Project CARS review: the anti-Mario Kart

If you're looking for the Linux of racing simulators, you've come to the right place

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By racing sim standards, Project CARS has been the source of intense interest in the three and a half years since its announcement. That’s partly because it’s one of the few titles in recent memory to offer a serious challenge to heavyweights Gran Turismo and Forza — those simply don’t come around very often — but it’s also because of its unusual development structure. CARS was partially crowdfunded as the inaugural release from World of Mass Development, a project of Slightly Mad Studios intended to bring AAA games to market with more direct input from fans and less from major publishers, the goliaths of the gaming industry beholden to business interests and cold, hard deadlines.

Now, it’s finally here as a true cross-platform release, coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam. (Support for PS3 and Xbox 360 was dropped during the development process, but a Wii U version is allegedly still in the works.) It’s been a bumpy road, though, as the development cycles of virtually all major titles tend to be. Specifically, I started to worry about Project CARS somewhere around the announcement of the third delay of its release earlier this year.

I’m sorry to say that my concern wasn’t entirely without merit: it’s buggy, and unless you like extremely frustrating controls, this one may not be for you.

Project CARS

I tested the Xbox One version of Project CARS, which feels like a port from the moment it’s powered on. The on-screen text is uniformly microscopic, as if it’s designed to be viewed on a PC monitor that’s a few inches from your face. That doesn’t work particularly well on a sub-40-inch television that’s across the room. It’s not a huge deal — much of the text is automatically narrated as you work your way through the game’s deep, broad user interface as a sort of tutorial as you go — but it’s an early warning sign that CARS lacks the polish of a Forza.

UI misgivings aside, CARS generally looks wonderful, both inside the cockpit and out. I was particularly impressed when I dialed up a track’s weather to "thunderstorm," with realistic pools of reflective water accumulating on the asphalt and just enough splattered rain on my windows to make visibility a genuine challenge. I can’t honestly say it looks any better than Forza 5, though — and there are a few places where I felt the cars looked more "plasticky" than in other current-gen sims — but it’s still a joy to take in the visuals.

Before you get to those visuals, though, you’ll want to wander through the unbelievably complete menus of settings and modes. In fact, Project CARS is a master class in immersive, comprehensive racing simulator design: one-off races are available, of course, but the career mode lets you work your way up from karts into a variety of different circuits — F1, LMP, stock car, so on. Races take place on actual calendar days, each with their own weather conditions, and involve practice, qualifiers, and actual races alike. As you progress, different teams will make you offers to participate in different classes of racing, while a fake social media stream will even have your "fans" respond in real time to your good and bad performances on the track. (Just like the real Twitter, the game’s fake hate-tweets can get a little depressing.)

Project CARS

The overwhelming configurability of the game left me a little intimidated at times: a glance at the settings screen, for instance, reveals dozens of fine-tuning adjustments for car control, well beyond anything I’ve seen on a console before. On the track, you can micro-manage your car’s setup (just as you can in titles like Forza and GT), but you can also configure your pit strategy. And the pits go well beyond refueling and tire changes: the game lets you choose from two different levels of performance-impacting damage, simulated mechanical failures, and even hyper-realistic race starts where jumping off the line can incur a pitting penalty. It really is the "anti-Mario Kart" — it entirely trades pick-up-and-play ease of use for endless customization.

Granted, you don’t have to touch any of these settings if you don’t want to, but I found that I was continually futzing with tuning and realism settings because — to be very blunt — CARS doesn’t drive very well. Or, rather, it doesn’t drive very accessibly. It’s entirely possible that the title hewed so closely to realistic racing physics (as it set out to do) that it’s just very difficult to control with a standard console controller, but either way, it’s such a slog that the simple joy of playing a video game was sapped right out of it. In the end, I was spending more time adjusting my car than I was actually driving.

But even if the finicky driving characteristics are truly by design, CARS has bugs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the game’s delays were related to last-minute bug stomping, but the studio didn’t manage to get them all: I observed almost constant screen tearing in some races, moderate slowdowns in congested turns that broke my concentration, and strange steering behavior that would occasionally cause me to go left when I wanted to go right, and vice versa. There are also little annoyances, like a menu system with a selector that jumps around randomly as you try to navigate through it. In aggregate, the bugginess was severe enough to make the game very, very hard, even with all of the driver assists turned on. If you feel at home on the tracks of Forza and GT, this game will give you a very serious — and often irritating — run for your money.

Project CARS

As complete as CARS is as a simulator, its catalog of cars is shockingly thin, and many major manufacturers are just missing altogether. It could be that the developers simply ran out of time to model any more vehicles, but I think the more likely explanation is a tricky and laborious licensing process with automakers that doesn’t lend itself to this kind of bootstrapped game. There’s no Ferrari, no Lamborghini, no Alfa, no Honda, no Toyota, and no General Motors brand of any kind, just to name a few. (There’s also no Porsche — which is notoriously finicky with video game licensing — but as with other games, CARS gets around this by using Porsche tuner Ruf instead.)

But as cobbled-together as CARS feels in places, I want to believe. It’d be wonderful for the Forza/GT duopoly to get some legitimate competition, and CARS shows promise for catering to a slightly harder-core audience than those mainstream titles typically have. My guess is that CARS feels much more at home on a PC, where controller options are abundant and players have the option of hooking into an SDK that Slightly Mad offers for plugging third-party apps and utilities into the game. (A handful of these apps are already available for download.) As for the console versions, the onus is on them to solve — quickly, if possible — a laundry list of loose ends and to build out the anemic database of cars.

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