Slightly Mad Studios’ Project CARS is a realistic racing simulator in the vein of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. The game’s cars look gorgeous, and they handle accurately enough to teach the player how to race better, and the payoff of finally nailing your first turn after botching too many to count is practically euphoric. But there’s very little here that hasn’t been done before—or better, in many cases. You can tune all of the specs on many points of your car, but simply adjusting a series of sliders on panels upon panels of settings doesn’t exactly inspire that sensation of getting in “under the hood.” Slightly Mad does alter the formula smartly in several areas (such as all cars and tracks being unlocked from the beginning), but the good ideas are often half-baked or hidden behind a load of cruft.
Project CARS attempts to distinguish itself with a career mode that has you role-play the race-car-driver experience. Eventually, you’ll move steadily enough through the ranks (from kart racing to club, GT to formula, and so forth), but the early stages are gripped by repetition. The mode is structured into seasons of single race types, each of which frequents the same few tracks, and racing the same car around that small subset of the game’s large and beautiful track roster for an entire season of events—each of which is comprised of practice, qualifying, sprint, and main races—is both limiting and tiresome.
The car and track selection opens up more and more with each new season of one’s career, and the player can actually start career mode in any race tier or style of choice. This is a welcome flexibility, but the problem of repetitive races in the first few seasons remains no matter which tier you begin with, and it will continue to remain if one’s performance isn’t good enough to earn an invite to invitational events, which break up the monotony of a traditional monolithic season with varying race types. You can always race any car on any track in the time-trial or single-race modes, but it’s way more rewarding when you have some skin in the game. Spend enough time with career mode and you’ll eventually get past the trite role-playing—which fails to make you feel part of a team on or off the race track—and stuck-in-a-rut race pattern, and you start to feel invested in your driver as you gain skills in new race types that get tossed into the mix.
Chasing after endorsements and accolades in the career mode can keep you playing longer than you normally would, but a racing sim lives and dies by its racing mechanics. With the exception of collisions (cars bounce and snap away from each other in a glitchy, unnatural fashion), Projects CARS’s racing is precise and consistent. It feels amazing to hold the steering steady around a big round turn and throttle the accelerator until your car’s turning radius aligns with the radius of the turn. And the cars don’t just glide perfectly level on the asphalt; there are unseen, minute imperfections modeled into the track’s surface and the physics engine bobbles the car almost imperceptibly as it passes over each one. The effect reinforces the car’s weight and place, which allows you to align turns even more precisely, and the cycle continues.
Prepping for turns and then following through while looping around the winding race track can put one in a strangely meditative groove, unless you get distracted by all the flashy graphics and menus and data that are always getting in the way. The tangled knot of menu chaos that’s hurled at the player without context at the beginning of the game is criminal, but other distractions are welcome. The weather system is particularly amazing because it isn’t a binary switch to be flipped on or off. The rain and sunshine are gorgeous on their own (the collective tirespray of a tight group of competitors in a downpour; the glare of driving into the setting sun), but the in-between and combination states are even stronger. Light rain can spring up on you in the middle of a race, intensify, develop fog, or be burned away by the sun, and the precipitation intensity can even vary locally around the race track. Having to take a turn easy in the rain on one side after tearing through several dry turns before definitely keeps you on your toes. And if you’re in first-person driver view, Slightly Mad brilliantly requires the player to manually power windshield wipers on and off with a dedicated button, which is a nice reminder of how dynamic the weather can be, and how you really do need to pay attention or it might cost you on the next turn where the conditions may be different.