If you had told me at the launch of the PS4 that the first sim racing experience for the new console would be something other than Gran Turismo 7, I would have thought you were crazy. If you were to tell me that this new IP would actually be a pretty darn good sim, I probably would have been pretty skeptical as well, but yet, here we are. After numerous delays (which is almost a bit reminiscent of DriveClub’s path to launch), Project CARS is finally upon us. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely an admirable first entry to a console genre dominated by Forza and Gran Turismo.
I have actually been playing pCARS for a few years now on PC since I was an early backer through World of Mass Development. I have had the privilege of playing pCARS starting from when it was basically an alpha, all the way to the finished product. It’s been amazing to see this game start from its humble beginnings and morph into what we see today, with a ton of cars and tracks and gorgeous graphics. In fact, “CARS” in this case does not mean that four wheeled (sometimes three wheeled!) thing that you drive around town; it’s an acronym for Community Assisted Racing Simulator. Since day one, WMD backers have a had a huge say in how the game was developed; so much that this could actually be considered the first sim racer for consoles that is community developed. It’s pretty cool to realize that there are things in the game that were suggested by us, the fans.
This is not to take any credit away from Slightly Mad Studios, however. The brains behind the Need For Speed Shift series have hunkered down and created in my opinion, one of the best sim racers in the last few years (tied with PC’s Assetto Corsa as my current fave). No, it still isn’t realistic to the point of iRacing or rFactor, but let’s be honest here…those games were never meant to appeal to any audience larger than a small niche. Project CARS is one step below those games; something that’s not as hardcore and works well with a controller. Is a wheel setup still best? Of course it is; the answer to that is always a resounding YES for sim racers. But at the end of the day, you can plop down on the couch with a DS4 and be able to play the game just fine. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried playing iRacing with a controller, but there’s a significant difference in playability.
The reason why I point this out is because sim racing fans are a fickle bunch. Jump on any message board or subreddit and look at how many epic arguments arise over what’s “sim” and what’s not. I’ve seen fights to the death over how “Forza is not sim; it’s arcade”, to “I’ve driven around a track before, iRacing is NOT realistic.” Dudes and dudettes….no matter how awesome your setup is, it will NEVER ever ever ever be 100% realistic. The only way you’re getting that is in an actual car on an actual track with actual fear. So you’re going to see lots of polarizing views on the authenticity of pCARS. My recommendation is rather simple; on a console, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a better sim with the whole package of visuals, sound, variety, and physics model. The fact that pCARS was released at all for consoles means that it is not going to target only pure sim fans. That sort of thing will never fly on a console, and let’s be honest; if something like iRacing were released for consoles, what would happen? Yup, the “PC master race” folks would still yap about how iRacing for PC is better, rFactor is better, etc. That’s just the way most of us are, unfortunately. So before I end my random tangent of a rant, let’s just agree that pure sims that seek to replicate the driving experience as closely as possible can stay on the PC, and “game sims” that will actually try to bring in a larger audience by being more fun can branch out to consoles. Acceptable?
Now, Project CARS. It’s fun to play, loud to listen to, intense, and pays closer attention to motorsport rules than most other sim racers on console that I have seen. It’s extremely picky about many aspects of racing, but with a wealth of options from an entire page devoted to force feedback to assists, anyone from any skill level can jump in and play. There’s a lot of trial and error as far as tweaking settings go, but pretty much anyone can eventually find a setting that feels good to them.
The most important aspect of a sim racer is the way the physics are handled and how much it mirrors real-life car handling. In this sense, pCARS is both good and bad. Good in the sense that it is more realistic than something like Forza. Bad because the way the cars’ weights shift is a bit odd, and it’s often a bit too grippy at high speeds. Even with all the assists off, I have often found myself wrenching around a corner at full speed and anticipating a loss of control, but finding out that I emerged from the apex with no issues. That’s fine in terms of cutting down on frustration, but probably not the most accurate representation of high speed racing. However, I must go back to a previous point I made. The extra bit of forgiveness can make all the difference in the world between a racing game that the general public accepts, or a racing game that’s so frustrating that most people can’t even get off the starting line without destroying themselves.
One of the other issues I have the with the handling model is the fact that most cars don’t feel like they’re being controlled by four wheels, but more so a central pivot point smack dab in the middle of the car…almost like an invisible central wheel. The way the cars shift in weight when you throw them around a corner sometimes just looks weird, almost to the point of having an overactive suspension. I doubt most people will even notice, especially if you’re coming from NFS Rivals or something like that, but sim fanatics might raise an eyebrow.
What I do like about pCARS is the fact that it does require a certain level of finesse to properly negotiate a powerful car around a track. If you’re sitting at the starting line at Monza in a McLaren P1 and you mash the accelerator down as soon as the light turns green, you’re going to lose control and spin out. If you brake into a turn, you’re going to spin out. If you jerk the controller/wheel around to much, you will spin out. It may not be iRacing, but you sure as hell cannot go into this like Burnout.
Another thing I like is the tire model. You’ll start with cold tires that progressively get warmer as you take more laps and go through more practices and qualifying rounds. Cold tires are a pain in the butt to drive on, as you don’t yet have the best grip, and you’ll find yourself slipping and sliding all over the place. As you take more laps, you’ll notice your grip improve and your overall control of the vehicle get better and better. By the time the first race rolls around, you’re all set to rock and roll.
The AI is probably the one thing after physics that is causing the most argument. It’s not the worst AI I’ve ever seen in a racing game, but it most certainly is not the best. To put it simply, the AI is outrageously twitchy. The start of many a race will resemble a demolition derby more so than an official GT4 race, for instance. As soon as the light turns green, you’ll see cars hitting each other, spinning out, and jerking from side to side. The motorsports world would seriously frown upon the way the AI acts in the game if this were a real life event. Also, the AI seems to sometimes have an unfair advantage. If you spin off track, you’ll slow down and lose control. You’ll lose a couple of spots, find your back on the track, and battle back. When the AI spins off track, however, not only will they not suffer one bit, but I’ve noticed them GAINING spots at times. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it certainly has happened enough to make me wonder if the AI teams are managed by Bill Belichick (I’m a Bills fan, sue me).
The biggest headache I had with the game was with the controller and wheel settings. For a console racing game, you would assume that popping the disc in and turning on your DS4 would be all the setup that’s necessary to play the game. You would be wrong. The default controller setting is super twitchy. The slightest nudge on the analog stick will result in disaster. I found the perfect setting after scouring Google and numerous racing forums. It seems a bit ridiculous that a console racing game would require so much time devote to the controller settings, but there you have it. Maybe it’s because this is a sim and requires a wheel to play? Surely if I plug my T300RS in, things will be better, right?
Wrong. Finding the perfect wheel settings was even harder than the DS4. There are so many parameters to set that it’s nearly impossible to find that one universal setting that just “works” across all the different brands of wheels out there. Again, it was off to Google and racing forums to find a setting that would work with my T300RS. After all was said and done, however, both the DS4 and my wheel performed beautifully, with the wheel being the preferred input device of choice.
Graphically, the game is beautiful. Car models and environments are very detailed, with jaggies popping up only when you stop and scrutinize the surroundings (mostly on trees and the crowd). I would say if you played Forza 5, then you should expect about the same type of graphical fidelity. The PS4 version runs at 1080p/60fps with very few hiccups except when the screen is filled with cars and heavy weather whipping around. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the absolute best looking racer out there, but it certainly sits near the top. Environmental effects are particularly impressive as you get plenty of kicked up dirt and leaves flying around, and impressive rain effects. It’s not exactly DriveClub levels of weather, but still impressive nonetheless.
Also very impressive is the audio. For a genre that’s supposed to emulate reality as closely as possible, there is certainly a wide range of car sounds across the different sim games. Gran Turismo has long been criticized for having subpar engine sounds, where something like Shift 2 overdid the noises. pCARS strikes a wonderful balance, with loud roaring engines and violent crunches of crashes without being too overbearing. Let’s just say where I usually need to turn my volume up for gaming, with pCARS I had to bump it down a few notches. SMS definitely wants you to feels the violence and intensity of racing, and in this, they succeeded. Throughout your races, you will have a crew member giving you information on your opponents, your position, and when to pit. Most of the time it’s pretty useful, but I’ve noticed a few times where you’ll get a warning that you have an opponent bearing down on you, only to see nothing in your rearview mirror. Other times you’ll get info about a crash after you’ve already experienced it. Those hiccups are noticeable, but don’t really go so far as to ruin the atmosphere. A nice touch is having the crew info coming through the speaker in your DS4, which can be adjusted.
There are a few sections on the main menu that say “Coming Soon.” I’m not entirely sure what that entails, but one could assume that these sections are for upcoming DLC. I hope that’s the case because having a “Coming Soon” displayed so prominently on the main menu in a finished game instantly makes me paranoid that there were sections that were unfinished. The numerous delays for pCARS’ release don’t help the paranoia much, but regardless, we’ll have to wait and see what these upcoming additions will be.
The best way I can describe Project CARS is this: if you are a console racing fan who is a fan of Gran Turismo and/or Forza Motorsport, you will find much to like about pCARS. It’s developed in the same vein of simulation physics with console controller accessibility. The game is best experienced with a wheel and pedals, but with some tweaking to the setup, a controller is more than capable of getting the job done. If played with as little assists as possible and a fairly difficult AI setting, the game is a good deal more challenging and realistic than any other console sim. It’s not perfect and has its fair share of issues, but pCARS is most certainly a strong entry into the console sim subgenre.
And for those who are your hardcore PC sim enthusiasts? You know, those guys with the multi-thousand dollar cockpit setups and an annual subscription to iRacing? Those guys who have modded their copies of Assetto Corsa and still think about Live For Speed? For that crowd, pCARS probably won’t be as appealing as the current crop of sim favorites. Unfortunately, pCARS was developed by Slightly Mad Studios of Shift fame, so many have already made up their minds about the game. People have even said it plays like Shift/Shift 2 (it doesn’t). Many have called pCARS “arcade” (it isn’t). Simply put, it may not be as realistic and detail oriented as the almighty iRacing or rFactor, but honestly, very few sims will be, and that does not in any way diminish the fact that pCARS is still fun. If being “fun” puts a bad taste in your mouth because you take sim racing as a serious hobby, then no, pCARS won’t win you over. For everyone else, pCARS is a very capable addition to your racing library.
So what do I consider myself? Probably in between the two camps that were mentioned. I have an iRacing subscription, a decent wheel setup, and have put more hours into Assetto Corsa than I would like to admit, but at the end of the day, I have no issues plopping down on the couch with my copy of Forza Horizon 2 and enjoying the ever living crap out of myself. I just love cars and I love racing. Isn’t that all that really matters?