Few racing games truly nail the extreme multi-sensory experience of driving a real racing car.
Those that do generally sit in a PC world where niche audiences are still a valued commodity. Console gamers, though, have instead had to be happy with titles which look stunningly realistic while driving in ways that are anything but: forget basic racing standards such as the confidence-inspiring grip of a set of slicks and instead revel in the cheap thrills of ramped-up oversteer.
But do gamers deserve a little more credit? Slightly Mad Studios thinks so, which is why it's produced Project CARS – the first multi-platform racing title of the next-gen era.
CARS looks spectacular but more importantly it's also designed to handle beautifully. Here's what we think of it so far.
The drive of your life
Judge CARS solely on the way it handles and it'll be right at the front of the grid.
The specifics obviously depend on what you're driving, but thanks to the game's Seta tyre model it's always accurate.
We spent plenty of time inside a Group 5 Zakspeed Capri, a car with a massive rear wing that thumps out loads of stickiness at the back-end. If you feel the car twitch, a natural application of throttle rewards you not with a destabilising tail flick a la Forza et al, but instead sees the Capri’s rear suspension squat down and settle in for the ride.
Switch to a GT3 Aston Martin and you get a solid downforce-amplified sense of grip, as you’d expect from a heavy old GT.
The Renault Clio is different again, with the front end digging in and the light rear end skittering about until the turbo-charged engine pulls it back to order. The single-seaters are even more of a sensory experience, with each one harder to master as you move up the categories.
The CARS acronym stands for Community Assisted Racing Simulation, a title which harks from the crowd-funding concept SMS launched four years ago. And it's the feedback from this community that defines Project CARS’ content.
Each week SMS releases a new alpha PC version to financially invested fans who, along with SMS' in-house team, stress test it vigilantly. It means that if the AI is ruthlessly ignoring your possession of the racing line, a problem we encountered on occasion, the game can easily be fine tuned.
While the AI still needs refining, it utterly delivers when it comes to the racing. The AI cars in Project CARS are bang on the pace, everywhere. Even if you scale their ability, which you can do ad infinitum, they don't do random braking.
Every discipline is a deep simulation in its own right – and this offers promise of much depth online. One nice touch is that with all the driver aids on, it's still a rewarding challenge, while with them turned off it offers a rich simulation that you would expect to find in an iRacing or an rFactor – and all on a console.
It really feels like the real deal.
Project CARS is all about being user-friendly without the need to be arcadey. To that end you get access to a huge range of cars, tracks, weather conditions, start times, lap counts right from the start.
We were able to go straight to a classic Lotus 49 Grand Prix car, equipped with melodious Ford Cosworth V8 DFV, and blast straight out of the Oulton Park pits. SMS’ sandbox approach aims to get you racing for pleasure, rather than just winning in an all-out desperate crusade to level-up.
There is no tortuous grind through a dungfield of powerless city cars here… in fact we couldn't find any. No rewind and replay mode either, so if you crash, you pay the price - and that's fine by us.
There'll also be a career mode, but SMS has only announced a few details about it and we're yet to try it ourselves.
As far as the cars go, there'll be loads, ranging from road-going track-day specials, tin-tops and Le Mans prototypes all the way through the single-seater range. Quite a few of them are fictional, however, and there's little in the way of F1 machinery beyond a nice little Classic Lotus collection. You're also limited to only a few big manufacturer licenses from the likes of BMW, Ford, Mercedes and Renault and one hopes SMS can attract more. After all, people want to drive Ferraris and Porsches.
SMS intends Project CARS to be a longterm platform in a similar way to Destiny, so all indicators point to more arriving in the future. But that said, the current selection will at least appeal to those with a love of racing cars both current and historic.
On the tracks front, you get licensed classics such as Le Mans, Bathurst, Brands Hatch and Indianapolis. We saw others you'd recognise too, though at this point they've got different names.
The ones we drove offered up realistic bumps and kerbing that you had to factor into your driving approach. Again all nods to the detail this game oozes. There's a lack of real driver names, though, which makes it difficult to create an emotional attachment to beating specific AIs.
Given SMS' desire for you to invest in the racing and the attention to detail elsewhere, that grates a little – as does the slightly odd mix of cars chosen for multi-class racing – but these are minor asides rather than major issues.
YouTube is already full of videos extolling the virtue of Project CARS. And you can quite happily lose 10 minutes in the pits during practice watching everybody else going around on the monitor. It really is spectacular.
The TV-quality graphics have a practical use too: the clarity is such that it can help you pinpoint your entry and braking points accurately. Plus, there are myriad little touches which add to the experience, such as the dash lighting up when you switch the lights on, or all the dials moving on the in-car view or blurring at speed on the in-helmet view (our favourite), or even just the leaves blowing out of the way as you blast over them.
Frankly, it's the best-looking racing game we've ever seen.
Singing in the rain
If the visuals are great throughout, they really come into their own in wet conditions.
We were quite simply left dazzled by the experience of driving in the rain, ultimately pulling over at the side of the track so we could just take in the rain falling in the puddles. We also had something of a moment when the clouds rolled in and we started noticing misting on the windscreen, which, after a couple of laps, forced us to turn on the wipers.
By the end of a race at Cadwell Park, the only visual hint of an impending corner was the car in front's brake lights glowing through the haze. The rain can be specifically selected (from cloudy through to thunderstorm and even fog) or randomised, or you can even call upon weather from a particular day in history.
But it's hard to drive in. Too hard. That tyre model accuracy means temperature is critical, so if you're on cold tyres, it can be nigh-on impossible to drive on the d-pad with the more powerful cars – even with the aids on - and you're left in amazement at how the AI finds so much grip straight out of the pits…
This may be an area where those fast-thrill seekers feel alienated, because mastering this is going to take a while.
Great though the handling is, it's not completely refined yet. The experience feels better with a steering wheel than with a Dualshock 4 controller and the standard layout of buttons needed altering to remove gear-changing from the top shoulders.
There are three different default sensitivity levels within the options too, and then another fully customisable array beyond that. But rather like when you tune the picture on a new TV, it can all feel a little overwhelming. You just end up wanting guidance.
Somewhere though, there is the optimum sensitivity level for your thumbstick if you’re prepared to take the time to find it. Plus, it's mightily cool having the engineer talk to you through the controller’s speaker.
Project CARS has the potential to be a very powerful player in the genre. It backs up Slightly Mad Studios' ambition with a deeply rewarding physics engine that really delivers on handling.
The much-played-upon weather feature is every bit as beautiful as it’s hyped to be and the detail throughout the game screams sim, taking racing into new territory. SMS intends for Project CARS to grow as the ultimate racing platform online and off and it needs to play to its strengths because the licenses are lacking right now, in comparison to the big players such as Forza and Grand Turismo.
Still, SMS has time to get it right, with the release date having been put back (yet again) to the beginning of April. If its career and online modes are in place by then and looking good, it could well full take pole position. We'll give it another drive once the new features arrive and let you know how it's doing.