Bold lane change or prelude to a spin?
Let’s drop the clutch and lurch right into what you really want to know. That early footage of Project CARS 3 and its “new look” was a worrying first-reveal for simmers like me, but does it mean the series has spun off track into full arcade? No. Not where it counts, at least.
That first impression was a marketing department misfire. And a loud one at that.
A lot of what you loved about Project CARS 2 returns, it’s just been buried under Codemaster’s attempt to lure in people who, when asked to assess their top 5 tracks of their favourite racing game, might rattle off the songs present in an in-race soundtrack. For the record: music is just noise that gets in the way of what matters – meaty revs or the slow crescendo shriek of a tyre.
Project Cars 3
We’ll get into Project CARS 3’s biggest lane changing decisions in a moment. For now, let’s do a quick, KERS burst of a recap, just to bring you, newbies, up to speed…
2017 was a golden time for petrolheads. Our tank overflowethed with Premium 98 gaming fuel in the form of Project CARS 2, Gran Turismo Sport and Forza Motorsport 7, all of which launched within a car length of one another. The predecessor of today’s topic was first off the grid and the engine under its hood was tuned to be a realistic, multi-discipline, track-based racer. It was a heck of a jack-of-all-trades sim with a deep, (mostly) satisfying physic engine. I spent triple-digit hours behind the wheel of it – in this case, a Logitech G29 affixed to a dedicated cockpit.
That said, Project CARS 2 was misfiring on a few cylinders when it leapt off the grid. Worse, it was never fully embraced by the somewhat snooty, hardcore iRacing crowd. In the months and years since that initial green light, SMS has patched us free of the dark times when the AI became a pack of Lewis Hamiltons if you opted out of qualifying. The tyre compounds and handling have also, finally been massaged closer to where they ought to be. My gamepad using friends assure me their weird assists issues were ironed out, too.
As that tuning was happening, SMS continued to bolt onto a car and tracklist which was, frankly, already the envy of the genre. This metric buttload of raceways always felt new, exciting and diversified by the LiveTrack 3.0 weather system that provided temperature nuance and some fluctuating “rubbering in” of race-lines. Also, whenever Mother Nature dynamically peed her pantsuit, inclement weather would demand a racing strategy rethink, sometimes even a bunghole pucker. PC2 was an ever-changing and extremely replayable beast.
Unfortunately, as good as PC2 has eventually become, it hasn’t attracted the wider respect and more importantly the sales numbers it deserved. And you really need those things when you’re trading paint in a grid packed with “simcades” like Gran Turismo Sport and two different flavours of Forza. Being relatively ignored by the niche simmer crowd, Codemasters clearly decided something had to change. That something, for better or worse, is Project CARS 3, an inching away from the niche sim market.
It’s a sequel with the unenviable task of trying to rejig a sim that was in some areas almost unapproachable to fledgling racers. The obvious danger in that: any dash for mass-market dollars brings the risk of alienating folks who love their difficulty and realism above all things. To them, your box blurb of “more inclusive and approachable handling” throws up more red flags than a North Korean pep rally.
Straight out of the gate, my Project CARS 3 hands-on opened with a change that I think will be welcomed by everybody. To call PC2’s menu experience “less than ideal” would be an understatement on par with “NASCAR has some left turns.” Project CARS 3 is now leaps and bounds ahead of last season’s convoluted mess, thanks to what appears to be a Forza inspired career option that lets you (easily) navigate your way from weekend warrior to racing legend. It’s stylishly laid out, diverse in events and will keep your butt glued to your bucket seat for ages.
Obviously, you can still get full, instant access to everything the game offers via the Custom Event option, but the career actually lets you get a sense of avatar progression and automobile ownership. The former comes from nailing skill-based challenges for XP to raise your driver level and unlock harder events and sexier rides. Car ownership allows you to better personalise your whip (inside and out) thanks to custom decals and a “performance index” centric parts/tuning system.
Be all that said, there are a few things I’d change. A lot of the nitty-gritty tooltips have been shooed away – that player educating info needs to be brought back, possibly as a “what’s this” button. Work needs to be done on providing ways to filter vehicles to year/manufacturer, too. Project CARS 3 also has that annoying draw lag that occurs when you flick to the next car in your selection. A few seconds of delay here and there is a problem when you multiply it by 211 cars to sift through (for the record: PC2 only had 189).
When it comes to AI, PC2 could be somewhat inconsistent in terms of speed, aggression, and reaction to cruddy track conditions, That all seems to be marginally improved in what I saw. The absolute hardest tier AI I went up against seemed to be more sensibly pushing and attacking – less passive in the turns, but not out to PIT maneuver me if I wasn’t accelerating at absolute optimal revs. Mind you, the preview code notes did say AI behaviour is still being tweaked and improved. So who really knows where we’ll land.
We’ve also seen a bit of visual polish here. Even to this day, the PC2 humming along on the Madness engine isn’t without its moments of beauty. Once again, Project CARS 3 looks marginally better, but I did have to consume it in a way that I was unaccustomed to (triple-screen wasn’t functional yet). Dust collection on the windshield (and the subsequent dashboard and instrumentation reflections) caught my eye as being much better than before. Some quick Alt-Tabbing between PC2 and PC3 also revealed a palpable improvement to the sense of speed when using the exact same car/track/conditions.
Speaking of, when it comes to handling, PC2 was a mixed bag. A great many of the cars behaved as they should and any laser-scanned version of a circuit felt like the real deal. However, there was the odd track that felt like a knocked together “guess-timation”. PC2 also had its fair share of cars that didn’t feel like they were anywhere near as stable as they ought to be in their default setup. You really did need to go down a “tuning rabbit hole” to stop them from stepping out of line in unrealistic and unexpected ways.
I’m still seeing a touch of that in Project CARS 3. Unfortunately, it was tough to tinker about and get a super detailed understanding of tuning solutions as Custom Tuning was not enabled “well” in my build. Basically, any vehicle customisation I attempted would be reset, sometimes mid-championship. So I had to abandon my tinkering for sanity’s sake and accept whatever SMS’s default setups dealt me. It was a known bug. They’re working on it.
I spent most of my time doing a more or less direct comparisons of some of the “best cars” we had in PC2 versus their returning counterparts in Project CARS 3. Most of my time was spent running my beloved Ferrari 458 Speciale A around Mugello and a Nissan R89 C about Silverstone. (Sadly, the phenomenal old Formula Renault 3.5 wasn’t present.) In each instance, I played with all assists off and AI cranked to the limit. With every old favourite I used, I had a driving experience that I think will still please the old guard out there.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a definite increase in the sense of speed – and this was no trick of motion blur, FOV or any other visual effect as I’d stripped them all back. Powering around that last, long high-speed turn in Mugello Short felt as hair-raising as ever. Getting too cocky still put me into the wall. Once again, Alt-Tabbing between the two games ensured I wasn’t being blinded by a rose-tinted helmet visor here.
It’s clear that the handling has seen some tweaking, as treading on the brakes before a turn in PC2 felt a bit more dangerous – Project CARS 3 is slightly less willing to lock up, though. Conversely, trying to throw a bit more tail out in Project CARS 3 feels slightly less controllable than in PC2. To be perfectly honest, it was kind of difficult to do a full 1:1 compare as the Force feedback was yet to be implemented fully in my preview. Generally, I don’t think a dumbing down has occurred here. If you have the guts to take this on at its highest difficulty, PC3 will still give you a run for your money.
Looking beyond those encouraging results, it’s worth mentioning a few other things in Project CARS 3’s bag of tricks – stuff that’ll be welcomed by veterans, other things that might be dismissed as time-wasting fluff. Daily Challenges are a more than welcome feature, that’s for damn sure. Breakout and Rivals are both online modes that I like the sound of and will be willing to give a chance. The former is a very Codie’s kind of diversion — you’ll punch through tactically placed polystyrene cubes. The latter is a more serious affair that involves the monthly calculation of your overall consistency with Hotlaps and Pacesetting. A good old fashioned score-war against ghosts, basically.
Clearly there’s something for every driving taste here. SMS hasn’t veered off towards either sim or arcade. Personally, I feel better after playing this – cautiously optimistic at this point. So far as I can tell, SMS hasn’t gone Idiocracy on the physics engine that it’s been punching into shape for years. Furthermore, they’ve resisted the rinse and repeat sequel by putting some concerted effort into enhancing the flow and addictiveness of PC2’s weak career mode offerings. Yes, there is some mass-market appeal stuff that’s being layered into the UI, but a lot of it can be right-sized with a few option clicks.
I’d be lying – possibly slightly mad even – if I told you Project CARS 3 is going to be better off without tyre wear, fuel usage and pit stops. Mind you, I and indeed a very large percentage of more hardcore racers probably won’t be hugely affected by their loss. These days most of the community seems to be populated with sprint racers and hot lappers – nothing longer than 30-minute run-times.
My heart goes out to the League racers, though.
When the time came to switch off the ignition, I squeezed out of Project CARS 3 with mixed emotions. The old guard will dislike the “new look” outer shell that’s designed to attract fresh fans and make Turn 10 and Polyphony nervously flick their eyes to their rearview mirrors. But I think more than enough of PC2 beats underneath this somewhat garish bodywork.
If Project CARS 3 can harness the fun, get-in-and-drive nature of GT Sport and Forza Motorsport 7 while delivering more of the convincing, on-point driving experiences we got from the “best cars” in PC2, the result could be potent. Certainly enough to appease any gamer who’s open-minded enough to give this new layout a spin.