Project Cars Review

It was a quite a while back I first found out about Project Cars –

I can’t remember where or when exactly, but at the time I remember casually thinking I’d probably pick it up on Xbox 360 or whatever console I happened to have at the time it arrived – I do enjoy a good racing game, after all.

Fast forward a few years, and after numerous delays Project cars is here, and whilst it has since left older generations of console behind (sorry Wii-U lovers, that includes you too), Project Cars is finally here and has so far had a positive reception from most.

Hailing from plucky British startup Slightly Mad Studios, Project Cars resorted to crowd-funding on Kickstarter, which – like other crowd-funded success stories – has since amassed a growing community of loyal fans, who became deeply involved in the game’s development process.

Backers had the opportunity to choose which cars, racing formulae and tracks would be included in the finished product, and ultimately helped shape the finished product which I was finally lucky enough to get my hands on a few weeks back.

With a next-gen game such as this to review, I even gave my PC a fresh pair of graphical legs in the form of a very powerful GTX 970 graphics card – but as I quickly found out, power isn’t everything (more on this later).

Project Cars is as close to a simulator as you’re likely to get in a modern racing game, with Assetto Corsa being the only rival on PC; whereas console owners have the more arcade-like, but equally brilliant Forza Motorsport 5 to turn to on Xbox One, PS4 owners are rather more unfortunately lumped with the horrendously unfinished DriveClub.

Whilst on the surface Project Cars is a slightly more home-brewed affair, underneath lurks a behemoth of a game, featuring incredibly lifelike recreations of some of the world’s finest tracks, such as Germany’s full Nurburgring Nordschleife, Le Mans, Monza, Spa and Britain’s Silverstone, Brands Hatch and many more.

The whole gamut of racing formula are catered for, from go-karts to LMP1 endurance racing and Formula A single-seater cars (notice, they’re not called Formula 1 – likely because of the huge cost of licensing).  Whether you’d prefer to race an Caterham 7 or an Aerial Atom, a Ford Focus or a Maclaren P1, you’ll get your fix with this particular racer.

Fortunately, there’s little dictation as to where you can start the game’s career mode.  You could either start off in go karts and work your way up, taking offers of participation in open events along the way, or – if you feel you have the skill – you can jump straight into the top flight and compete in the top flight of motor racing.

If you would rather take it a little easier, then Project Cars offers a free practice mode where you can pick the car and track of your choice, and blast away ’til your heart’s content; or alternatively settle in for a quick race weekend in the class of your choice.

The online game mode lets you jump into a race with other drivers, or create your own – should you prefer.  Be warned though, you’ll need to pay close attention to the cars other drivers are choosing and make sure you pick something suitable to keep up.  If you think you’ll get away with Need For Speed-esque corner cutting, you’ll be sorely mistaken; commit racing crimes such as these and your power will be cut, or you’ll lose out on a lap-time.

Creating your own race allows you to choose which driver aids are allowed, the class of cars that are eligible, and which tracks you’ll be competing on – perfect for groups of friends and online car clubs alike.

The Driver Network is Project Cars’ online playground, where you’re given the chance to compete with ghost times of other racers in the community on daily or weekly challenges across a variety of classes and tracks.  I found this more fun than the outright online mode, partly because competing on a kind of time-trial basis always seemed to be more fun and fair.

For those of you looking for the ultimate racing experience with wheel and all, you can set up the game to suit your exact level of skill, but if you’re a bit of a Sunday driver, then fortunately there is a vast array of driver aids which can be turned on.  AI can also be tweaked so that you can ensure your opponents are of a similar driving skill to your own, rather than feeling left behind – or indeed leaving them for dust.

Unlike Forza, GRID and other modern console racers, the racing is a little less forgiving as there is no rewind options – if you mess up, you’ll simply have to swallow your pride and get on with it, or restart the session and try again.

There are no experience points to worry about though, progression is made through the results you attain, which opens up offers from teams in the higher formulae with options available at the end of each season for you to choose your next logical progression.

The look and feel of Project Cars is its biggest attraction; not only does it look absolutely gorgeous (provided you’ve got a powerful enough PC), but the feedback you get from each car is incredibly realistic – even with the Xbox 360 pad I was using (sorry, I don’t have the budget for the proper wheel setup I’d really want).

Every rumble, kerb and bump in the road seems to come through the controller with vivid realism – a feature I’m told is even more pronounced on the Xbox One pad.  These subtle nuances make each type of car feel markedly different to control, meaning you simply can’t jump straight from a kart to a performance car, and master the handling in each straight away. This is why I decided to start off in karts and climb my way up the ladder.

The visuals most definitely seal the deal when it comes to accurately recreating the thrill of Eau Rouge at Spa Francorchamps, or the Porsche curves of Le Mans.  The weather effects are thoroughly next-gen and the detail of each car is quite stunning, especially in the cockpit view.

There are moments where the limited budget shines through, but it’s largely in the fit and finish of the game rather than the actual content than underpins it.

For many people, part of the joy of owning a high-end gaming PC is that you can whack all the settings up to their highest, sit back, and enjoy the console-crushing graphical quality.  Project Cars was the first game to eat my PC alive – and that was after I’d dropped over £250 on a brand new NVIDIA GTX 970 graphics card to play it with.

I first let NVIDIA’s own software set the game to the settings it thought my PC could handle, and I was slightly disappointed to see the visual quality slider bar be below half way; still I fired up Project Cars and got stuck into a couple of blasts in the quick play mode.

Unfortunately, NVIDIA had still been a little optimistic – or so I thought. I fiddled with the settings and turned down things I thought wouldn’t be necessary, and slowly started to see Project Cars change from a 2015’s most beautiful racing simulator into something more reminiscent of 2010.

After further fiddling, I seemed to be getting nowhere, and was becoming increasingly infuriated by a maddening judder that occurred throughout some – but not all -of the races.  After turning to a variety of forums for help, I checked various things – was my CPU bottlenecking performance? Not really.  Was my PC overheating? Nope.

After trying various other suggestions, I went back to fiddling myself, and decided to take the wild decision of turning V-Sync on.  I jumped back into a game and immediately I could see the difference.  Seemingly the game engine was getting too ahead of itself and not synchronising the frame-rate correctly, which made sense considering the annoying juddering, rather than lack of out-right frame rate I was experiencing.

So with v-sync on, and a little more testing, I finally started to get a much more playable experience, but still not with all the settings on that I had thought would be possible.  From all that I’ve read on forums, it ultimately seems that Project Cars has been poorly optimised for the wide range of PC specifications out there, and for some people with AMD GPUs, has been a bit of a nightmare.

These frustrations were a big of a blow for me – and many others – after waiting so long for this game to arrive.  Console gamers are reporting considerably less issues – as you’d expect on the standardised machines they’re playing on.  When you’re playing a game on PC that boasts so much potential – including 4K graphics if you’ve got many thousands of pounds worth of equipment – having to turn settings down and mess around so much to get a playable experience rather spoilt it.

Of course, for all those out there experiencing issues, there are many who have had a delightfully problem-free experience with Project Cars.  If you take into account the stunning visuals, perfect handling and wide assortment of tracks and cars, Project Cars stands way above any of its competitors.

If you are a console gamer then Project Cars is the closest you’ll get to a racing simulator, and has considerably more to offer than most. With PC patches promised and additional content a certainty, I’ll hang on with Project Cars, and hope that the slight performance issues that marred my experience are soon ironed out.

By Ben Stinson