Slightly Mad Studios return with a serious racing sim that’s also part arcade racer, and a welcome alternative to Forza and Gran Turismo.
Racing games, once the doyen of genres, have been in decline for decades. The disappearance of Ridge Racer, WipEout, and Burnout; Need For Speed’s descent into dreary, identikit sequels; and Ubisoft’s dismal The Crew and its lacklustre sequel are all symptoms. Yet in spite of those failures there are beacons of hope for petrolheads. Gran Turismo shows no sign of quitting even though Forza is the unarguable reigning champ and sitting alongside them, albeit on a slightly lower budget, there’s Project CARS.
Originally crowd unded, it’s a franchise that’s gradually built on its car-obsessed roots. Its successful first iteration may have had a few rough edges, but Project CARS 2 made improvements, specifically enhancing its handling model, making it more playable with a controller, and adding the bones of a career mode to its already significant line-up of cars and tracks.
The third outing continues that steady evolution. With more than 200 cars, a full-blooded and extensive career mode, and over 50 tracks from around the world – in configurations culled from multiple decades – it offers racing fans a cornucopia of options, unlocked by advancing through career events. As usual you’ll start the game with a humble roadster, which you quickly upgrade and customise, before extending your garage in a range of motorsport flavours and eras.
That progress arrives via a convoluted array of XP systems, which feature separate experience point tallies for individual event categories, each car, and your driver. As if that was insufficiently bewildering, there are also three achievement-style goals for each race, completion of which unlocks future events, and then additional overarching career goals of the ‘complete 100 clean races’ variety. It’s not bad so much as wildly over-specced, considering all most of them do is earn you credits to buy new cars or reduce the price of upgrades.
Aside from the ultra-gamified career mode, the most obvious change in Project CARS 3 is its handling model, which is realistic and consistent but also not shy about drifting, with most of its cars feeling pleasingly tail-happy. This sim-with-a-hint-of-arcade model is reminiscent of the golden era of TOCA Race Driver; perhaps no coincidence since developer Slightly Mad Studios was acquired by Codemasters last year.
It also features TOCA’s tough-but-fair approach to race stewardship, even if that doesn’t stop you from cheesing your way to the front of the pack occasionally by using the barrier instead of your brakes, but when you do you’ll find your lap time invalidated, which is the case even for the tenderest kiss of bumper on retaining wall. Car damage can see whole chunks of your car fall off, but tyre wear is non-existent, presumably because of the game’s licensing arrangement with Pirelli.
Competitive driver artificial intelligence is competent if undistinguished, with the pack sticking together in most races, and nobody displaying marked signs of personality. Things get more interesting as the difficulty ramps up, especially in wet weather, but you can still get way out ahead of everyone by steaming through the first few corners and then not making too many mistakes. It in no way spoils the fun though and does avoid egregious use of rubber-banding, that can make a mockery of skilled racing.
The game’s display of the racing line is similarly adept, with single markers showing where to brake, the apex of the corner, and optimum exit position. There’s no patronising dotted line to follow, and the degree to which you apply the brakes is left up to you. Of course, you can turn off even these meagre guides, but you’ll need to know tracks very well to stand a chance of winning without them.
Graphically, Project CARS 3 looks tidy if not mind-blowing, with cars fully modelled, including their interiors, and visible via a selection of chase, front bumper, and interior views. Things can be a little glitchy though, with textures drawing in late, and on some tracks there are moments when every on-screen shadow flickers white. The developers promise that’ll be addressed in a patch, but as it stands it’s noticeable and quite distracting.
Rain effects are also slightly dodgy looking, seeming oddly fuzzy even on PS4 Pro, although the wet conditions themselves affect braking distances and handling in an unerringly realistic way. Aside from the perplexing multiple XP systems there are also a few mildly annoying interface quirks, but nothing you won’t eventually get used to and none that spoil the driving itself, which rightly remains the focus.
With a wide selection of tracks and modes, from standard races to timed hot laps to score attacks where your only job is to smash signboards with different score values, there’s a level of variety on offer that’s more than enough to keep things feeling fresh. The selection of cars is just as inspiring, with upgrades and paint job customisation to match, providing a huge amount to geek out over – or simply to glory in hooning about at high speed.
While racing anoraks will no doubt lose their minds over the ability to recreate classic moments from motorsport history, complete with authentic cars and track layouts, the rest of us can appreciate a game whose realism never gets in the way of a good time. It may not have the limitless budgets of some competitors, but it offers a robust and long term challenge that should appeal to fanboys and less rabid armchair racing enthusiasts alike.
Project Cars 3 review summary
In Short: A solidly made and entertaining racing game with loads to unlock, whose minor graphical shortcomings and sim-lite handling do nothing to interfere with long term appeal.
Pros: Precise and consistent driving model that’s realistically affected by wet weather. Broad range of cars and tracks from the past few decades, and a massive career mode.
Cons: Slightly anonymous competitor AI and a set of XP systems that could have done with a firmer hand in the editing room. Graphical glitches that will hopefully soon be patched.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Release Date: 28th August 2020
Age Rating: 3
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