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.