Project CARS wants you to know you're playing it, even if you're not looking at it. The controller jerks and buzzes with a violence rarely felt, even in other driving titles; the on-pad speaker, on the PlayStation 4 version at least, barks instructions and advice with jump-scare-like impact, when the voice inside isn't completely disappointed in your appalling performance – "Just bring it back in one piece," I hear, time and again.
And while the on-screen visuals consistently sizzle, the (okay, not quite) countless tracks here rendered more gorgeously than they'll ever appear in real life, it's the soundtrack to every lap that demands the greater percentage of any participant's attention. Engines roar and tyres screech like your face is but inches from the source of each emission of titanic sound waves. Project CARS isn't only interested in dominating your personal playing space – it wants the neighbours to know what's going on, too.
For all of this new racer's impressive aesthetic appeal, though, it feels awkwardly positioned between rivals repeatedly jostling for pole position – your Forzas, Grids and Gran Turismos – and those without such prestigious pasts, the games that run rings for just the single season, always close but not quite, perhaps pulling in third a couple of times to the satisfaction of underdog admirers. Project CARS makers Slightly Mad has history when it comes to interactive foot-to-the-floor affairs, having worked for EA on two Need for Speed releases. The studio is also busy with World of Speed, an automobile MMO. The pedigree is there, certainly. The performance here, though, isn't right up with the best in the genre.
I'm not so proficient a racing sim assessor to truly put a finger on what it is that Project CARS doesn't quite get right, but I know that there's something awry about this experience. Like a rattle in the back of a rental that you're sure shouldn't be there, or static over the car stereo that you know isn't on the CD you've slipped inside: there's a bothering, distracting essence of not-quite-rightness to proceedings, however much fun they are when the quirks don't bite at the ball this game can be.
Perhaps it's the handling. There are so many cars here that it's impossible to be an expert in all of them, but switching between game modes and vehicles leads to a complete overhauling of your internal know-how regarding brake distances and drift potential. The studio's gone to great lengths to provide this individuality between rides, but in practice it can make for a disorientating casual session when all you want to do is burn a little inconsequential rubber.
Collision, too, doesn't feel as natural as a game that sells itself on realism might be expected to achieve – light side-on impacts can result in complete wipeouts, and the slightest clip of a tyre wall can bring fastest-lap momentum to an immediate halt. (Damage can be set to purely visual, or made to compromise your performance the more you scrape against opponents.) I appreciate that such safety measures are there to stop a car, quickly; but in a video game, having your chase for first curtailed, ruinously, by the most slender of chicane-side brushes against a stack of Goodyears is just infuriating.
And yet, on I play. I pick up the pad again, I tweak my car's characteristics without really knowing what I'm doing, and I slip back into cycling between views while hurtling down a straight: behind the bumper for when corners come calling, inside the helmet when the way forward is a full-throttle-encouraging green. I'm constantly skimming over its aspects that allow the player to go so much deeper into every race's nuances, from practise and qualification sessions to the garage set-ups that petrol-heads will have a ball perusing, only ever dipping a little toe into the technical side of things. That stuff doesn't do anything for me. But, still, the call can't be ignored. There's a great spirit to Project CARS that, like that inkling that it isn't all it might be had the game come from the hands of a bigger studio with more money to throw at comprehensive QA, remains indefinable yet present.
Perhaps it's the community that's driven it through crowdfunded conceptual stages to playable builds and onwards to commercial release. Perhaps the knowledge that people funded this, made this, rather than the corporate machines we all assume are behind today's triple-A titles (of course, those are people too; but it's sometimes hard to hear the humanity what with all the clinking and clanging of the balls, chains and shackles that come into play during crunch time), lends it a more, I suppose, hand-crafted feel than slicker peers.
Project CARS is sticky, clingy, so much more tactical, even though it's controlled using the same means and feeds back via the same small motors. For all of its front-end sheen and easy to navigate menus, it's sort of gritty, running just off the conventional racing line, where the scraps of rubber have accumulated. If Forza is a horsepower-popping Ferrari, Project CARS is the Caterham of its genre – only without any of the controversy, hopefully none of the administration, and actually possessing a much better chance of making a podium or three. It's a labour of love, from top to bottom, and in that respect is a great deal more likeable than the characterless heavyweights in its field.
'Project CARS' launch trailer
Perhaps the involvement of professional racers is a factor, too, in this game's connection with someone (me) who doesn't usually go for sit-down session in the company of a sim-like title. When I spoke with Nicolas Hamilton, half-brother of two-time Formula One champion Lewis, his passion for being a part of this project was perfectly palpable. I appreciate that many games from several walks of stylistic life turn to experts for advice in bringing realism, or authenticity, to proceedings, but when Hamilton asserts that his informative conversations with Slightly Mad amounted to a "dream come true", I can believe it. It goes back to that unusual, handmade impression the game leaves on me after a few hours of play – that very real people had their very valuable opinions heard by the studio, and the studio responded by adapting their creation to best represent these insights.
Whoever stepped up to work on the game's weather deserves more than a mere pat on the back – even when running on consoles (Xbox One and PS4 now, with a Wii U version due to follow later this year – don't expect it to be quite as handsome), rather than through the photo-real rendering of a super-spec PC, Project CARS's meteorological machinations are amongst the most wonderful you could hope to witness inside a video game. If a supercar's handling around a circuit can prove tricky when the conditions are clement, switch the settings to stormy and soon things get close to impossible – in an entertainingly chaotic way.
Slam the brakes on when the road surface is soaked and lock the wheel into a right-turn position and, rather than glide around the corner in question, you're only ever maintaining a fast, forward trajectory: into the gravel, out of contention. This is where Project CARS really wears its sim credentials prominently – those used to drifting like Out Run 2 encouraged will soon enough get their arse handed to them, while their back end flips around to smack them in the chops. Switch to a cockpit perspective in heavy rain and no wipers can effectively cut through the conditions. To quote Hamilton again: "Driving in the rain... It's all about who's got the biggest balls, really." On my showings so far, these 'nads have been reduced to silvery, sugary dragée proportions.
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With customisation options extending through myriad car adjustments to repositioning the essential info on the HUD, Project CARS wants you to make it your own. I don't think I've found my perfect set-up yet. I've raced karts, at the beginning of career mode. I've taken high-powered open-wheel beasts out for three circuits around Imola. I've toyed with the haziness of the dusk-welcoming sky, the speed that the clouds roll in at, the bounciness of my suspension and the pressure of my tyres. Every time I turn Project CARS on, I find some new way to experience it. And for people putting money down for this game, that incredible, uncommon degree of depth is warmly welcomed. You can just jump in, have a few quick races, and put it down again. But Project CARS comes into its own when you venture into its career mode and begin to work your way up through the classes. And even beginners will be able to navigate their way through the farting kart stages. I mean, if I can...
If you are a true fan of racing games, Project CARS has enough going for it to keep you occupied until this time next year, at the very least. It's imperfect, idiosyncratic, occasionally frustrating to the point of putting the pad down and stepping outside for some air. Yet everything it does "wrong" simply serves to make it unique, and it does make you care for it. Well, it has me, and I really rarely have time for such titles (the last one I did, properly, being 2013's Grid 2). So let the neighbours complain, if they must: turn this up, press your finger down hard on the accelerator trigger, and let the good times roll – at least until they park themselves into a stronger-than-usual safety barrier.
Project CARS was tested on PlayStation 4 using code provided by the game's PR company. The game, released on the 8th of May in the UK, is also available for PC and Xbox One. Don't go treating this article as a definitive review as there's plenty of the game the author is yet to see; this is more the impression after several hours in the driver's seat, rather than a few thousand miles into the experience.
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