and five hours of torture before you experience real speed – instead it’s immediate from your very first race. Everything is varied from the vehicles you’ll race with, the tracks you’ll race on and the weather conditions you’ll race in. Project CARS offers a challenge far beyond what I’ve experienced in the past, with a great sense of motivation to continually improve, hone and perfect your skills, and a feeling of satisfaction when you nail it. It’s not the complete racing experience I envisioned, but it comes a lot further and a lot closer than anything we’ve seen for the last decade. A true treat for all the racing fans out there.
Project CARS was reviewed using a promotional copy of the game on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher.
Review: Project CARS