Did you know it is okay to like Burnout and iRacing? That you can get enjoyment from Ridge Racer and Forza? Gran Turismo and Midtown Madness? However it seems that the racing game genre is one that seems to actively split a community, it is us vs them. This is too realistic, this is too arcade.
I have always been slap bang in the middle myself. My favourite racing game of all time is TOCA Touring Car Championship and despite it aging a bit badly and generally being surpassed, it is still the game that perfectly mixed the accessibility of an arcade racer with the attention to detail of a sim, whilst also recreating the exhilaration of racing. It is THE GAME that made me a fan of racing games.
The problem for me is that despite improved graphics, better physics models, etc no game since has struck that perfect balance. There was no forced career path as such, no unlocking of cars and being able to grind to earn the right to race other ones. It was based on a racing series and that was it. Here is the championship, here are the cars, you decide how you want to approach it.
I love Forza and Gran Turismo, both play really, really well, but still maintain that idea of locking out content until you play enough and the game decides you are now worthy of purchasing the next car, or going to the next championship. It forces you to have to win races in a stupidly short amount of laps, or mix the cars on the track so that the racing doesn’t feel as close as it should. It is something so many racing games get wrong.
So let me say this before I go deep into this review. Project Cars, despite any flaws I discuss has just joined TOCA Touring Car Championship as my all time favourite racing game and here is why.
From the very first moment you load the game, nothing is locked out, nothing is hidden behind a progression wall. At no point are you told that you need to finish first in this three race championship to unlock this car in this new event. It is 100% open, you can drive what the hell you like, where the hell you like, you have full control.
There is a career mode of sorts, but again it is up to you how you approach this. Of the 8 tiers and 3 disciplines on offer, you can choose to start at tier 1 and the 125cc karts, or maybe even tier 3 touring cars, or skip all of that and go to the top tier and races the GT1 type events or Formula A (F1) championships. Do whatever makes you happy.
Want just short 3-4 lap races to burn through a season in a weekend? Go ahead! Want to race full 100% distance events? Sure why not, do all the practices, qualifying, race 1, race 2 all in real time! It is your game and you have the right to decide how you play it. This is finally the racing game I want, it gives me the structure to enjoy it the way I intend and it does so without needing to alienate anyone else, because they also get to do the same.
For that reason alone Project Cars sits proudly atop the podium with TOCA Touring Car Championship.
Well, not alone, because even I am not dumb enough to love a game based on options alone, it is supported by one of the most intense digital racing experiences I have ever had.
Snetterton, Renault Clio Sport, in practice, I was having a nightmare with a particular part of the track. That bit where Brundle turns to Nelson (or for normal people a couple of corners late in the lap), I kept either getting opposite lock and veering of the track, or was losing obscene amounts of time as I took it cautiously.
I finished practice 19th out of 20 and in all honesty just wanted that race weekend over with. The plan was to go into qualifying get a few laps in to set a time and likely start from the back of the grid. I go out early, set a time that put me into 6th, just as the heavens open, I drop to 9th as a few other cars complete a mostly dry lap but I sit in 9th until the end of the session. Hurrah, I nice boost.
An uneventful first race sees me jump to 7th on the start and I get round a couple of laps before making a mistake at Brundle and dropping to 20th and dead last. I spend the rest of the race trying to get used to that corner and eventually make up a few positions to finish 16th, giving me my starting spot on the grid for race 2. Same distance, only this time with a mandatory pit stop.
I nail the start and jump from 16th to 9th by the time I exit the first corner. An incident at the 3rd allows me to jump to 5th with a bit of distance to carve out some lap times. I follow 4th place around for much of the next 3 laps and I notice I am getting caught by 6th, so I decide to pit early, which so happens to be the same lap as the guy in front.
I exit the pits down into 11th but still 4 seconds behind the guy originally in 4th. He makes an error which I try to capitalise on and end up going hard on the brakes, I get his position and all seems fine. By the time the pit-stops are all done I find myself in 3rd, defending my position well, but all of a sudden my front left is going away from me and I am losing grip in vital corners.
I have no choice but to let one car by as he is just all over the back of me and is going to take me at some point, then others start to gain on me, so I take the decision to nurse the car home and just get the most points I can. I end up finishing 8th which was pretty disappointing at the time, but it occurred to me. I was too aggressive on an overtake on coldish tires and it had essentially destroyed them for the last few laps.
But here is the thing, at no point was I looking like winning the race, but then I didn’t feel I had to. The only punishment for not winning was a lack of points in that championship season. The only damage was to my pride. I could go again in the next races and try to make it up. It wasn’t stopping me progressing. Which in turn meant I was able to enjoy the game, rather than getting annoyed at not performing well enough to get to that next bit of locked content.
That’s the thing about Project Cars, if you set it up to your own preferences, it becomes your game, you aren’t bound by many of the boundaries set out by most games these days. There is no level to meet, no requirements of you as a racer, it is you, your car and your track. I wasn’t having much fun with the Karts, so personally I decided to skip them…Guess what? The game doesn’t care, it doesn’t force me to push through them and I love that.
Are there faults and flaws? Yes sure, if you have an AMD card on PC at the point of writing, you are having to play with some much lowered graphical settings, to the point it wouldn’t have looked out of place during early PS3 / 360 era.
On the Xbox One version there are many frame-rate dips which get annoying as well as some hard crashes and in the rain at night, it can become almost unplayable. But there will be some patches at some point one would imagine.
On both versions you do need to do a lot of tinkering with control settings to get the right feel and sometimes maybe changing this depending on the sort of car you are driving. So the controller settings for a road car will differ massively for an open-wheeled car. In all honesty, I can understand why this may be, as Project Cars is closer to a sim, meaning each car should feel like a different driving experience. That being said, a newcomer, or casual racer shouldn’t have to deal with such a thing to get the most out of the experience and does need to be improved on. .
The AI is very erratic and whilst I like that on the whole, because they do make errors and it doesn’t feel like you can have 40 odd different personalities on the track at any time and hell, even makes me not yearn for other humans to race with. I can see why many will not, having a race ruined by an idiot making a kamikaze move on the last chicane. But, hey, that happens in the real world of racing and you deal with it.
So here it is…Project Cars, a game that has been years in the making, had many delays and has been built up to an insane level of expectation. Where does it fall at the end of the day?
If your racing needs are completely fulfilled by Mario Kart and pure arcade action, then sure this isn’t for you and if iRacing is the least you expect from a sim, then again this won’t replace that. For everyone else though, despite some flaws that ask maybe a bit much of the user to get the most from the game, then this is a must have racer.
For me? I finally have a modern racer to allow me to lay my sweetheart to rest. Sweet dreams my dearest TOCA, I will always remember you, but now it is finally time to move on.