There’s an air of freshness – even boldness – to Project Cars. While it may be a newcomer to the driving game scene, it clearly aims to lead from the front. That it manages to do so is only partly due to the dearth of top-notch driving games for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, which has been a somewhat mystifying feature of the new-generation consoles’ infancies. Sure, Xbox One owners can play Forza Motorsport 5, and PS4 owners Drive Club, but the former is antiseptic and arguably overshadowed by its arcade-style sibling Forza Horizon 2, while the latter is just execrable. Project Cars’ arrival comes not a moment too soon.
Even Project Cars’ provenance is unconventional. British developer Slightly Mad Studios financed it on Kickstarter, and managed to get tens of thousands of its followers to chip in. The result is a proper, sim-style, track-based racing game, which looks fabulous (the PC version even runs on 4K screens, and at some point, it may become possible for the console versions to do so, too, firmware updates permitting). It features stunning renditions of some of the world’s finest tracks, including Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Le Mans, the Nordschleife, Monza and loads more, and machinery that runs the full gamut from karts to what are effectively Formula One cars, with open-wheelers, touring cars and Le Mans Series GTs noticeably to the fore.
Structurally, Project Cars manages to make a virtue out of simplicity. It doesn’t force you to grind your way through specific racing series, acquiring cars as you go, but instead, all its cars, racing series and tracks are unlocked from the word go. And you can jump in at the top, if you want: there are eight racing Tiers, ranging from karts up to fearsome Le Mans-style racers, so you can opt to start in karts and build a reputation as you climb the ranks, or launch an instant bid for racing superstardom by jumping straight into top-level racing. You’re assigned a race engineer and an agent/manager, and as you win, you receive offers from racing teams and sponsors, so there is an element of progression. But any system of experience points is conspicuously absent.
In practice, this approach encourages you to embark on more than one Career progression at a time, and feels pleasingly amenable to your tastes. There’s a faux-social media engine, in which fans tweet about your exploits and websites report on races in which you participate, which does wonders for the ego. Things get a lot more brutal online, though. Even pre-launch, there were plenty of online races on offer, and no sign of horrors like the lobbying and hosting issues that dogged Drive Club, mercifully. Picking the right car for online racing is crucial: luckily, Project Cars shows you what everyone else is driving during the lobbying process, but it’s easy to end up in a car with several hundred BHP less than your rivals, if you don’t pay attention.
Setting up private online races, with more tightly defined rules, is a breeze, and likely to prove popular, since there’s something of a Wild West air to the public online side of the game. Although at least, in that, you’re punished with periods of power drop-outs if you cut corners and the like. There’s also a Community section – in which the impressively large number of enthusiasts who Kickstarted Project Cars run online events – to which you receive invites when you do well in Career mode. Unfortunately, the Community side of the game wasn’t up and running pre-launch.
But the real meat of Project Cars lies in the single-player Career mode, and that’s where you’re most likely to fall in love with the game. It gets all the basics spot-on. Car feel is phenomenal: it’s actually fun to start from the bottom, since the karts, with their lack of grip and ability to stop on a sixpence – allied to the way in which they encourage you to bury the throttle even when you’re entering corners – are gloriously different to the “real” cars you begin to encounter as you’re invited to try new racing formulae; and those cars differ wildly in feel, as indeed they do in real life. Everything feels thoroughly convincing, even if you’re just playing with a joypad. Project Cars partly achieves that by taking full advantage of the extra grunt of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One: its physics engine, for example, is startlingly realistic (as we discovered by dumping a Caterham Super Seven on its roof after getting one of Donington’s Craner Curves hopelessly wrong). The force-feedback is amazing, too: somehow, you’re able to feel, say, something that feels exactly like the effect of putting one wheel on a corrugated kerb.
Project Cars looks so good that it’s one of those games that simply must be negotiated with the cockpit view activated. The circuits look startlingly familiar, and you really get a sense of their elevation changes. And unlike, say, Forza Motorsport 5, they don’t look squeaky-clean; debris often accumulates on tracks as you race around them, and at places like Snetterton, the monolithic grandstands convey the same sense of bleakness that they do in real life. Track-day enthusiasts will marvel at how true-to-life the game feels.
It’s not perfect, though: there is evidence of the rough edges you would expect in a game that was crowd-funded and made by what is essentially a medium-sized developer. Between races, you have to pay attention to the menuing system, for example, since it often defaults to unhelpful options. And it’s great that encouraging messages from your race engineer are relayed through the speaker on the PS4’s controller, for example, but sometimes you can go whole races without hearing any. Hopefully such issues (and there are others) will be addressed via updates.
What matters, though, is that Project Cars doesn’t just get the fundamentals right, but does them better than any other racing game we’ve ever encountered. It looks better and feels more true-to-life than any rival game on the PS4 and Xbox One, and sets new (and very lofty indeed) standards on the PC. It’s perfectly inclusive as far as the non-hardcore are concerned, thanks to a plethora of driver aids you can switch on or off according to your ability – and you can even adjust the skill of the AI drivers you race against. At last, the latest generation of consoles has a driving game which does it justice.