How Slightly Mad Studios is aiming to go “beyond reality”
PC, PS4, Wii U, Xbox One
Project Cars’ rendition of Brands Hatch feels just right. We know this because we’re sat in the track’s paddock complex having just driven a few laps for comparison. Even the weather on this unremarkable, overcast day has been precisely recreated by virtue of the fact that the fastidious Slightly Mad team has modelled the near Solar System for each circuit in the game.
“Each track has a GPS location and that means that we know where that track is in the world, and we can accurately model the Sun and the Moon and the constellations above for whatever time of day or date you’re racing,” creative director Andy Tudor explains. “You can dial it to any day of any year and it will be accurate to what the atmospheric conditions were at that particular time.”
Every track comes with its own climate data, too, specifying whether the location is Mediterranean, marine or desert, for example. As a result, the sun will appear more red when racing in Dubai due to atmospheric conditions. “It means that it’s completely accurate to real life,” Tudor continues. “And if you’ve got an online connection it will fetch bang-up-to-date weather and atmospheric conditions from the web.”
But Tudor admits that 1:1 accuracy in the racing genre isn’t likely to impress players who expect that as a base standard. Which is why Slightly Mad is going “beyond reality”, as Tudor puts it, in a concerted effort to better represent the emotional response of racing around a track, not just the mathematical one – which means exaggerating some features to give a greater sense of scale and drama.
“Obviously we have the mathematical data, but in games some things just look wrong, or don’t get across the actual emotion of what it feels like to be there,” Tudor says. “The Nordschleife feels like a rollercoaster – you turn round a corner and there’s an uphill climb but it just looks like a wall in front of you. So obviously we need to create that sensation in the game.”
In order to achieve this, the team combines personal experience, reference photos, and feedback from professional drivers like Oliver Webb. And while the heartin-mouth excitement of hustling a BMW M3 through the dramatically inclined Hailwood Hill that follows Brands Hatch’s first corner isn’t quite there, the dip certainly feels more pronounced than in other digital versions of the circuit we’ve experienced. Such creative licence hasn’t affected lap times either, as proven by comparison videos of in-game laps and Webb’s real-life equivalents, which are within tenths of a second of each other. But there’s less positive tension to be found in the game’s current handling model. On PS4 (and indeed with a 360 pad on the PC build), cars feel skittish and unpredictable, while an aggressive return-to-centre setup snaps the wheel back instantly when you let go, making smooth cornering difficult. We dip into the build’s highly customisable settings and manage to improve some aspects, while worsening others. In its current form the game feels built for steering wheels, and playing with one improves things immeasurably. Switching peripherals can’t elevate the AI, unfortunately, which currently lacks charisma and is apparently oblivious to our presence – but at least our opponents’ unsporting barging manoeuvres demonstrate Project Cars’ excellent open-wheel physics, as our vehicle leaves the ground violently in a snarl of shrapnel.
The game will ship with control and AI presets alongside its broad array of sliders, of course, and hopefully these will deliver a more resolved drive. Slightly Mad’s community-driven development has crowd sourced a potentially spectacular racing game, but the studio’s desire to accommodate every player’s preferences has put Project Cars in danger of being pulled in too many directions, without a steering authorial hand to guide it back to the racing line.
When you start Project Cars, everything will be unlocked: vehicles, tracks and even events. It’s a common setup for PC driving sims, but this will be the first time a console racing game has abandoned the traditional grinding template. “It’s getting to the point now that I think we’re all a little bit sick of going into the next game and having to start at the bottom all over again,” Tudor says. “When you take into account the fact that the next generation of gamers coming in are used to having more openended sandbox experiences, it just made sense to get rid of those barriers. As soon as we did, we knew it was the right decision.”