In a world where games like Forza Motorsport, Gran Turismo and Assetto Corsa exist, it must take pretty big cojones to look at these games and think “I can do better!”. This would appear to be the thinking of the fine folks over at Slightly Mad Studios, as in 2015 that’s exactly what they did. The game they produced, Project CARS, looked excellent in the trailers, and with a massive amount of content it looked set to give the big boys a run for their money. But was it all smooth asphalt, or did they crash on the first corner? Come with me as I travel back to 2015.

Project CARS Drift

Project CARS had an interesting development model. With the CARS part of the title standing for “Community Assisted Racing Simulator”, the developers raised more than $5 million for the game to be made, and although the finished game was eventually published by Bandai Namco, they didn’t have to stump any of the upfront cost for the creation of the game. Through the purchase of items called “toolpacks”, players could contribute to the cost of CARS’ development, and those who did give money were given access to special perks when the game was released. Among those who were hired to contribute included the former Top Gear Stig Ben Collins, Clio Cup and European Touring Car Cup driver Nicolas Hamilton, and a WEC driver named Oliver Webb. These guys, all at the top of their respective field, certainly made their mark felt on the way the game turned out. But how did this mashup play?

At the beginning things were, to say the least, a little rocky. The simulation aspect of the game was all well and good, but, on the Xbox One at least, what resulted was a game that was almost unplayable. Every car was a twitchy little so and so, spearing off the track at the slightest provocation, and especially trying to play with a joypad was an unrewarding experience. I remember sitting on the grid in my first race, zooming off the line, thinking, “This looks awesome!”, then trying (and failing) to brake for the first corner and crashing into other cars, the armco, more cars and finally just ending up facing the wrong way on the track, stone dead last, wondering what the actual goodness happened there.

Luckily, there was a patch that fairly quickly followed launch that allowed those of us who couldn’t afford the latest and greatest steering wheel to be able to play. This introduced tuning for the control pad, which allowed you to match the inputs to your preferred result. It was this which transformed the game. No longer did a slight twitch of the stick mean you were going left round a right hand bend. No more did breathing on the brake pedal result in all four tyres locking up and the car sliding off the track. It meant that finally Project CARS could be the game it was meant to be. From this point on, I loved it. 

Project CARS First-person

With more cars than you could shake a pair of racing gloves at (more than 70) and with disciplines ranging from Go-Karts to Open Wheel race cars, there was never a shortage of things to aim at in this game. With 30 unique locations to choose from, each with multiple track layouts and courses to race on, the actual number of courses is somewhere north of 100, with 23 of these being real locations. Again, the scale of the tracks varied greatly, from tiny little Kart tracks with completed lap times running at easily under a minute, to a massive ribbon of tarmac snaking along the Cote D’Azur; variety wasn’t an issue. And mixing and matching these locations and cars resulted in some humorous situations, like when I was chasing one particular achievement, and had to drive a NASCAR Racecar down the California Pacific Coast Highway in under 8 minutes. Massively powerful car, set up to turn left, on a twisty piece of tarmac next to the sea? Yeah, that went about as well as you’d expect!

The DLC plan for Project CARS was also unusual. It was supposed to follow the Season Pass model that we see everywhere these days (remember when games didn’t have DLC?), but this was scrapped for a model called On Demand. What this did was basically allow players to pick and choose what bits of DLC they wanted. If you didn’t want any cars, but just wanted tracks, that was fine. It worked the other way too, as if there was a car you just had to have, then you could just purchase that and nothing else. Of course, as the game went on, different versions were released including various bonus bits and bobs, and this culminated in the Project CARS Game of the Year Edition. This gathered everything in one place, finally adding two extra cars from Pagani – the Zonda and the Huayra. And twitchy little buggers they were too.

With the simulation gameplay well and truly nailed, Project CARS went that one step further and decided that the races would be set over a weekend, and include practice sessions, qualifying sessions and finally the race itself. This meant that, to play the game properly and as it was meant to be enjoyed, each race required a significant investment of time. Of course, the weather is also modelled accurately, and having a car set up for a dry track when it starts tipping it down is a recipe for disaster, so paying attention to the forecast became very necessary. It was a good feeling, though, qualifying in first place, leading from the first lap, getting the fastest lap… it made it feel like all the time I had put into this game was finally paying dividends. And whisper it, but I actually like this game better than its sequel, Project CARS 2. It is just a better all-round game to play.

Project CARS Close-up

Before I leave 2015 and my thoughts on Project CARS, I wanted to share something I learned while researching the game. Did you know (and perhaps you did) that Project Cars was supposed to be released on Nintendo’s Wii U? Apparently, the developers reckon they could have got the game running smoothly at 720P and 23 frames per second, but Nintendo wouldn’t accept anything less than 30fps. However, the increase in performance turned out to be impossible, with the Nintendo Life website being told that the title was “simply too much” for the Wii U to handle. Given how the game looks and runs on the Xbox One, a much more powerful machine, I can certainly see that the Wii U would have struggled. 

Anyway, these are my memories of playing Project CARS, from the rough start to the smooth racing line of the later game. Did you know about the Wii U version? Did you play the game back in the day? Do you agree with me that it’s better than its own sequel? Let us know in the comments! And if you haven’t yet played Project CARS, take a little road trip to the Xbox Store and pick up a copy right now.

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