This review covers the PC version updated in 2016.
Project CARS by Slightly Mad Studios is an immersive race-simulation game similar to Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo, but more race oriented. The most impressive part of Project CARS is the weather making racing feel more immersive and challenging. Endurance racing with real-time daylight progression is a great experience. The career mode is extensive with enough racing to keep players busy for a long time in addition to online racing series and hotlap competitions. Holding this simulator back, though, have been the bugs. Three months later, patch 3.0 is starting to look like what version 1.0 should have been. Overall, Project CARS is welcome for those who enjoy longer races and other race strategies such as pit stops, night driving, and changing weather.
I enjoyed Forza Motorsport until 4 when longer races went away along with the challenge. I also missed greater racing realism of older Papyrus titles. Upon hearing of Project CARS and World of Mass Development (WMD) back in late 2012, I became interested. The goal of the WMD project was to get input (and crowdfunding support) from fans on the direction of the title. Early suggestions including large number of cars, tracks, and racing styles such as off-road rally, but some features were set aside to focus on finishing the game. I became concerned after the second release delay was announced, and then a third, as the game likely still needed much polishing. My concern became reality upon trying the initial release to find many bugs, some amusing and others cringe-worthy, along with controls that didn’t feel right making some cars difficult to drive.
Previously, I went over force feedback and Fanatec controller setup making a big improvement with the driving experience.
All screen captures are from in-game taken at 2560x1440 resolution using Steam screen capture feature.
Bugs or quantity vs quality
About as buggy as an Elder Scrolls chapter, and nearly as amusing, Project CARS on initial release could become aggrevating, especially if breaking the race after an hour into an endurance event. Bugs included cars repeatedly driving into the wall, AI drivers confused about tire changes, leaving the pits sometimes sent the cockpit view high into the air, ghosting, visual artifacts, loss of car settings or pit strategy, controller settings reverting to default, or loss of controller (ack!). The worst part could be the default car force feedback settings (not for the controller; for each individual car) are so far off making some cars nearly un-drivable out of the box.
My preferred style of creating software is quality over quantity: fewer features and content aiming at higher quality, and add more content later. This is the approach Kunos Simulazioni started with for Assetto Corsa creating a highly focused experience with simpler navigation. Slightly Mad Studios took the other route adding large amounts of features and content before release at the expense of quality, along with delaying the release date anyway, then patching bugs afterwards. This meant having to turn off features to survive endurance events, and even then, after three failed attempts I decided to wait a few patches before trying another endurance race.
How did we get up here? Sometimes leaving the pits resulted in the cockpit view shooting high in the air (bug fixed). Use the seat-height adjustment control to get back into the car.
3.0 = 1.0
As of patch v3.0, bugs have been squashed, but many still linger. 3.0 feels like a 1.0, so if you’ve been holding off due to bugs, this might be the time to give Project CARS a try.
Improvements for force feedback include choices of configurations: Default, Classic (pre-1.4), and Custom along with more controls. For Fanatec wheels, I recommend starting with “Classic” and customize as in my previous post. Also, you may still want to check car-specific force feedback setting suggestions by WMD member, Jack Spade, on pCARS forums. 3.0 includes other controller fixes in menus and during crashes.
AI improvements include better pit strategy, tire wear, and recovery from getting stuck after a crash. Still needs more work, though.
Much needed track-cutting detection improvement now doesn’t penalize for losing time driving on the grass. Also, practice sessions are more forgiving and stricter penalties enforced during races and time trials. Replays now allow photo-mode and other improvements making replays more useful and entertaining. Note that penalties are simplistic and limited, but do include stop-and-go. Crew radios if officials have issued warning for minor corner cutting, which is a nice touch.
There is a good variety of courses in Project CARS from around the world including Bathurst, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, Spa Francorchamps, Nürburgring, Sakkitto, Le Mans, and a couple point-to-point street courses. The tracks are beautiful in day or night, but perhaps lacking in umbrellas among the spectators when it starts raining. I’m happy to find Road America, one of my favorites I haven’t seen since Forza, and Sonoma Raceway.
Choice of cars is good, but perhaps lacking compared to Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo. I’m okay with this as I prefer to see fewer cars done well rather than many poorly done. Notable missing manufacturers include Ferrari, Nissan, Mazda, Subaru, and GM. Since this is sports car GT and touring racing one would expect Chevrolet Corvette, Nissan GT-R, and Ferrari. Lack of manufacturers is likely due to licensing such as Porsche having exclusive license with Electronic Arts (until 2016). At least we have Porsche tuner, Ruf. Cars come with a nice selection colors and skins in both racing form and artistic, some created by WMD members.
Start your career as a beginner in a kart or Clio, or jump right into GT. A practice session is available in most races. Qualifying is open with other cars on track, so watch for the blue flag to yield to faster traffic. Car settings include fuel loads for full race and qualifying making it easier to set the perfect capacities ahead of time and not worrying about it between practice and qualifying. Different pit strategies may be saved, or review each time entering the pits. Many race series include two-race events with sprint followed by main event where a required pit for tire change adds challenge and more traffic passing opportunities. Each career season keeps track of points and offers non-point invitational events. Career mode brings enough variety to keep the player busy trying out different cars and tracks.
Besides career, racing includes free practice, single-player event, online events, hot-lap leaderboards, and the SMS Driver Network with a season of events primarily made of hot-lap competitions. Race lengths may be very short or very long, including 24-hour endurance race. Your team includes an AI co-driver, or you may compress time if you want to do a 24-hour event in an afternoon. Some events have multiple stages. Sometimes your pit crew drops a wheel nut adding time. You don’t get to drive in the pit area (auto control), so no worries about finding your crew or staying under the speed limit. An indicator will tell you when to take over manual control, which if during a turn, have your wheel ready.
Photo mode, accessible by pausing a race or in replay, allows you to setup the shot and adjust lens or apply filters. Photos are saved to the Driver Network Profile as are replays. Except for 24-hour races, the full race replay may be recorded. In replay mode, view from track-side cameras or the usual array of in-car cameras along with switching cars.
Want to recreate the rain storm of the 1968 German Grand Prix at Nürburgring? You can come close.
Set the track conditions for weather, or match the current weather conditions of the real track (PC). Choose static or progressive weather conditions. Race with compressed-time or real-time daylight progression, and pick starting time by the hour. Set a race for a single lap, 100 laps, or a specified time with a specific car model or a car class. Driving aids include ABS, traction control, and racing line with brake and acceleration indicators by color. Set damage to cosmetic-only or on, and tire wear to none or realistic. Set AI aggressiveness by percentage from 50 to 100.
No parts upgrades, but cars are adjustable and can be saved per track or all courses from the garage. The type of race determines which adjustments you may perform, such as in events where all cars have identical setups, you may only adjust tire pressure and fuel load. 3.0 includes a lap estimate for fuel, but it’s only a rough estimate. Mix tire compounds or go all same. Save multiple pit strategies for fuel level, tire changes, or repairs. As noted in my previous post, force feedback calculations per car for each track may be adjusted in detail, so much so it may become overwhelming. Check out suggestions for starting points, and tweak for better lap times or more realism.
The HUD is customizable in both type of information and placement. You may view performance data, track map, rearview, lap times, time difference between car ahead or behind, speed, RPM, gear selection, and tire temperature. As of 3.0, tire wear is noted by the height of the tire temperature color. I never needed tire wear indication since loss of grip and reduced lap times told me when to pit for tires, but it’s nice to see indicators. When the race is paused, you may adjust the placement of HUD items to sticky positions. This is nice if you want your speed indicator higher on the screen or prefer swapping items left to right.
Project CARS just might be the most realistic weather and atmospheric simulator of any game. Look at the sunset in the shot above! The cockpit darkens and the track becomes more difficult to make out when facing the sun. Now all we need is visor selection. As the sun sets, turn on the headlights for night racing! Rain moving in could mean having to pit to change into wet tires and expect lap times to drop. Fog sometimes appears less satisfying with poor shadows. The PC version also supports matching the real-time weather of the actual track. Weather and real-time sun (and moon) progression helps Project CARS shine!
Since one can’t feel body movement and acceleration in a simulator, how real the driving feels becomes debatable. What’s important is the car handles as expected using real driving technique and proper racing lines. Usually I know a racing game is off when I do something that should cause a slide, but some magic force holds the car on track. The GRiD series by Codemasters is an example of on-rails driving giving some leeway before finally breaking loose. Except for the go-karts, cars in pCARS with all realism enabled handle like one expects from a simulator for the most part. Still, I find I have to pay better attention in Assetto Corsa than I do in Project CARS.
For a comparison with real-life driving, check out this YouTube video at Nurburgring. As noted in the comments, the real-life video was scaled in the first half to better match the game, but the driver otherwise had very close to the same lap time. The in-car camera is low resolution making it look too grainy.
Project CARS supports the clutch for starting, shifting, or keep from killing the engine at a stop. If the real-life car uses clutch-less shifting, such as paddle shifters, then the clutch isn’t necessary for shifting. On the starting line, you can slip the clutch to help control wheel spin. When shifting with the clutch, match the revs for the speed for faster times and prevent spinning out in rear-drive cars. Use heel-toe or left-foot braking techniques as you would in a real race car.
Traction control and ABS can be set on or off for all cars, or set to realistic matching the real car. I like the realistic setting, but I’ll sometimes turn off traction control to become more accustomed to a car during practice. This allows me to learn the proper pressure on the accelerator, a sense that’s tougher to feel compared to a real car, for better driving when traction control is enabled.
If you’re new to racing sims, start out the Renault Clio or follow the Clio Cup in the career before trying out high-powered rear-wheel-drive cars. Drive a track slowly at first and gradually pick up speed. Follow cars in practice, or use the race-line indicator which shows the line and changes color from red for braking to green for acceleration. Physics in Project CARS is realistic enough to reward learning good technique. Practice, practice, practice, and check the online leaderboards when you’re ready to compete with a ghost car, or just learn from another player’s technique.
Race flags and penalties borrow from real racing, but don’t expect rFactor-level rules or details. Jumping the green light results in a black flag requiring a stop-and-go penalty. Blue flag during qualifying warns you to yield to faster traffic. Don’t expect to see yellow flags, but the radio may warn about crashes or slow traffic ahead. Cutting corners comes with warnings before a penalty.
Over revving the engine may lead to failure, and crashes may damage the car, leading to a longer stay in the pits for repairs. Unlike real cars, higher speed crashes are very forgiving, but your car can become completely disabled. If you’re racing well, high-speed crashes shouldn’t happen anyway.
Night driving in the rain with damaged headlights may mean following a car back to the pits.
The video clip above shows v2.5 AI in action and reacting to me driving the yellow Ruf RGT-8. I’ve included a picture-in-picture of the replay in time with the cockpit view to better observe the nearby cars in front and behind. Sometimes the AI cars overreact if the difference in speed between cars is great, if another car moves off the racing line, or if a car passes dangerously. The AI will also try to cut off the best line, so practice good passing technique. In the video you’ll notice I follow closely without incident and pass safely. The yellow MacLaren F1 even gave me some extra room by driving over the rumble strip partway onto the grass to avoid incident.
On narrow tracks the AI may veer off-road more often, or swerve suddenly in crowded situations. If you slow down early and too suddenly, expect to get rear-ended like in real life. If passing too aggressively when there truly isn’t enough room, then expect to get bumped off the track. Learn the track before race day for most enjoyment and safe racing. If you’re accustomed to highly predictable AI of Race 07, rFactor or Assetto Corsa, expect more aggressive (and sometimes bizarre) moves, but less twitchiness as seen in GRiD 2.
The AI drivers also cut corners like demons. On longer races the AI drivers, including your co-driver, may get disqualified. Like other sims, the AI performs better on some tracks than others and slows down too much for certain corners. In heavy traffic through a chicane, the AI may become bottle-necked or stuck even. The latest patch has improved some of this, but I still see plenty of AI cutting corners even at their own expense.
AI make terrible pit stop decisions often when the pavement changes from dry to wet. After the patches improving pit decisions, I still win races due to AI drivers making unecessary pit stop.
Set the AI using a slider from “Beginner” at 50% to “Ace” at 100% which adjusts AI aggression level and overall lap times. In the video the AI is set at 80%.
If you enjoy Forza Motorsport or GRiD, and you’re looking for a more career-like seasonal racing experience, real-time endurance racing, and better driving simulation then Project CARS just might fit as long as you don’t mind spending some time adjusting settings. For those preferring a more focused, polished sim with a strong driving experience, take a look at Assetto Corsa or rFactor 2. The bugs, unwieldly car settings menus, and poorly implemented controller support hold Project CARS back. Before I would have strongly suggested looking elsewhere, but as of patch v3.0 Project CARS is ready to be considered like a 1.0 release.
For controller setup, I check my previous post on force feedback and Fanatec wheels, or look over Jack Spade’s advice on force feedback. Simply Mad Studios should have taken Spade’s settings as default for wheel controllers to improve the experience for new players.
- Full pit (auto-drive in lane) with driver swap
- Simple penalties with (HUD-only) flags and stop-and-go
- Seasonal career
- TCS, ABS matching real car, overidable as simple driving aids
- Transmission matching real car (clutch or not)
- Over-rev engine damage and missed shift gear grinding
- 24-hour endurance
- Transitioning weather with real-world match option
- Daylight progression real-time or accelerated
- It’s pretty
- Excellent day-night transitions
- Great weather simulator!
- A decent career mode
- Terrible AI drivers
- Simple penalties allow cheats by AI drivers no less
Unfortunately, Slightly Mad Studios only committed to supporting Project CARS for twelve months post release, and as of patch v11, some issues remain unaddressed including poor AI. The controller loss problem has actually been more frequent since patch v4 much like others have posted on forum.projectcarsgame.com, although apparently resetting the controller profile works for some. I still avoid certain events and online racing. A case of too many features, but still, the lack of commitment means I have little interest in a sequel. On the plus side, pCARS now includes VR support. Unlike some other race titles, at least pCARS is a complete game. The career keeps me coming back as other titles lack this feature.