Crowd funding is perhaps the most common and easiest way to launch a new product or business these days. It seems like everyone is doing it and the video game industry has fully embraced it as well. So it’s nothing new. At all. But what happens when a game developer turns to crowd funding but then makes their backers a part of their development team?
What happens is Project CARS, a several-year-long labor of love from British developer Slightly Mad Studios and their backers. Project CARS [Community Assisted Racing Simulator] is a racing game that manages to be truly unique in a world where Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo reign king. It’s packed with features, armed with jaw-dropping visuals, and boasts an immersive racing experience that you really can’t top unless you do the real thing.
Project CARS checks many of the right boxes on a gamer’s list of what they expect from a racing simulator because there were true racing sim fans behind the scenes making sure that it did. It’s a different take on video game development that returned some very impressive results. All of that makes this one of the best racing games I’ve ever experienced.
Allow me to explain…
Project CARS in a Nutshell
To the end user, this is a game that might not look like anything that special on the surface; it’s pretty, but so is Forza, and it’s got a decent car selection, but Gran Turismo has more.
The brilliance of Project CARS (which I’ll now call pCARS because those extra six letters are hard) really becomes evident as you spend more time with it and get comfortable with what this game actually is… a racing simulator. It will draw you in with its fancy spec sheet but then captivate you with its incredible depth and unrivaled sense of realism.
Now of course, calling a racing game – or any game – realistic may sound a bit naive, at least until someone figures out a way to make a restart button in real life. But SMS developers devoted themselves to creating a racing experience that nothing else could rival. The sights, sounds, and pressure are all there to make pCARS an exhilarating experience. Racing with a wheel adds an extra sense of immersion not least because they’ve thrown in an awesome force feedback model as well which allows you to feel the difference between each car and the surface of each track.
All throughout the game, you’ll find some incredible attention to detail in car models and in the environment. It’s got enough substance to make it a game that you’ll never want to put down… maybe.
You’ve got to admire SMS for their ambition with pCARS; it’s a game that tries to do everything and it does most of it very well.
That’s pCARS in a nutshell. But like the game itself, it’s best when you dive deep and see everything it has to offer.
PCARS has a great variety of cars to choose from, but the overall number is noticeably lower than other major titles like Forza and especially Gran Turismo. The game ships with 65 cars but there are 6 other cars that have been added on already. So that makes a total of 71 cars available to players right now, which isn’t terrible.
What’s good though is that most major classes are represented here. There are road cars, super cars, old touring cars, modern touring cars, track day cars, shifter karts, Le Mans prototypes, GT cars, and open wheel cars. Some classes are better represented than others, though, and this game focuses primarily on actual race cars.
A game as specialized as this doesn’t need the biggest car list in the world, but the lack of some major manufacturers is the most disappointing aspect of the car list in pCARS. Brands like Chevrolet, Dodge, Ferrari, Honda, Jaguar, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, and some others are not represented at all. The reason for this really comes down to the resources available to SMS; even with strong backers, they don’t have the same budget that GT and Forza have when securing licenses. Fortunately, there are more cars coming… we just don’t know exactly what or when.
But who’s counting when each car model is as beautiful, detailed, and alive as the ones in pCARS? Every interior switch and exterior body panel is exactly as it looks in real life and they look beautiful in motion. From the driver’s seat, you’ll notice that mirrors rattle and some body panels react to every bump.
Then there are the sounds each car makes… and holy hell they’re awesome. Every car sounds unique unless it shares an engine. The road cars sound aggressive and peppy whereas the race cars sound raw and untamed – but most importantly, everything sounds believable. Nothing sounds like a vacuum cleaner but yet a Mitsubishi Evo doesn’t sound like a Ferrari.
The gearboxes wail and clack away and the tires scream in tones that are wholly dependent on what you’re driving over and how much grip the tire has left to give. For example, if you dip your inside front tire onto the painted apron in a corner, you’ll hear the distinct sound of tires sliding over some slippery paint. It’s all about the details…
Moving on to how each car drives, those using a steering wheel (more on that later) will notice that every car actually feels different. Jumping around from car to car is much harder in this game, so you actually have to learn the car to be fast with it. You need to learn its strengths, weaknesses, its personality, and all its nuances.
SMS have made a virtual car feel like something that’s actually alive while hauling ass around a race track at 150 mph, and it’s like that for every car. The active models, the sounds, and the feel of each car is all top notch. For that, you can forgive them for skipping Corvettes for now.
There are 30 locations and 110 different course layouts to choose from. Tracks range from F1 courses to karting tracks and there are even a few fictional road rally-type courses. The locations are mostly in Europe, but there are a few good locations in the U.S., Australia, Japan, and UAE.
Like everything else in this game, the tracks are gorgeous. The backdrops are photorealistic and the architecture around the track is all very well modeled. The grand stands and flagman booths are populated by 3D models of people that actually look somewhat real. They move around and cheer you on, and in some occasions, you can even catch a track worker watching your car go past. Some tracks also feature a TV helicopter, but it stays in a single area.
As with the cars, the tracks feel like they’re real places hosting real people. You can hear race commentary but only where they’ve actually thrown in the speakers on the track. Windows light up at night and the car park is less pixelated than usual. The overall environment at each track is rich and spectacular. If you don’t believe me, load up Azure Circuit (Monaco) at dusk.
Time and Weather
Day-to-night transition is available on every track, although some tracks never get completely dark. Cloud cover can be configured too and even that is very well done. The clouds actually move and you can see patches of sun peaking through the cloud cover, so the lighting isn’t completely static. It’s fun to see what each track looks like during different times of day.
Furthermore, any track can be driven in the rain, which is something few other games with this large of a track selection can offer. You may not see the same track in the same conditions very often.
You can see standing water accumulate around the track during heavy rain, and just for the sake of details, you can see individual rain drops hit the ground and beads of water resting on the car, as shown below.
Like any good racing game, the business of racing comes first. Fortunately, SMS made some friends with people who know a thing or two about the business of racing. Friends like Ben Collins, who used to be someone they called “The Stig”, Nicolas Hamilton, Oli Webb, and others all contributed to fine tuning the game’s driving dynamics and racing experience.
The driving in this game is realistic in that you have to apply real life high-performance driving lessons to do well here. Driving that works in Forza or Gran Turismo will not always work in pCARS, but that’s a part of the realism that SMS were striving for. Compared to other games I’ve played, the driving in pCARS feels extremely good.
You need a racing wheel for the best experience. It’s not technically a requirement, but it also pretty much is. The way you have to drive cars in this game feels so much more natural with a wheel. It’s easier to apply your knowledge of racing with a wheel and it’s easier to learn something from the game in return. A list of supported racing wheels for each platform can be found here.
The force feedback is about the best I’ve ever come across in any game. You feel every bump come through the wheel and not all of them feel the same. There are no “canned effects” here – every input felt through the wheel matches up with exactly what’s on the track and it varies based on speed and suspension tuning.
If driving this Caterham can’t put a smile on your face, nothing will
Furthermore, every car feels different through the wheel as well. Older cars require more steering input and aren’t as sharp while modern cars have much snappier steering racks with instant response. Another nice detail is that the steering is very heavy when stopped or moving around slowly and lightens up a bit as the car gets going.
No matter which controller you use, the cars all react noticeably to the many car adjustments that can be made. Suspension and tire settings can be tweaked at all four corners and you can even adjust fuel load and how much of the brake and differential cooling ducts are opened. Every setting has a real influence on the car’s behavior and you could spend hours fine tuning a single car.
With the aforementioned details in the cars, tracks, and steering comes a rich racing experience that can be as good or as bad as your driving. The single-player career allows you to jump right into any racing series you want, whether it be Le Mans racing or Formula A (F1). You can start your career as a rookie in karting and work your way up or start off as a defending champ in the world’s premiere racing series. The better you perform, the better the opportunities are.
If career isn’t your thing, then you can easily configure your own race weekend. Practices, qualifying, and the race itself are all customizable by length, class(es) participating, weather, and more. Yes… you can configure multi-class racing at any track, at night, in the rain if you really wanted to. It’s easy to kill time without following a predefined schedule.
When you finally make your way into the racing, it’s thrilling and hard as hell. The AI are good, but not perfect. They’re fast but they make mistakes. They’ll bump into you and defend the inside line when they need to, which makes racing with them a real challenge. The difficulty can be adjusted by a percentage slider, so it doesn’t always have to be hard.
Let’s play “Find the Apex”
But sometimes the hardest part of a race isn’t the competition, but rather the external factors like weather and lighting. Early morning and late afternoon races come with a complimentary sun that blinds the shit out of you and makes an apex extremely difficult to see. When rain hits, it drastically changes the way you have to drive, whether it’s changing your braking points or changing your line to avoid standing water. And just to throw mechanical failures into the mix, you actually need to take care of your car during the course of a race, because unlike Gran Turismo, contact and money shifting has consequences.
But if you can get past all of the challenges that the AI, the car, the track conditions, and the other external forces throw at you and take the win, you’ll have a real sense of accomplishment. This is a satisfying game when you win and a frustrating game when you struggle – but isn’t that racing in a nutshell?
What Still Needs Work
Despite the seven-month delay SMS took so they could “polish” pCARS, there is still a laundry list of things that aren’t as good as they could or should be. Overall my experience has been 95% positive with this game, but I’ve easily found several things that sour the experience just a bit.
First off, they need to add some more auto manufacturers to that roster. It’s hard to have a successful racing game when Corvette and Ferrari aren’t represented at all. They plan to address that, but it can’t come soon enough.
Second, they’ve still got a bunch of bugs that are plaguing some racers. I’m not going to name them all, but the most annoying one I’ve found is a glitch where your car falls through pit lane and disqualifies you. Imagine if that had happened in an endurance race…
Third, and most annoyingly, is the photo mode they have… which is complete, unfiltered crap. This game is drop-dead gorgeous in every way, yet they make it hard to capture that by restricting your camera movement to just spinning around the car with a little bit of zoom and height adjustment. That’s it. There’s no built-in free camera to compose your own shots at all. There’s kind of a free camera on PC that I had to use to get these shots, but it was time consuming and much harder than it needed to be.
There are a bunch of other tiny things that could be improved, but none of them are worth going into detail over.
Project CARS is exactly as the name states – a community-assisted racing simulator, but also a project. This is the first time (that I’m aware of) where a major game was developed in a way that allowed its future target market to help create the game they wanted to play. Nobody really knew how it would turn out, but after the hard work and dedication of everyone involved, it turned out to be something they should be very proud of.
This game goes toe-to-toe with industry giants and walks away with some decisive victories and several areas to improve on, which it will. But as of now, there is nothing else quite like Project CARS. It’s available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC worldwide.
- Stunning graphics
- Excellent day-to-night transitions
- Variable weather on every track
- Great track selection
- Highly detailed and unique cars
- THOSE SOUNDS!!
- Missing lots of great auto manufacturers
- Still some bugs that need to be exterminated
- Whatever they call “photo mode”
Using my complex and 100% accurate scoring system, I’ve factored in the game’s overall quality and impressive level of detail along with its drawbacks and bugs to give Project CARS a rating of 9.4 Ladas out of 10. It’s easily the best new racing game of 2015 thus far and it just might make a racing sim fan out of you.
[Images © 2015 Hooniverse/Greg Kachadurian – all taken in-game… except for the Ladas]