Project CARS is one of those franchises that never really clicked for me. I enjoyed the feel of the first game, but the control gremlins at launch still see a bitter taste left in my mouth to this day. The whole simulation part of the game, with the long race weekends recreated perfectly from practice to qualifying to racing, was great, but it always felt harder to drive with a controller than it needed to be. Project CARS 2 was more of the same, except this time the handling felt like we were driving a car with all the grip of Bambi when she first set foot on the ice, and eventually I pretty much abandoned my attempts to get along with it. Now, however, the imaginatively named Project CARS 3 is here, and given that Slightly Mad Studios’ last game – Fast & Furious Crossroads – was an absolute car crash, can they do better this time out? I pulled on my Nomex boots to find out.
First things first, Project CARS 3 looks amazing, with highly detailed car models zooming about the place at high speed. I always feel it’s a testament to the visuals if, instead of skipping and starting to play, you sit there, open-mouthed, gazing at the attract sequence. The cars are beautiful, capable of holding their own with the best that the Forza series has to offer; that is high praise indeed. The engine noises are great as well, with a real difference between a four pot Evo and an eight cylinder Mustang, for instance, and having a big lazy V8 thrumming away in front is a great feeling. Just to add to the realism, and this is only a little thing, but if you redline the Mustang on the startline, the whole car rocks, just like high-powered V8 cars do in real life. These little touches show the amount of thought that has gone into the game. So, it looks good, and sounds great – how does it play, I hear you ask?
Well, it’s a different beastie this time around. The other two games made their pitch based on the realism, on the absolute attention to detail in being able to change the tyre pressure in the left front tyre and so on. This time things are a lot simpler; a lot more dumbed down for want of a better phrase. But, and it’s a big but, I honestly feel like Project CARS is a much better game because of it. Project CARS has never really been about fun: it’s always been a bit po-faced for me, never managing to strike the balance between realism and fun that Forza Motorsport manages. This time however, the game is a real hoot to play, yet it hasn’t lost its realism entirely. It’s no Assetto Corsa Competizione any more, but neither is it a Burnout; what it is is a good, realistic racing game that takes the best of the Forza franchise and adds its own twists.
There is also a new upgrade mechanic for the cars, which allows you to fit parts from a range of categories, and even to upgrade your road-going snail into a mighty full-on racing car. The cars have classes, and with the right upgrades, it’s possible to move a car up a class or two. As an example, my Class E Evo Tommi Makkinen Edition has now been upgraded to Class C, and is an absolute beast, with very predictable handling thanks to its four-wheel drive system. I’ve gone the other way with my Mustang: it’s only two-wheel drive, and so I’ve spent all my money on the engine, and now it is pretty much undrivable in a straight line, as the slightest pressure on the throttle will make it go sideways. Sometimes you just gotta drift, you know?
With livery editors in place, that allow you to change the look of your car utterly, right down to the number plate, it is entirely possible to make a car that suits you down to the ground. You can even choose the Falken livery from their drift cars if you so desire.
So, we’ve got the car sorted, chosen our avatar and now we need to race, and it is here where you find the usual options; Career or Multiplayer. Career follows you as you try to fight your way up from the bottom rung of motorsports to the top, with categories to race in and many sub categories as well. Starting in Class E, as you race and complete race objectives, more and more events become available to you. Interestingly, these race objectives are not all just about “winning the race” – there are many other things to try to achieve; mastering a certain number of corners, for instance, or drafting rival cars for a certain amount of time. My favourite is to try and achieve a certain number of clean passes within a given time scale, as trying to get past these drivers is a challenge in itself. Cleanly? Pah!
Winning and completing races, and then in turn taking down objectives, awards you with EXP that goes towards your driver level. The levelling system here does seem a little weird, as each level has many other levels inside it before you can rank up. As an example, it took 350,000 EXP for me to level up to rank 2, in which time my little Evo ranked up to 18. Yes, your car ranks up faster than you do, which results in cheaper upgrades, which is a nice touch.
There are a lot of races to take part in, and they are of different types too. The bog standard, beat all the other cars races are here, but you can also partake in Hot Lap races, where you have one flying lap to beat a certain time, to an event where you have to set an average pace over three laps – one single mistake will cost you. There is also an arcade race type, Breakout. Breakout tasks you with driving around a circuit, with no rules as to which way or where you can drive, smashing boards with values on to score points. There are boards for 10, 20 and 50 points, and the more you hit, the better. It’s an odd mode, to be sure, but it largely works. Also in Career mode are the invitational Races, and a challenges mode where you are given a series of scenarios to try and achieve. All in all, Career mode is stuffed with content and looks to be a lot of fun!
Multiplayer also works well. There is the usual Quick Play option which puts you in a race with like-minded individuals quickly, alongside a Scheduled Race option. This does what it says on the tin – it has a race scheduled to start at a certain time that you can register for. Now, if you are early, the game allows you to use the spare time as qualifying, getting an idea of the layout of the track and the handling of your chosen car. If you qualify well, you start at the front of the grid, which is obviously a huge advantage. Mastering corners and learning the best racing line around a track is very useful, and in a nice touch, racing clean and well will see your “Racing Licence” being upgraded, while running into other drivers and running off track will see your licence downgraded. The actual netcode seems to be able to cope with the demands of high speed racing well, and apart from some slight juddering, it’s very much fast and indeed furious!
Rivals is another category of events that you can take part in, with daily, weekly and monthly challenges to test your skills in. These are hot lap type events, and must be absolutely clean, as contact with walls or running off track will invalidate your lap time and bring the run to an ignominious end. Some of these challenges are very tough indeed; tiptoeing a Ferrari with hysterically twitchy handling around a tight Havana course is a particular toughie.
So, a conclusion then and Project CARS 3 on Xbox One is, for me, the most together of the series. By ditching much of the hardcore sim superstructure, what is left is is a fun, accessible racing game that can easily be mentioned in the same breath as Forza Motorsport. It’s fast, good-looking and, with the exception of some dim-witted AI, super fun to play. If you are in the market for a racing game, you can do a lot worse than Project CARS 3.