Pro­ject Cars

EDGE - - PLAY - Pub­lisher Bandai Namco De­vel­oper Slightly Mad Stu­dios For­mat PC, PS4 (ver­sion tested), Xbox One, Wii U Out now

De­vel­op­ers so of­ten talk about the cars in their games han­dling the way you want them to, rather than the way they re­ally would if you threw them at a stretch of Cal­i­for­nian high­way with videogame aban­don. Slightly Mad Stu­dios faces that same del­i­cate com­pro­mise with rig­or­ous, full-blooded mo­tor­sport sim Pro­ject Cars – cre­at­ing an en­ter­tain­ing im­pres­sion of its ve­hi­cles, rather than a foren­sic recre­ation of their phys­i­cal prop­er­ties – but make no mis­take, there’s no menu-op­tion alchemy to turn this into an ar­cade racer.

This is a game for those fa­mil­iar with toe-in an­gles, and who know the brak­ing points of many in­ter­na­tional cir­cuits by rote. In fact, it’s a kind of par­adise for sim en­thu­si­asts, bristling with rous­ing com­bi­na­tions of lo­ca­tions, ve­hi­cles and han­dling mod­els with their own ec­cen­tric­i­ties. Even if there were no ca­reer path here, you’d still clock more than enough mileage from ex­per­i­ments such as let­ting an Audi R18 TDI Le Mans pro­to­type loose on the nar­row, un­du­lat­ing tar­mac at Oul­ton Park, or fill­ing the spray-painted, sto­ried turns of the Nord­schleife with 45 Ford Capris and watch­ing the fire­works from your own stripped-down cock­pit.

There is, how­ever, a tra­di­tional sin­gle­player pro­gres­sion path in the form of Ca­reer mode. The pace of your pro­gres­sion from spongy pro­duc­tion cars and tin­ni­tus-in­duc­ing kart­ing for­mu­las up to LMP 1 and For­mula A (F1 in all but li­cens­ing) is de­ter­mined by the tier you choose to en­ter at and your re­sults in each sea­son. Start way down at tier eight and you should pre­pare your­self for many a race week­end spent at the wheel of a 125cc kart. Skip a few tiers and you’ll be com­mand­ing open wheel­ers and GT3 rac­ers down the main straight at 180mph within a rac­ing sea­son. Ei­ther route of­fers a sat­is­fy­ing pro­gres­sion curve, but the zero-to-hero path yields the big­ger re­ward in the form of an un­der­stand­ing of each dis­tinct rac­ing cat­e­gory.

Here you’ll find the thrilling heart of Pro­ject Cars: its physics. It isn’t just that you can feel where a car’s weight is dis­trib­uted as you wres­tle it through an S-bend, or that you’re al­lowed such pre­cise feed­back on wheels lock­ing up un­der brak­ing. It isn’t even that these sub­tleties are con­veyed so adeptly through a con­troller, not just via a force-feed­back wheel. It’s in the pro­found, tan­gi­ble dif­fer­ences in these be­hav­iours that you can feel from car to car. A Pa­gani Zonda R wants a dif­fer­ent touch on the brakes to a Merc A-Class, nat­u­rally, but so does its sim­i­larly pow­ered Ger­man cousin, the BMW M1 Coupé. For fans of the sport and the genre, that breadth of au­to­mo­tive chal­lenge is enough on its own.

The rigour, no-frills pre­sen­ta­tion and stiff­ness of chal­lenge in Pro­ject Cars al­lows it to slot eas­ily be­side As­setto Corsa, rFac­tor 2 et al in the PC land­scape. It’s here where the mul­ti­mon­i­tor, force-feed­back-wheelown­ing au­di­ence lives, ready to pounce on the game’s graph­ics scal­a­bil­ity, Ocu­lus Rift sup­port and mod­ding po­ten­tial. On con­sole, Pro­ject Cars is a more sin­gu­lar propo­si­tion. Sim­u­la­tion here is of­ten spelled ‘ Gran Turismo’, and in the name of con­vey­ing a 200mph rac­ing ma­chine’s agility and fe­roc­ity via a gamepad, in­vis­i­ble sta­bilis­ers are added to keep you more or less on track. It’s when you try to push Pro­ject Cars out of its full­blown sim­u­la­tion com­fort zone that the core ex­pe­ri­ence di­min­ishes. Sim-racer snob­bery aside, the more driv­ing aids you en­able, the less sat­is­fy­ing the feel­ing of be­ing be­hind the wheel. There isn’t a Need For Speed han­dling model hid­den away in the op­tions, only in­cre­ments by which the game be­gins to feel like it’s play­ing it­self. Tailor­ing the AI to suit is sim­i­larly prob­lem­atic. There’s a slider to con­trol other driv­ers’ speed, but not their ag­gres­sion – an omis­sion you’ll find glar­ing in its ab­sence by the third time some­one sav­ages you in the brak­ing zone of the last cor­ner dur­ing qual­i­fy­ing. Op­po­nent be­hav­iour is uni­formly berserk across all rac­ing cat­e­gories, which height­ens the drama and the frus­tra­tion. It’s ir­ri­tat­ing to be squeezed and bumped in ev­ery turn-in point, ev­ery lap of ev­ery race, yes, but it’s also mar­vel­lous to watch AI driv­ers treat each other with the same hos­til­ity. One will nudge an­other into an im­mov­able tyre wall just in front of you. Three or four stub­born foes will jos­tle each other off the track in the open­ing lap, their con­flict spilling onto run-off ar­eas and sand traps. It’s a thrilling, and be­liev­able, means for each race’s nar­ra­tive to un­fold.

Ex­cept, of course, when it isn’t able to. In its cur­rent state, a plethora of bizarre bugs sour the ex­pe­ri­ence. Cars are oc­ca­sion­ally flum­moxed by the ex­is­tence of a par­tic­u­lar chi­cane, and pile up in their dozens as if try­ing to nav­i­gate blind­folded. Less fre­quently, try­ing to restart a race will sim­ply freeze your cur­rent event. Qual­i­fy­ing re­sults go awry, and cars some­times gain un­drive­able prop­er­ties for a sin­gle ses­sion un­til you quit and re-en­ter. These are all patch­able is­sues, and such a patch is in­bound at time of writ­ing, but this is the state in which Pro­ject Cars hits shelves.

That’s a great shame, be­cause it tem­pers any broader praise about the PS4 ver­sion’s smooth 60fps per­for­mance, which holds firm even with over 30 cars on­screen. Over­all fidelity has been com­pro­mised no­tice­ably to achieve it, but Slightly Mad knows its han­dling model is the real star of the show, and noth­ing would hurt its flu­id­ity like dropped frames. Thank good­ness it chose to pre­serve the qual­ity of the driv­ing above all. It might not have Gran Turismo’s en­cy­clopaedic grasp of mo­tor­ing his­tory, but Pro­ject Cars is the most com­pre­hen­sive and in­volv­ing driv­ing sim­u­la­tor we’ve seen on con­soles in years. But while it may patch its way to some­thing ap­proach­ing great­ness, right now some er­rant lines of code hold it back just shy of that mark.

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