Project CARS reviewPrice:
Slightly Mad Studios
Slightly Mad Studios/Namco Bandai
PC, PS4, Xbox One
I'm at Donington Park for the final race weekend of the GT4 season, and on the last lap of the sprint race, everything goes horribly wrong. What began as a clear, sunny race day has rapidly transformed into a wet and foggy nightmare, and I can barely see the hazard lights of the two or three cars in front of me. Indeed, I'm so focussed on avoiding a collision that I temporarily forget racetracks also have corners.
My car goes shooting off the asphalt at the final hairpin and smashes into the barriers, obliterating my suspension. As I nurse the car over the finish line, my race position plummets from comfortable third to dead last, and I lose my lead in the championship with only one race remaining; the second round at Donington, the following day.
Project CARS is a good racing game. It's beautiful, detailed, varied and caters to all skill levels. But what makes it a great racing game has nothing to do with cars, tracks, mechanics, race strategies or anything that man has control of. What makes Project CARS a great racing game is its weather.
The importance of weather's effect on racing is nothing new. Rain is the great leveller, closing the gap created by engineering, and placing all the onus on the driver's skill. Codemasters' recent F1 games demonstrated this, as they were always at their most interesting when water started falling from the sky. But Project CARS goes a step further. Everything from soupy fog to the glare of a setting sun can impact the outcome of a race, and conditions can change dramatically as the race proceeds, either in real or accelerated time.
The weather simulation is combined with a 24-hour clock and around two dozen different track setups, resulting in a vast range of potential race scenarios. In one race - a GT3 event around the hilly circuit of Brands' Hatch - one corner was illuminated by a dazzling setting sun, forcing me to tilt my virtual head downward as I approached the corner so I wasn't blinded by the crimson glare. In another, one half of the track was completely dry, while the other was slickened by a light rainfall.
This is not to dismiss the painstaking work done by Slightly Mad elsewhere on Project CARS. Although the weather effects are impressive, this is not Project RAIN. The diverse, changeable track conditions are only capable of elevating Project CARS because they are built on remarkably robust and, perhaps even more importantly, refreshingly flexible foundations.
Project CARS divides its racing action into three modes; an extensive career mode, a highly customisable single-race mode, and an online component. Whatever option you choose, it's important to note that all of Project CARS' content is available to play from the get-go. There's no requirement to unlock or level anything. If you want to start your career at the very bottom rung of the racing ladder, that's fine. If you want to jump straight in as a high-flying Formula A driver, you can do that too. If you don't want a career at all, and just want to race touring cars around the Nurburgring at midnight during a thunderstorm, you can set up that exact scenario, just as I did. It was a disaster, and utterly magnificent.
Letting the player experiment with all the toys out of the box is absolutely the right call, and so wonderfully liberating given the current obsession with unlocks. Project CARS is equally flexible when it comes to difficulty. You can play with full driving assists or none at all, with a racing line or without. You can even set the helmet tilt and effect of G-force on your head should you decide to play from a first-person perspective. This flexibility doesn't always work to CARS' advantage. The racing line can be quite vague when it comes to braking/acceleration points. Not enormously surprising given the range of vehicles it needs to cater for.