Review: Project CARS – Game of the Year Edition

There was a time when the Triple-A (a term of rapidly declining importance) racing game scene belonged almost exclusively to Gran Turismo, Forza and Need for Speed. Sure we had a few large budget arcade/sim racers pop up from time to time and a number of niche racers that, while often superior to their big budget peers in terms of mechanics and design, never really broke through into the mainstream. Then Crowdfunding, Free-To-Play and Subscription models hit the scene. Suddenly developers could take their ideas directly to the fans and they had more options when it came to sales and pricing.

In much the same way these changes to how games are made and sold led to a resurgence in Flight Sims (hello Star Citizen, Elite Dangerous, War Thunder etc), the same thing has happened with Racers. We still have the old warhorses like GT and Forza, but now we also have iRacingAssetto and DiRT Rally. All of which scratched an itch that the big boys could not or would not satisfy. By zeroing in on their audience, these games have enjoyed success that has escaped more traditional entries into the racing scene like The Crew and DriveClub (aka the great game with the good weather effects that had all those launch problems).

I’ve dabbled with all of these games; some more than others. That said, I believe Project CARS is the best of the new wave of racers. Here we have a crowdfunded game, built around a totally new IP, with a budget an order of magnitude smaller than its AAA peers that wanted to go toe-to-toe with the genres established franchises. Not just in terms of design and mechanics, but also visuals, audio, E-sports, VR and more. Despite the odds Slightly Mad Studios actually managed to pull it off. The game released to solid reviews and has done well enough to warrant a sequel. It may not have knocked the kings off their thrones, but the future of the Project CARS series is bright.

Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Reviewed on: PC and Playstation 4
Also Available On: Xbox One
Release Date: Available Now

This May marks Project CARS’ one year anniversary. To celebrate Slightly Mad Studios has bundled the core game together with all the DLC released to date, plus a few extras. That’s an additional 50+ cars (125 total), 4 tracks (35 unique locations, 100+ layouts total), 60+ community-created liveries, the iconic Nurburgring Combined Nordschieife + GP circuit, and two exclusive vehicles from Pagani (the Zonda Revolucion and Huayra BC). These days it is not uncommon for players to wait for the GOTY release before diving into a title. You get all the content without having to worry about patches or problems; you are playing the game at its best.

Which is a strong selling point for Project CARS’. Beautiful and refreshing as the game was, its first 6 months of life were not always hassle free. A small team (relative to their competition), working on a new IP, with a budget on the small end and huge aspirations is going to run into trouble. At times the fans were pretty vocal about their grievances (AI, framerates, progression, player pool etc). Now, a year later, I’d say most of us are very happy with how Project CARS turned out. Unless you are trying to play it on the under-powered Xbox One. Seriously, don’t buy it for the Xbox One.

The game is the kind of wonderland sandbox hardcore gear heads have always dreamed of. The sheer breadth and depth to the content on offer is almost (just almost) too much. There is a level of gameplay customization that is not just unusual for a racing game, but video games period. One of the big differences between Project CARS and its peers is that the grind wall is gone. Players have immediate access to all tracks and vehicles. No more driving cars you hate just so you can finally drive cars you love.

On top of the free content given to players in the months after release, Slightly Mad Studios use a system for purchasing extra content called On-Demand. The reason On-Demand is great is that it allows “players to pick and choose the cars & tracks they want – without being locked in to a pre-paid scheme.” No need to buy a season pass that may or may not even have content you want.

I spent the majority of my time playing the game on Playstation 4 with friends (sup ManyChaos and TuChee!). Mostly because they have better setups than I do. Project CARS did inspire me to buy a racing wheel after almost a decade without one though. I think racing with a wheel is the best way to play, but you can enjoy it without one. Of course once you start going down that peripheral path other extras start catching your eye. Since I don’t yet have the cash for a chair, quality pedals, a shifter or the mounts needed, I’ve spent more time in my buddies setup than I have playing at home.

Beautiful visuals – especially the lighting and weather effects
Tons of options – so much tuning!
Challenging and Rewarding
Open-ended career mode – do what you want
Driving “feels” good

Recently however I got the opportunity to really spend some time in the superior PC version. Specifically using the Oculus Rift. Up until about a week ago I’d never actually gotten real hands on time with ANY of the VR tech on the market.  All I had seen was the not-quite-there youtube videos that try to convey how cool the tech is. Luckily ManyChaos recently got his and like all nerds with new toys he could not wait to show it off. Now I don’t really have anything to compare my experience to. I’m told playing with the DK2 caused a fair amount of motion sickness and queasiness.

For me the experience was nothing short of eye opening and exhilarating. No sickness at all and I have a super weak stomach. Short of building the hollow deck from Star Trek or paying $100,000 for a full on cockpit with hydraulics, I don’t see how we can get any closer to actually driving a real car. I white knuckled my way through gaps in the field of drivers ahead of me, screamed as the back end of my car slid out of my control and cheered like I had just conquered the world the first time I finished a race in VR (40th times the charm folks!). I have not actually driven a real life car in almost 15 years. I’ve been living vicariously through video game racers to get my fix. With Project CARS I finally have a game that satisfies the desire to “feel” like I am actually driving.

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Glitches – a few left kicking around but nothing serious
Missing Cars – a few of your favorites may not be available
Game can be a bit overwhelming and complex
Small multiplayer community – PS4 has the largest pool of players

A year later and I probably love Project CARS more now than I did at launch. With Playstation VR on the way and more people using the Oculus Rift, the game could very well enjoy a second life as one of the premiere VR compatible games. I’m very excited for the sequel. I had been contemplating reacquiring my drivers license. Now I am just saving up for an Oculus Rift. In the end it will cost me less than having a real car again, plus I won’t have to scrape ice off my windshield, wipe bird poop away or guard my paint job from some schmuck who parked his Miata too damn close. Vroom Vroom!

Review copy provided by Slightly Mad Studios
Official Game Site

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