Project CARS from Slightly Mad Studios and BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe undoubtedly represents the most technically-advanced and customizable racer ever to hit multiple gaming platforms. From the time of its inception and introduction as a crowdsourced game on World of Mass Development (wmdportal.com) all the way back in 2011, the developers had lofty goals for their vision of a complete course-racing simulator that included “deep tuning and pit stop functionality” and dynamic time and weather effects that actually changed the way each car individually handled. Additionally, promotional material attracted prospective supporters by claiming that the game would feature “world-class graphics” – a seemingly impossible feat considering it was scheduled to release on machines with wide differences in CPU and GPU power. Slightly Mad wasn’t an unproven studio, winning awards for their work on the Need for Speed Shift series, so certainly many had faith that, with multiple years of development scheduled (original release date: late 2014), they would be able to accomplish all of these promises. They even proved their dedication to bringing an unmatched amount of detail to fans when they cancelled the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, explaining that only the most powerful platforms allowed them to not compromise on their vision of becoming the new standard for simulation racing. Even after multiple delays (actual release date: May 2015), fans felt confident that they would soon get their hands on a truly next-gen driving experience when the studio released multiple in-game images and videos from numerous development builds. For doubters and hopefuls alike, it seemed like a game company was not misrepresenting its product – a rare treat for consumers these days.
The day finally came for us in the United States – May 7, 2015 – and I had my copy within minutes of Best Buy opening, eager to get home and see if years of anticipation were about to be rewarded. Being a veteran of the Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo series, I was ready and qualified to evaluate the next level of realism. Immediately upon entering my first practice race, before even leaving the starting line, I sat in my chair absolutely blown away by the graphic fidelity of the tracks and cars and the cleanness of the audio. Although I had debatably the worst version of the game (in terms of visuals and another category that I’ll get to later), it simply looked gorgeous, certainly better than the other simulation racer on Xbox One, Forza Motorsport 5. I own a Playstation 4 as well, and played through the main career on DriveClub, which plays at 30 frames per second. As such, one would justifiably expect it to outperform a 60fps game (like Project CARS) in visuals, but it doesn’t. The lifelike appearance truly immerses you in the race, and I was hooked at first. But then I got to the first turn, and wow did my impression take a turn for the worse.
“How could I skid off the track at such a slow speed?” I questioned. I thought that perhaps I had not quite adjusted to the steering, and after turn two and a equally disastrous result, I quickly exited the race to adjust the multitude of control settings. While enthusiasts likely appreciate such fine tuning, I felt overwhelmed but eager to learn. Googling “Project CARS Xbox One controller setups” resulted in a surprising amount of “best” configurations, some with explanations but most without. Handling certainly improved when I found my personal “sweet spot,” especially when attempting difficult passing maneuvers. That said, it seemed that nothing could help me take corners other than slowing to a crawl. I explored further, finding forum posts by official Slightly Mad employees noting general bugs with the Xbox One controller. Out of curiosity, I rented the PS4 version of the game, and was impressed by the superior control provided by the Dualshock 4. Therefore, I decided to wait anxiously for the announced Xbox-specific patch that, among a few odd audio bugs, was set to address community-discovered handling woes.
Patch 1.3 released, and I must admit, the steering improved significantly as a result. Specifically, analog stick range and dead zones were reworked to produce more accurate responses from all stick movements. So by now my turning issues should have been solved, right? WRONG! Unless I was racing in the go-kart circuits, I still flew off the track, especially at the end of long straightaways. That’s the moment I finally realized the biggest problem with Project CARS: the in-game speed of the cars is way faster than it appears to the player, no matter what view you use. That is to say, for example, when you feel like you are slowing down to an appropriate 30 miles per hour for a tough 45º turn, you are actually going closer to 50-60MPH. As you’d imagine, this leads to cars exiting the course much too easily. The only true fix I found for this was constantly checking the speedometer whenever I approached a turn – a practice that immediately felt like a chore. Combine this with frequently eyeing the mini-map for upcoming shifts in the course and you begin to feel like you are spending more time checking gauges and readouts than actually enjoying this masterful simulator. One could argue that professional racers rely on in-car dials for success, but certainly the sense of speed acquired through experience, especially during tight turns, trumps almost anything on the dashboard. Of course, this isn’t true for longer races during which your car could run out of gas or overheat, but neither of these potential pitfalls pertain to track navigation, which is the root of this serious flaw.
A turn like this never turned out like these AI cars make it seem here. I felt like I needed to slow to a crawl, or I’d find the dirt.
Through trial-and-error experimentation, I expanded my investigation into this speed inequality and found that at in-game speeds above ~100MPH the discrepancy was less noticeable. The higher accuracy at these speeds makes long straights and roads with small bends and weaves more manageable. It’s only in these instances that the driving experience is, in my opinion, unmatched and representative of the promised authenticity. But, as I alluded to above, at some point you arrive at a corner or sharp turn that requires you to direct your attention to the speedometer and ignore your learned speed-sense. If you keep your eyes on the road and trust your instinct, I assure you that the execution will suffer significantly, and the virtually perfect AI will leave you in the dust (even in rainy conditions – but I’ll save that for another article). So, as a result of much frustration, I decided to part with the game about two weeks after release, and recovered about 75% of my money, which isn’t great for a two week rental. Nevertheless, I’m glad I got to try out the latest entry into the simulation racing genre and see what all the hype was about. I think many will agree with me that once they fix this critical issue, this could be the closest we’ve ever come to the real thing.