Review: Project CARS (PS4)

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Title: Project CARS
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (20.4 GB)
Release Date: May 7, 2015
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: E
Project CARS is also available on Xbox One, Wii U, and PC.
The PlayStation 4 disc version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 423 of the podcast.

I reside somewhere in the middle between casual racing fans and the diehards, but I am a huge fan of the Gran Turismo series and many other franchises as well. After seeing this game in a few different iterations, I was a bit concerned that it wouldn’t capture the feel of a real racing simulator, that is until I got hands-on at PSX last December. It finally felt like everything had come together and the feel of the car on the racing surface was much better than what I had expected. So yeah, since then I’ve been itching to get the finished product and even though I’ve had it since a week before release, there’s so much in the package that it’s taken a long time to get enough exposure for a proper review. So let’s start our engines, shall we?

Gameplay:
Before we get to the actual gameplay, we first need to delve into the depth of what you can adjust and customize which is pretty-much anything and everything. Every button on your preferred controller can be manually assigned, every aspect of control on any supported controller can be adjusted, and just about every condition of a race can be set up to your heart’s desire. Now, that may scare those that don’t consider themselves a “hardcore” racing fan, but that’s the beauty of how the boffins at Slightly Mad Studios have set things up.

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The first time you boot the game up you’ll be asked “what kind of driver you are” and you’ll choose from either Beginner, Novice, or Pro. The first time I played I chose Pro and then activated a couple of assists and I figured that would be a good starting point but I found things very difficult from the start. When I moved to a different PS4 and started again for the first time I chose the middle selection, Novice, and turned a few of the assists off. From that starting point I found it much easier to get rolling and get accustomed to the feel of the game from top to bottom. I’d recommend doing the same, even if you consider yourself a Pro simply because this will feel different than the other sims you’ve played in the past, even if you have a high-end rig. I found things a lot more approachable by easing into the game and turning assists off as I got more comfortable with everything than diving into everything at the highest difficulty from the start.

… Don’t think that it’s not playable with a DualShock 4 …
Even if you choose to start as a Beginner though, you’ll still probably have to play with some of the control tweaks so the game feels right for your expectations, and like most other options that can be configured, you have to do so from the Options menu. Unfortunately that’s not available from the Pause menu which is one of my gripes. It would be so much better to be able to tweak control settings and test them straight-away, but instead you have to make settings changes, go into a race or time trial, load in, and give the new settings a try, then exit, go back to the menu and make more changes if needed. It’s a UI design flaw that will hopefully earn a fix in the future, because in its current state the huge amount of extra navigation and waiting just becomes frustrating, even for those that are used to the minutia.

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I’ve now played with three separate control options including the DualShock 4 (video), the Thrustmaster T80 (video), and the Thrustmaster VG T300 (video) and have actually experienced a good deal of success with all three. As a point of reference though, I found Gran Turismo 6 to be the first “sim” racer that actually felt great when using the standard console controller and for me that’s the Gold Standard that all will be compared to until another game bests it.

With Project CARS, the gap between the DualShock 4 and a racing wheel is definitely wider than in Gran Turismo 6 or even DRIVECLUB, but it’s still plenty playable with the controller. It just takes a bit more time to get used to the small movements needed for some of the tracks that require more precision. In many other racers, for me at least, using a racing wheel felt better but the actual benefits were negligible at best. In Project CARS though, I do see better lap times overall even using the cheaper Thrustmaster T80, while the VG T300 is pretty amazing (and it better be for the $400 price tag!) Don’t think that it’s not playable with a DualShock 4 though, because it definitely is. I spent my entire six hour session today using one actually and had a great experience while progressing through my career. You just may need to invest some time in tweaking those throttle and steering settings to suit your needs.

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To get into the available modes a bit, you’ll get Time Trials which is pretty straightforward and does upload your track times to online leaderboards giving you a bit more of an incentive to really try instead of just seeing what you can attain. Then Solo Race which allows you to use any car, any track, and set up any weather and time conditions you can think of. It’s a great sandbox to have available, especially to see what you may be facing online or in your career. It can also be a huge help if you’re having trouble in a specific race in your career, since you can practice without negatively affecting your career status. You’ll also find yourself using this mode a lot if you like to tweak the settings to your liking.

… everything is available right from the start …
Career mode is the beefiest of the bunch, with hours of content and gameplay inside. Overall, it definitely keeps things fresh as events are stretched across multiple rounds, each of which takes place on a different calendar day. As you get deeper in, you’ll participate in multiple events at the same time but you won’t realize it since the rounds skip all over your schedule and that’s where the biggest issue resides in your career – the absolutely confusing calendar.

After putting about twenty hours in I actually kinda get where they’re going with it, but even still the calendar is a confusing mess that could have been implemented in a much better way. You have to remember that events include Practice, Qualifying, and the Race. But don’t forget that most of the time, there are separate rounds as well. For my first go at my career I thought that I screwed something up with my first contract renewal so it seemed like I was doing everything all over again. What I didn’t realize was that I didn’t do well enough to get a contract offer in the racing level past Formula Rookie and I was running many of the same events, albeit in the next year.

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If you check your racer profile, you’ll see that even though there aren’t cars/tracks/upgrades/etc to earn in your career, you will be vying for invitations to special events instead and there are a lot of them. Also, you’re working toward getting podium spots in as many events as you can which will increase your chances at moving up in the racing world. Yes, you read that right, everything is available right from the start and unlike games in the Forza and Gran Turismo series, you won’t be installing upgrades to your cars. You’re still able to tweak just about anything you can imagine though, and trust me, that’s a lot.

Personally, I have no problems with not having any upgrades available. It’s a bit more straightforward, and for me at least, it was actually counter-productive in the Forza games when working through my career (you know, when you’ve upgraded your car too much and it doesn’t qualify any more.) What worries me though is that the need to tweak the car may become more important the farther I get in my career and since I don’t like tweaking my car, that may become an issue for me.

… Races can even last for a couple of hours …
In line with the “tweak everything” attitude that Slightly Mad Studios have put forth in Project CARS, when you start your career (after applying a name, country of origin, and number) you’ll be shown the different racing levels in the game. Unlike other games in the simulation category, you don’t have to start at the bottom (in this case, 125cc Karts.) Instead, you’re actually able to choose where to start, and since I’m not a big fan of Kart Racing in sims, in my second career I started with Formula Rookie, a league that I thoroughly enjoyed. The smaller and slower Formula-level cars are fast, nimble, and handle like a dream, but you still get that seat-of-your-pants feel as you race.

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Even though you’re racing in a specific class, a curveball will be thrown at you occasionally via invitations to one-off events that will have you race in classes above or below your current one. It’s a nice way to break the monotony up a bit and the events can sometimes get you into the seat of a pretty unique car. For a while, the races will actually be pretty short (2-3 laps), but as you progress it’s not only the difficulty that increases, but also the race length as well. This will also bring pit stops and strategy into play as you’ll need to manage your tire wear, fuel consumption, and take care of damage if it occurs. Of course, a lot of this relies on whether these options are in-play for the event, which can be set by you, or they’re set by the event itself. Races can even last for a couple of hours (or more), so be ready for your career to get serious as you get farther in.

So now that we’ve gotten through all of that (and there’s actually more if you can believe it) let’s talk about the actual gameplay. One of the biggest things that I look for is the actual “feel” of the tires on the road. For me, Gran Turismo 6 is the standard for which I compare every other sim-based game. Luckily, Project CARS, while not perfect, feels great on the asphalt. Suspension moves around realistically, drift and g-forces feel accurate, and your tires will even skip across the surface when you power-through a corner too fast.

… opponent AI is a bit of a mess …
It’s not, for me at least, quite as good as GT6, but it’s pretty darned close. The thing is, if you’re used to GT6, this one definitely has a different feel but don’t take that as a negative. I’d actually say that Project CARS handles a couple of things better than GT6, including braking (it even simulates whether your car has mechanical/hydraulic/etc. brakes very well) and the temperature of your tires as your race progresses.

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But it’s not all good. As some friends and I have played, we’re all wondering about a few things and have discussed some issues at-length. First, a few of us don’t believe that drafting is actually a thing in this game. Try as we might, no matter how close we get, and how long we stay directly behind an opponent, there never seems to be a moment that we get that “slingshot” effect that should happen. Also, the opponent AI is a bit of a mess in its current state. There are definitely specific racers that have specific traits such as “passive”, “aggressive” etc., but that seems to be their sole objective. I’ve restarted multiple races because the AI drivers all become children at the wheel, wildly changing lanes or simply slamming on the brakes for no reason, making you slam into their rear bumper. I’ve battled much better AI with much more subtlety on the past generation of consoles, and I’m hoping this gets some fixes down the road.

The issue that gets me the most though, is the wildly different car physics and weight when you’re involved in a collision, even a slight one. Your car goes from feeling very right on the road to one made from styrofoam as it easily flips over or goes up on two wheels. Furthermore, if one of your opponents slows-up in front of you and your bumpers touch they’re immediately magnetized to each other, which also prevents you from turning at all until you slam on the brakes. It’s frustrating, and something that I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with any more, so yeah, they need to fix that.

… the UI could have used some additional thought …
Visuals:
I’m a big fan of how this game looks on PS4. Cars are replicated to a ridiculous level of detail inside and out, even the engines that you may never see because they’re under a hood. One of the biggest stars of the game has to be the lighting though. Everything is lit in real time, again inside and out. Headlights cast a realistic light in daytime or night, although not quite as well as in DRIVECLUB (but it’s a small margin.) Shadows are cast by everything as they should and move with the position of the sun.

In cockpit view (there are seven available cameras) the dashboards and interior are portrayed with a great deal of realism with working gauges and accurately rendered textures. Cars will also have additional paint schemes available and they look sweet, especially the old-school cars. But that’s one thing that also gets bit confusing. When you set your career up you choose a number for the car, but it’s never used. Instead, many of the paint schemes have a preset number applied so I’m not quite sure why you choose a number in the first place. It’s this kind of thing that makes me feel like the UI could have used some additional thought. For every three to four things that are dead-on correct, one thing could definitely be improved.

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The framerate has been really solid so far, only dipping slightly when you have a massive grid of cars at the start. On average though it sticks pretty close to 60fps, which in a simulation is incredibly important (for me at least.) You’ll even be able to experience a transition of time, even from day to night, and the weather effects are extremely well done. You’ll get the full range of options too, from sunny to a torrential downpour with fog. Rain also affects your traction as expected so that’s definitely covered.

Again, not all is perfect though, with the most evident issue being that the draw distance in the rear view mirrors is pretty short. So everything disappears pretty quickly in the mirrors, and to me at least, somehow cuts things off too quickly when you’re looking for opponents coming up behind you. Also, it’s just a bit jarring in terms of immersion. I’ll be honest though, with the fact they’re already planning Morpheus support, I can’t wait to see it in action.

I am loving the attention to detail otherwise, including a myriad of real advertisements and very well rendered skylines and environments. I do still feel that there could be more happening along and around the track though. Beside the occasional flag waving or helicopter overhead, things can feel a bit static. I probably only notice that stuff when I’m watching a replay though. You’ll also experience some other anomalies like driving right through another car when you leave the garage or leaving the pits only to have the front of your car explode. In other words, expect some patches in the future.

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One thing to note that you may even see in some of the screenshots in this review. The Anti-Aliasing method being used in Project CARS actually messes with how screenshots are taken via the Share button on the PS4. So if you’re into taking screenshots of your game, some of them may look blurry or like they have two separate pictures in the same shot. This is something that will probably not be patched any time soon and if I have to sacrifice the ability to take screenshots via Share for better image quality, well so be it. Don’t forget though, that you can simply pause the game and choose “take photo” to go into the built-in photo mode if you want some nice screens, so there is an alternative, they’re just not as easy to take.

… actual online races have been great so far …
Audio:
There’s a lot of love ready for your ears to experience. Engines are all the real sound, the interaction of the tires with the road sounds like it should, and you’ll know straight-away when you’ve got a set of mechanical brakes in your car. Heck, I could even hear the suspension creaking in some of the cars. In other words, everything with a sound sounds fantastic in Project CARS, with one small exception. When you travel under a bridge or through a tunnel, the sound doesn’t change. There’s no reverb, no echo, nothing changes at all. To me, that’s such a weird thing to miss. I’m hoping it was just an oversight and will be patched soon because in the grand scheme of this game that’s a pretty glaring error. It’s not like you go through a lot of tunnels but when you do, especially on the California track, it completely takes you out of the experience.

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They’ve also gone to great lengths to use the speaker in your DualShock 4 as your pit chief will talk you while you qualify and race. He’ll give you advice about blocking the inside line against an opponent coming up from behind, or if there’s visible damage to your car. But it seems more cosmetic than anything else. He doesn’t seem to communicate when you’re getting low on fuel or if your tires are showing signs of wear. Instead, many of the messages seem to trigger merely on specific laps or if a major event happens (like being involved in a big collision.) It all seems a bit of a wasted opportunity really.

Online/Multiplayer:
Rest easy folks because so far at least, online play has been stellar! Searching public lobbies is easy and intuitive and setting up a private lobby is very easy to do. Everything you’d want to be able to control can be, and inviting friends into the private lobby is easy to do. I do wish there was a way for a party to join a public lobby but the only option you’ve got is to join a room, then hit Triangle to invite the rest on and hope that it doesn’t fill up before they all join.

The actual online races have been great so far, even when I was on a server in Europe. I would hope though, that the team tightens a couple of things up in the future. First, we ran a twelve lap race where one of the racers sat idle at the starting blocks for the entire race. It would be helpful (since in this instance he was tough to avoid crashing in to) that they could build some kind of inactivity timeout mechanism. Also, it seems like they could put a control in for those that just want to be a nuisance and drive in the opposite direction. You would think that would be easy enough to detect and punish.

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Conclusion:
I really like Project CARS as a whole but there are a few things that keep it from truly being “great”. Luckily I would think that these issues could all be patched at some point and that makes me even happier than I am now. It’s a fantastic package with more options than I think anyone could dream of. Even more, this gets me excited for the possibilities of what the next Gran Turismo could be. Slightly Mad Studios have really done a fantastic job here and I expect it to get even better over time. Project CARS is a worthy car sim for the racing fans out there and if you’re one of those people don’t hesitate to pick it up. I can’t even imagine how cool it’s going to be with Project Morpheus too.

Score:
8.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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Written by Glenn Percival

Glenn Percival

Just a guy that loves games, movies, Golf, Football, and Baseball.

Podcast Co-Host, Editor-in-Chief, Video Producer, and whipping-boy

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