Platforms: PC, PS4, Wii U and Xbox One
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Publisher: Slightly Mad Studios
After being funded by thousands upon thousands of racing fans and being delayed numerous times Project Cars has finally arrived, a moment that I feel like I’ve been waiting for since the beginning of time. But now that I’ve gotten to race numerous types of car around a fantastic and varied selection of circuits I’m left feeling conflicted. This is a magnificent racing game in many ways, but at the same time it’s a frustrating experience marred by a major problem, and a vast selection of bugs and glitches. To adequately convey my mixture of adoration and annoyance with Project Cars is going to be…difficult. But let’s give it a whirl, eh?
Project Cars ditches most of the modern trappings of experience points and linear progression and instead opts for an open-ended structure devoid of having to purchase new cars or fit upgrades to stay competitive. Right from the start you’re free to set up a race on any of the 110 courses spanning 30 different locations with any of the 60+ cars and simply enjoy yourself by hammering around the corners as quickly as possible. Fire up career mode and you can opt to leap into whatever “tier” of racing you like, from incredibly difficult to handle superkarts to full-blown supercars. As you play through the career you’ll get to sign new contracts to either continue racing your current class or move to a new championship with a new team, meanwhile invitationals give you the chance to jump into completely different classes for a race or two before heading back into your main championship season. You can even sign endorsement deals based on your performance, and watch what the fans and magazines have to say in a very, very limited social media element that tries, and frankly fails, completely to replicate the life of a professional racer. If you fancy having an objective to aim for then you can choose to chase one of the three historic goals; Zero to Hero asks you to go from racing karts in tier 8 to LMP1 champion in ten seasons or less; Defending Champ tasks you with holding any championship for three consecutive seasons and can only be achieved by starting in tier 2, and finally Triple Crown requires that you to start in tier 3 and earn three different championships in three different classes. You can try to tackle one of these goals, all of them or none of them at all. It’s all about giving the player the choice to race how they like, rather than making them feel hemmed in by standard design templates that often demand you pay your dues in cars you don’t enjoy in order to get access to the more exciting machinery.
That theme of player choice permeates the game. The options have options, and they probably have options, too. There’s a raft of things to tinker with, letting you adjust an AI difficulty slider before a race, choose what sessions you’ll be taking part in and their length, what driving aids to have on, whether restarts should be allowed and so much more. Want to do the LeMans 24-hours in real-time? You absolutely can, or you can compress the time a little. By playing around with these settings you can really customise the game to your liking, and even tone it down from being a full-on simulation in case you aren’t an experienced player. Steering wheels are naturally well supported and once again there’s plenty of options for configuring your setup. Once you’ve played with all those options it’s time to head into the car options and begin tinkering with pretty much every little detail of your vehicle, losing potentially countless hours of time getting the balance just right. Almost every possible car setting can be adjusted. Competing in the online time-trials reveals that spending time playing with what’s under the hood counts for a lot, because you’ll quickly discover getting near the better times without doing so is damn near impossible. And then you go alter your pit-stop strategy, too. The only thing missing is some visual customisation to round out the suite. There’s no sticking on aftermarket parts here or making your own decals, but to be honest you probably won’t even notice.
The downside is that the importance of tuning will likely be lost on newcomers. Project Cars is not a game that seems willing to help out inexperienced players. There’s some short descriptions next to each option, but it’s nowhere near enough for a person unfamiliar with the inner-workings of a car to even begin to figure out what everything does. The game helpfully points out that you can troubleshoot your race engineer about problems, except you can’t – no such option seems to exist, at least not at the moment. Of course there is a wealth of community help to be found online that will patiently help you learn how to tweak each setting to better your own performance, but it seems likely a lot of players will glance at the options, feel overwhelmed by the daunting array of numbers and go back to simply racing with default settings.
In fact, for newcomers the entire game can be a little terrifying. I’ve played numerous racing games across the years, ranging from hardcore simulator to arcade mayhem, so I knew what I was signing up for, but players wanting to enter the world of simulated racing for the first time might want to look somewhere else. It might seem like the option to start in kart racing and work up presents a chance for Project Cars to ease players into its realistic world where a single miscalculation in corner speed can ruin an entire hour-long race or where the lack of rubber banding means once the leaders have a decent gap a podium is pretty much not going to happen, but karts also happen to be the single deadliest thing to drive in the entire game, and possibly on the planet. They are twitchy, frustrating, awkward things that delight in sending you spinning off into the dirt at the merest provocation, like you’ve somehow insulted their mothers. Again, tuning can help quite a bit here, but the lack of guidance throughout the game creates a hard barrier to break through. As someone who constantly tries to get friends and family playing sims it can be a little annoying to see those sims so resolutely refuse to at least try to help noobs out. The difficulty doesn’t need to be toned down or anything. Accessibility isn’t a bad word here.
But if you can stick with it you’ll find something special. The handling is just sublime, the sense of weight behind every vehicle so perfectly judged and translated into the game. Performance cars stick to the road like they’ve been glued to it but become a bit dangerous sometimes at low speeds where their huge downforce can’t come into play, while regular road-going vehicles like the Ford Focus wallow about the track like a whale trying to figure out how to drive a manual for the first time. More importantly every single car feels different, requiring you to tweak the way you approach each race. It’s here where I feel Project Cars is at its best, because in so many other racing games, and I find Forza to be quite guilty of this, the differences between many cars don’t feel very pronounced and so driving them begins to become dull. Not so here. The physics system is generally very impressive and seems adept in almost any situation. Moving on to other aspects of the simulation the difference between cold and heated tires is quite large, almost exaggerated in a way, but it does more effectively convey how important it is to watch those opening laps in a session. Driving on cold tyres feels like you have your own person ice sheets forming directly under the rubber, leaving you to slide madly around. Absolutely sublime.
Pre-release screenshots showed a beautiful game, but to be perfectly honest the final product, at least on Xbox One, looks…good. Nothing more. The car models are lovely, featuring plenty of impressive detail. The weather effects are also impressive, and are simulated wonderfully, too, with some stellar lighting effects coming into their own, especially when they are used to almost literally blind you. Hey, you want realism, then blinding sunlight is part of it. A growing storm finally dropping lashings of rain 30-minutes into a 45-minute race can drastically change the action, and in the helmet cam view it becomes incredibly atmospheric as you squint through the water to see other cars and the apex of rapidly approaching corners. Interestingly Project Cars never mentions that you need to manually turn the windscreen wipers on, which made the first lap of my first wet race quite interesting. If nothing else Project Cars has completely proved that no racing simulator going forward can get away with not having weather effects, although really we already knew that. Once you start looking around, though, the graphics are less impressive. Trackside detail is okay, but looks flat and lifeless, and the small crowds look like something from the Xbox 360 era rather than a modern console. The good news is that since this is a racing sim most of the detail will be going past in a blur and you’ll rarely have reason to take your eyes off the track to notice how dull much of the scenery looks. But again, Project Cars does look good, just not quite as good as it was made out to be.
Screen tearing is something of a problem as well. It’s not present everywhere, but when it does rear its ugly head you can’t but help notice it. There’s other little graphical hiccups too, like flickering scenery, a red box appearing, a completely lack of pit-crews – although I have to admit that’s not actually a glitch – plus a lot of jagged edges. On top of that performance is sketchy with the framerate taking relatively frequent drops from 60 down to around 40, especially during heavy rain. Some of the most noticeable examples come when you seemingly get a strange lurch of speed coming out of a corner. Large grids of cars also take their toll on the FPS. It’s never enough to truly wreck the overall experience, though.
On the audio side of things the game boasts some of most wonderfully stirring and dramatic menu music I’ve heard in a long time, the kind that I would happily listen to for hours on end. It almost sounds out of place in a racing title, perhaps more suited to being the epic music of a dramatic, tear-inducing final stand of some brave warrior. Out on the track everything sounds pretty good, although the cars are lacking just a little something, failing to capture that powerful, visceral sound that truly magnificent machines are capable of producing. Does that mean the audio is weak? No. While I’ve heard better examples Project Cars still sound great, and listening to the many cars is a pleasure. There are some hiccups, mind you. Take sitting in the pit garage for instance; passing cars sometimes had audio that simply appeared out of nowhere as the car moved across my vision, and then vanished. The occasional hiss, crackle and pop could also be heard. Nothing major, though.
The physics and handling are of course the central pillar of any racing game, but the AI plays an important part too, because without a decent challenge on the track driving can become stale, although there’s always the option to head online and race real players instead. The AI here is capable of delivering a great challenge, and even better wheel-t0-wheel action through the corners. I had some impressive battles where I found myself side-by-side with an opponent, swapping position on the track at almost every corner. Sadly, however, the AI can also be quite inconsistent. For every time it provided a stiff challenge there was another time where I qualified a full six or eight seconds ahead of the pack with ease, or grabbed the lead at the first turn and never saw the rest of the grid again, pulling out a huge gap in the very first lap. Even on the hardest setting there were times where I’d finish leagues ahead of everyone else without breaking a sweat, and yet the next race they’d demolish me with merciless conviction. This inconsistency pervaded other areas of the AI, too. Sure, the other drivers are capable of delivering some stellar fights, but sometimes they would be almost oblivious to my presence, or barely put up a fight as I went to overtake them. When the AI is on the ball it’s really on the ball, but I just wish it could stay on the damn thing a bit longer.
Mind you, human players can be inconsistent, too. Head online and the theme of freedom found within the career mode is once again present, except this time its presence is a little less welcome. Anybody is free to setup an event in any way they see fit, twiddling with the options to create either a 2-lap sprint or a 10-hour marathon. The problem is that when it comes to joining a game it can be a little hard to tell what you’re getting. You can browse from a list, but information is limited, while hitting the quick match button can drop you into anything. It means you’ll probably spend too much time jumping in and out of lobbies looking for something that suits you. Once you’ve found a good session, however the netcode appears to be rock solid, and with the right group of people online is a pleasure to sink some time into, but better search options are a must and hopefully the developers get it updated soon.
There’s also a nice take on Time Trial where everyone takes to the track at the same time in the same car and tries to get the best possible lap time. Since you’re actually entirely alone on the track it removes any possibility of having your race ruined by a hot-head and instead let’s you focus on getting every corner nailed while still having some of the feeling of a typical race. It remains probably my favorite online mode, though I did not a couple of instances where the game didn’t register my fastest laps correctly.
So now we come to the tricky bit. I’ve had some gripes thus far but mostly I’ve been praising Project Cars because of its impeccable handling model, which is naturally the most important element of a sim, yet my opening paragraph of this review clearly indicated some serious problems. What gives, then? What could possible damage the experience of sliding a supercar round the corner and feeling every bit the professional? Or misjudging a corner and lightly placing a wheel on the dirt, sending me out of control and making me feel the agony of defeat? This is a game where the reward for perseverance isn’t new cars or fancy parts, it’s simply the joy of being better than you were. The cars feel terrific to drive, making Project Cars among the best sims out there. Right? Right!? Wrong. Er, sort of. The controls, are what gives. The simple but horrible truth of the matter is that Project Cars god awful controls on the Xbox One managed to hugely damage my experience with the game, and that sucks because everything else is simply outstanding.
On first firing up the game and proceeding to launch into a career I became immediately frustrated by how hard it was to manhandle just about any vehicle around the tracks. My first and entirely stupid assumption was it was the handling model itself that was somehow to blame. I’ve played sims for years, and knew that something was off. I’m not a great racer, that much I admit, but I’m decent and know my own limitations. The handling was twitchy, unpredictable, inconsistent and worse, didn’t even seem to let me turn to anywhere near the full radius. Karts were nearly impossible to drive, and even performance cars that stick to the track like glue proved to be awkward unless I drove with a precision bordering on mechanical. It was infuriating, because I couldn’t even handle a simple corner without a high chance of mucking up due to turning in too much, too little or the car simply twitching left or right, or the throttle suddenly ripping right open. A quick trip to a friend who owns the game on PC, though, confirmed my suspicions that the handling was indeed just fine. In fact as I described earlier it was impeccable. No, the problem lies in the controls.
The default settings, for starters, are horrible, boasting a 50% deadzone on the steering that could never work. For starters I sunk nearly an hour into fiddling with the controller settings in order to get what I would classify as it least semi-drivable. Since then I’ve arguably put just as much time into playing with settings as I have actually racing cars and have attained…crap. The controls are vastly superior to what they once were, sure, but remain horrendously bad, and are still inconsistent at best. Cars are very, very twitchy at lower speeds, making correcting slides or other small adjustments through S-bends or coming out of hairpins a nearly impossible task. Every time I think the sensitivity is set correctly another car proves me wrong. I simply can’t trust the controls to behave in a consistent or even realistic manner for the majority of the time, leaving me to helplessly crash out after the car suddenly slips for the thousandth time, or having lap times invalidated while I wrestle with the sticks and triggers. The thing is it doesn’t matter if everything else about a racing game is truly brilliant when the controls just outright don’t work. They damage the experience any time you’re on track, and no amount of adjustment managed to get them feeling good. It corrupted my time with Project Cars, and turned me against the game. In a good simulator every mistake made was a learning experience, but in Project Cars on the Xbox One at least three-quarters of the crashes and incidents I had felt like they weren’t my fault, and that’s just plain wrong. But when those controls do work, by God is Project Cars good.
These problems are only made worse by the poor feedback provided through the controller. It’s hard to feel when the tyres are beginning to slip so you can begin making adjustments, or whether you’re a little too heavy on the gas. Aside from making the job of controlling the car even tougher the lackluster feedback also makes you feel a little less connected to the track, failing to capitalise on the sense of weight that the cars have.
Purists will argue that a simulator such as Project Cars is meant to be played with a wheel, thus rendering such petty complaints about controls moot. They’d be right, kind of. Despite the fact that there is a very limited selection of absurdly expensive wheels on offer due to the lack of racing titles on Xbox One Project Cars does deserve a good wheel because with one the on-track action comes truly alive, and it’s far easier to gain the subtle control really needed to master the fastest cars when using one. It’s bloody brilliant, to put it simply. However, the actual number of console players who also own a steering wheel is slim, again not helped by the very small selection of pricey offerings, and any game released on to Xbox One, or PS4, for that matter, needs to feel at least reasonably comfortable with a controller because that’s how the majority of gamers will be playing it, and right now Project Cars does not. Controllers are almost always a little twitchy with racing games hence the need for magic coding that helps smooth inputs, but Project Cars does it very, very poorly, especially in comparison to other series on the market. Yes, Forza really isn’t a pure sim, but at least you can play it with a controller reasonably well. You’ll still have a vastly better time with a wheel, but the point is that it is playable. I suppose you could argue that Project Cars is playable, but only just. It’s not completely bad, though; high performance cars tend to be a little easier simply due to their sheer ability to stick to the ground in comparison to, for example, road cars with high levels of power being delivered through the wheels. In fact driving high-performance machines is where the Xbox One version of the game is at its best. There were times when blasting around in an LMP1 that I almost forgot about the control issues, at least until I made a small mistake and went to correct…crap.
It’s not exactly a bug and glitch free experience, either, as Project Cars has the dubious honor of being yet another game to arrive at launch with a number of problems, which is somewhat annoying since it was delayed numerous times so the developers could polish it up a little more. Aside from the copious amounts of screen tearing going there was several examples of the handling becoming jammed at full lock, a problem that only seemed to vanish if the analogue stick deadzone is set to zero, which in turn creates even more control issues. There was several races where the game refused to classify me as having done any laps in a race, and had me listed as being dead last. This problem in particular proved to be incredibly frustrating as during short races most players probably won’t even bother glancing at the lap countdown and position information since they’ll be keeping track of it entirely in their mind, making for a rather annoying discovery when you cross the start/finish line for what should be the final time and notice that the game still firmly believes you to be last with no laps having been completed. If you do manage to finish a race correctly there’s also several odd glitches that cock that up too, with quite a few instances of the game not even listing me as being on the podium despite finishing first, two racers being classified as coming 1st, 2nd or 3rd, and magazine covers and tweets talking about the wrong driver winning. Oh, but there’s more: the audio will cut out every time you brake if you happen to have a chat cable plugged into the controller; pitting during a sudden thunderstorm for wet tyres often won’t work as the crew send you out with another set of dry boots, even though the game is set to automatically determine tyres based on weather; invitations can be gotten for races that have already happened; AI seem capable of blundering across dirt and grass with minimal loss to speed, even managing to overtake other cars in the process without getting flagged or having lap times invalidated for going off-road; the AI doesn’t seem very good at accounting for slower vehicles, causing dumb accidents; lap times invalidated for being shoved off by the AI; randomly dropping me from first to last mid-race; lap times being invalidated when they should not be; lap times not being invalidated when they should be and even the door to the pit garage being closed so that on trying to leave the pits the car suddenly takes max damage by “hitting” it. That’s a lot of problems, and I’ve probably forgotten a few. Oh, but there was a good glitch; on two occasions I became so frustrated with crashing during a race that I used the “skip to the end of the session” button and was awarded the victory, despite my car being a wreck. Huzzah!
To say that I’m incredibly conflicted about Project Cars would be a mammoth understatement. When it works it works beautifully, the handling and physics that power the racing clearly up their with some of the best around, and the AI, while inconsistent, can provide some great wheel-to-wheel action, action that only gets better with real players involved. It could do with helping out inexperienced players a little more, especially in regards to the complexities of tuning, but perseverance will reward you with something great…or at least it should. The underlying problems with the controls and feedback massively effect the game. The thing is, I want to recommend Project Cars, but I can’t, at least not on Xbox One. The problem is I can’t actually truly recommend it on PC either because I can’t personally guarantee that the controls work better on it. I’ve played it, but not enough that I’d be happy to whack my seal of personal approval on it. The community at large, though, seems happy with the PC version, but even there a lot of people say that a controller just isn’t capable of providing a good experience. That’s not surprising, but at least they seem to think it is playable.
So what exactly do I do? There’s a chance that updates will make playing the game with a regular controller more viable, although in a way this could come at the cost of the handling model. The controller is so difficulty to use because the handling is so in keeping with real-life, but that doesn’t really help the majority of gamers browsing online or picking the game up from a store shelf and deciding to make a purchase. The truth is that at least on Xbox One Project Cars should probably only be played by someone willing to go out and purchase a wheel to go with it. I’m probably going to get blasted by sim fans who’ll claim that anyone intended in playing a game like this should go buy a wheel anyway, but a console release really does need to feel at least semi-decent with a controller, and Project Cars simply does not. It’s that or it needs to come with a very clear warning label stating that the developers intended for the game to be played with a wheel only. So how do I sum all this up? How do I try to bring my jumbled thoughts together? I mean, maybe other people won’t find the controller such a problem? Maybe I just need to dedicate more time to it?
Here we go, then, an attempt to sum up my complex feelings toward the game; if you already own a racing wheel or intend on buying one Project Cars is absolutely worth getting your grubby mitts on, despite its other numerous problems, because it’s such a hugely satisfying racer. But if you aren’t intending on getting a wheel, be it due to money restrictions or a lack of space or being unable to justify it for just one or two games then don’t bother. The brief glimpses of a fantastic racer between sliding off into the dirt can’t overcome how annoying the game is to play with a controller, and neither Project Cars or you deserve that level of frustration.
Because of its problems, I can’t whack a “recommended” sticker on the bottom of this review. I just can’t bring myself to do that, because in my heart of hearts, despite my own love of sim racing and strong inclination that they should indeed be played with wheels, I can’t ignore the problems with using a controller in a console release, nor the myriad of glitches and bugs that I encountered. Does that lack of a sticker mean its a bad game? No. Just not the game I was hoping it would be. It looks great and handles brilliantly, but I was left hating the fact that I almost, almost loved Project Cars. Almost.