It's 8am on a drizzly Spanish morning. Despite the light smattering of rain, the early morning sunlight floods through the trees dotted around the Catalunya circuit, reflecting in the standing water on the wet tarmac and bringing the whole track to life. The sand to the edges of the raceway looks as bright and soft as the most wonderful-shot holiday snap you've ever seen whilst, in the distance, the birds tweeting and the sound of the rain rattling on the stadium roof are the only things that pierce the silence. It's a beautiful place. No doubt, this is one of those perfect settings that will stick with you forever.
Then a roar pierces the serenity like a gunshot. The scream of an engine being over-revved to the point just below explosion sends all wildlife scattering. Following the noise comes the visual. A Formula 1-like car careening out of control, tyres screeching and smoking, the entire vehicle spinning, spinning, endlessly spinning, and then spinning some more as the driver attempts to bring the beast under control. It comes to a stop in the middle of the track and the peace is restored. Composure regained, the driver holds the wheel firmly at ten and two in order to set all four tyres pointing straight ahead. He attempts to accelerate again, knowing that the last blunder was his fault and that a gentler approach should do it. With the lightest of depressions of the pedal he moves off. The engine screams as if he has his foot flat to the floor and the car spins through 180 degrees, before coming to rest the sand.
Welcome to Project CARS. A beautiful, detailed, frustrating, and horrendously buggy game that really wasn't designed to be played by anyone other than super-hardcore sim fans with lounges that contain bucket seats, steering wheels, and racing pedals. It should be noted that if you've played Forza Motorsport 5 on the hardest difficulty level with all simulation options on, there's still a steep learning curve to be found here, and bugs may prevent you from reaching the top of it. Project CARS uses a full simulation physics model that requires you to learn every undulation of the track that you're racing on, as well as the driving techniques required to get your vehicle around that track in one piece. Assists such as traction control and ABS are available of course, but their effect is much more understated than in other games that claim to be simulations. This will be a breath of fresh air to many console racers who crave a more realistic game, but an ill wind to a much greater number of them, simply because the developer has refused to cater to more casual players in any way. There are a billion and one different options available so that you can tweak your controller settings, including three default setups – less-than-helpfully called "1", "2", and "3." The fact is though, that with any of these selected, driving in Project CARS using a controller is very, very difficult.
It isn't that steep learning curve that causes us to criticise it, either, since we love a challenge as much as the next sim petrolhead. What causes the criticism is the fact that while masses and masses of options have been provided, there's no real explanation as to what any of them do. We know what a deadzone is when it comes to an analog stick, but if you're going to put options in for "Soft Steering Dampening" and "Controller Filtering Sensitivity" (which are just two out of the 13 different options you can tweak) then you really should put some sort of explanation in place as to what they actually do.
Sadly, some vehicles have issues no matter what you set these settings to. In the opening season of the game's lengthy career mode, where you're driving 125cc karts, you'll find that the steering hits full lock when you're about 60% across the stick's full range of motion, no matter what you've set your steering sensitivity to. This means that they're incredibly, incredibly twitchy to drive. Then you'll be driving a Renault Megane, and will find that you can't achieve full lock even if you're pushing the stick to the right so hard that you're damaging the plastic that surrounds it while only doing 20 mp/h. Taking a sportier car around Brands Hatch sometimes feels like you're carrying a few hundredweight of bricks in the back seat as it absolutely refuses to turn, then on another track you can flick your way around corners in the same car and in the same weather conditions without a problem. The controls seem very much a hit and miss affair at times. On the game's official forums, people are cropping up with "controller setup" guides that are longer than this review, in order to teach you how to make the game playable based on how you play racing games usually, as well as making controller setting recommendations based on the car and track that you're using. With no way of storing controller setups in the same way that you would store tuning setups, taking this route is somewhat overly taxing but then again, we did say that this was a simulator.
One of the largest problems with all of this tweaking, is that you can't do it from the in-race menu. So you'll be seeing loading screens awfully frequently as you jump into and out of races, trying to get your controller setup right.
In that opening set of championships in the 125cc karts, a bug in the game means that you can lose a race by turning too quickly from one direction to the other whilst navigating through a chicane, as the driver ignores the second input and rather than straightening up, turns harder into the first bend until you've spun into a wall. There's nothing you can do.
This happened in our first, fifth, and eighth races. We'll go out on a limb and say that if your QA tester doesn't spot such a glaring flaw when it occurs three times out of ten, you've got a problem. Still, the official advice is to set the "Steering Deadzone" setting to 0 to rule out the issue. Of course, this makes other cars unbearably skittish, causing them to spin all over the show. The official advice to stop headsets from falling silent every single time you brake is to either turn off the controller rumble, or connect the controller to the console via USB while playing. The official advice regarding completing a race that runs at a full 60fps with no drops in speed, only to try the same event again directly afterwards that suffers frequent and noticeable framerate drops is…well…there's no official advice for that one yet. There's also no advice regarding pulling into the pits for a much-needed tyre change and then driving out to find that you have the exact same worn tyres on. Nor is there any official word on why you can pull into the pits for wets after a thunderstorm has broken out while you have the "automatically set tyre compound based on weather" setting on, and then drive out wearing regular boots again. Nor for driving around a karting course and randomly falling from 1st to 12th because your lap hasn't been counted, even though you've not so much as thought of cutting a corner. Nor for when in career mode, you're awarded invitations to races that have already taken place. Nor for trying to start a qualifying session, only to find that there's a car parked in front of your garage so (since the car is auto-driven out of the garage) you just sit there waiting for it to move. There also isn't any explanation for why – after nearly 200 races with full damage, mechanical failures, and full flags on – we haven't seen a single yellow flag or AI retirement. We note that, since the AI drivers seems to drive very realistically when everyone is at full speed, but are utterly incapable of avoiding anything that is travelling slower than them, often causing crashes that should – at the very least – damage their suspension.
And – it feels like we've used this line a lot recently – all of these things are a shame. Despite some framerate drops and screen tearing, without the bugs and with a slight bit of tweaking to the handling, Project CARS would have been the absolute best racing simulation game ever to have been released on any console. It truly is that detailed. The types of cars on offer span domestic cars, karts, NASCAR-style monsters, open wheel racers, sports cars, supercars, and everything in between. There's a great selection of courses, including one or two "tribute" tracks that are identical to certain tracks that the licences haven't been obtained for. The sheer amount of options you can tweak in order to set up your perfect race weekend is staggering, too. Fancy a race that starts out hazy, then breaks out into a bit of rain, then clears up before the final downpour comes into play during the closing stages? You can do exactly that. The online play is smooth and enjoyable, and a clever reputation system punishes those that like to purposefully cause yellow flag events by putting them into a subgroup of players so they can fight it out amongst themselves, while people who drive fairly and sportingly are allowed to carry on doing so. There are also regularly-scheduled laptime challenges that appear as part of the online system, some of which will allow top players to win prizes.
You'll soon learn that a lot of your spins and screw-ups will be because you're on cold tyres. This is realistic but having a quick five minute qualifying session where your tyres are cold even when you've finished your out lap and are starting your first proper lap just seems like an oversight. When you realise this is the cause of your woes though, you'll get much more out of the game. Taking things slowly for a while until your boots warm up actually gives you a real insight into how the vehicle you're controlling reacts to the road and to the various forces being applied to it based on your inputs.
And this is why Project CARS is still something of a winning game, despite all of the minor niggles that we've complained about here. The career mode allows you to start at any level of world racing that you want, so there's little challenge in that aspect, but what will grab you and hook you is the knowledge that if you just practice a little more, the reward of playing well is enough. This is undoubtedly a game that wasn't in any way designed for console players, but the hardiest racers will start out just hoping to get around the track in one piece, before they find themselves picking up speed and nailing some racing lines (another bug – the speed-sensitive racing lines tell you to brake WAY too early on some tracks) while the handling becomes second nature. Then they'll be fighting to shave two seconds off their time. Then a second. Then half a second, and so on. It can grab you, for sure, and the chances of that happening are much greater when using a steering wheel.
During testing, we switched between the standard controller and the Thrustmaster 458 Spider Racing Wheel and it has to be said that whilst driving using the controller can be a frustrating experience, the wheel is much more rewarding and makes the game much more playable and enjoyable. The main reason for this is that there's a lot more subtlety in the handling. Even with all of the controller settings turned to the absolute minimum, a tiny tap on the accelerator feels as if you're hammering the pedal to the floor with a steel boot. With a wheel and pedal setup, you can gradually apply acceleration (preventing a spin) nicely.
When all is said and done, Project CARS is far from the definite article. All of the pieces are there, but in giving players the ability to set things up exactly as they'd like – you can even alter the in-race HUD to your liking by moving things around – the development team was always going to be running the risk of alienating players who don't have hundreds of hours to learn how to drive every car around every track. Those looking for a hardcore sim are certainly well catered for, but even those players will sometimes feel as if all of their tweaking is for naught. Even when you're watching the telemetry, you're never sure if the reason you're spinning across that Catalunya track is because you accelerated too quickly, if your tyres are worn, if you turned too sharply, or if you didn't take into account the fact that there are some mid-to-long straights on this track, so you should have turned your "Speed Sensitivity" down and your "Controller Filtering Sensitivity" up before you started racing.
We should note that – at the time of writing – a patch has been promised that will supposedly fix some controller issues and also provide a "4 to 7 percent" performance increase. No timeframe has been confirmed as yet, but this review was written using the standard retail game with the 480mb or so "Day One" patch in place only.
Project CARS is not for the faint of heart. It undoubtedly has the ability to grab players and take them on an outstanding tour of Simply Mad's racing world, and does look absolutely stunning at times. However, the game is ultimately frustrating with a controller and features more than its fair share of bugs. With a wheel, it's a more rewarding proposition. The sounds that the developer is making suggests that improvements are to come in the form of support and patches, so this may be a different prospect in a month or two. For now though, if you're lucky, the way you play racing games may gel with the way the game is set up to handle inputs by default. If that's the case, you can add a point or two right off the grid.