It feels weird to type this, but Project CARS 3 is more of a game than ever before. Its predecessors – who were never fully embraced by the gatekeeping snobs of the sim racing genre – still tried to champion a track day atmosphere and unforgiving handling.
Today’s entry veers sharply away from the ideals of that long-held racing line. We’re now going flat-stick towards accessibility, to the point where Project CARS 3 feels less like a numbered sequel and more of a spin-off. Some diehards might even call it a complete write-off.
Before we scrutinize the telemetry and pinpoint the iffiest parts of this run, let’s list what goes right.
Project CARS 3 Review
For starters, I think very few people will moan about what’s happened to the revamped career mode. Gone is an unimaginative string of races and no real sense of purpose or progress. Now you’ve got a flash-looking, early Forza-ish menu that cheerily breadcrumbs you along with XP levelling, mini-challenges and the addiction of actually earning, owning and enhancing your vehicles.
In contrast to the returning “insta-play how you want” Custom Event mode, this career plonks you into a lowly Road E Vehicle Class tier populated by cheap bangers. Your literal roadmap to success is about steadily unlocking your way up through 10 Vehicle Classes and 2 Bonus Event Tiers comprised of 16 events apiece. So far so typical, but also tons to do.
To keep this grind moving forward, XP must be earned to unlock spending cash that’ll buy you into those higher Classes. Fortunately, experience is showered upon you for practically everything you do – winning, losing, wearing your seatbelt twisted in an especially rakish angle…it’s all commendable stuff. I was also pretty impressed that I only had to start re-racing events at roughly the midpoint of the proceedings.
That said, skilful drivers and shrewd min-maxers can find an inside run to cut the course and get ahead faster. “Mastering” every corner of a track and blitzing lines quicker than a cocaine addict earns you large XP dividends. Likewise, vehicles have their own levelling system that affords you hefty part discounts, providing you remain faithful to a whip. Lastly, you can save on cash by simply earning a set number of skill points to unlock the next event or Class Tier. Every race comes with a trio of mini-missions, typically involving no fender bends, shrewd drafting or just dominating a championship.
All of the above is fairly standard procedure busywork for the genre but the presentation and implementation of it is quite a leap beyond the afterthought campaign of Project CARS 2. My purist sensibilities made me turn off a lot of the annoying fluff early on (in-race music, Captain Obvious crew chief, XP earning nags and braking/cornering marker assists). That said, the career hooked me in and kept me committed, even though I found a way to game the system and ninja past six Tiers to get a foothold in the final Open Class within 5 hours of play. Once done, I effectively grinded backwards through the content which, frankly, takes a lot of the chore out of the proceedings.
Speaking of endorphins, the race towards broader appeal hasn’t completely neutered Project CARS 3’s handling, if you’re willing to lay off the training wheels. Play this as you ought to – with a decent wheel, all assists off, AI cranked and using the head pivoting realism of helmet cam – and it’s white knuckle.
Yes, the loss of tyre wear/fuel consumption/pitting sucks, but everything else about what you loved about Project CARS 2 is present. Improper application of throttle and anchors will still send you off to greener pastures. Weight distribution remains highly realistic and satisfying, too. Finally, the AI is just as bullish but now it won’t try to pit maneuver you like this is Chase HQ. In many ways this is Project CARS 2: Less Frustrating Edition.
Also worth noting: Project CARS 2 was notorious for having some mustangs in the stable – unrealistically temperamental beasts that were sprinkled into a decent herd of mostly well-behaving rides. I didn’t find many of those troublemakers in this sequel. However, it has to be said that Slightly Mad’s taming may have been a double-edged sword. There’s an eerie sense of ‘sameyness’ now in quite a few vehicles of the same class. Some small sense of individual character has been polished away.
On the other side of the skill spectrum, Project CARS 3 can be a full, inviting simcade for any casual looking to plant a leadfoot. Unlike the sketchy control pad experience of Project CARS 2, this sequel feels pretty bloody sublime and revamped. The solid, realistic handling model can still be appreciated through an analogue stick, though you’re being filtered through clever code that limits your steering lock in according with your speed. Getting out-of-control-sausage-roll is less likely if you’re not driving it like a borrowed cop car. And if you do, well, don’t expect to rely on any sort of rewind mechanic for a do-over.
There are also some new pursuits implemented in this sequel to retain the interest of Learner Burners and veterans alike. Breakout is a “run into the objects” event that has the stink of Codemasters all over it (to be fair I did find it to be goofy fun when given a chance). Meanwhile, the asymmetrical multiplayer of Rivals will appease almost everybody with its daily / weekly / monthly challenges that revolve around consistent, clean racing. It’s just some good old fashioned score-war fun. (Quick note: there is also an online mode, but I’m going to revisit that post-launch to give the servers a fair shake.)
When it comes to visuals, Slightly Mad Studios has delivered something that’s as Jekyll and Hyde as their company moniker. On the positive side, PC users can be assured of a looker, thanks to a brand spanking lighting technology called CFR (Clustered Forwarded Rendering) and some newly introduced “screens space” reflection tech. With 144Mhz support and those enhancements complementing the already brilliant LiveTrack 3.0 technology, Project CARS 3 is a visual treat.
That was my PC experience on preview code, though. While reviewing this on the PS4 Pro version in its “resolution” mode, my eyeballs were snagged on a range of issues. On the whole, everything looks nice if not exceptional when LiveTrack 3.0 weather hits the track and a flock of hyper-detailed competitors *just* right. That said, trackside detail and the interior-lit textures of your cockpit can appear weirdly washed out during the hours around dawn and twilight.
Object pop-in (think: tree branches and the odd fluorescent coloured billboard) crops up more often than I’d like as well. Even worse, in six events I copped a horrendous bug that made a white graphical aberration pulse through my car, like clockwork, every time I drove through a certain sector of these tracks. Strangely, I was driving different cars around different tracks when it’d occur, and it was like being scanned by aliens or something. It’s such a shame because most of the time Project CARS 3 looks more handsome than its predecessor and I never saw it skip a beat in the all-important frame-rate department.
When the checkered flag dropped on my time with Project CARS 3, I unbuckled from my cockpit with mixed emotions. It seems quite odd to me that Slightly Mad would set their sights on winning over more casual players but then deliver them a misfiring graphical experience on the current front-running console. Selling an on-disc offering like that is a bad first impression to make with your new primary audience.
Slapping them with a 35GB day one patch (for your 38GB game) isn’t a good look either. Be all that as it may, when it’s running on all cylinders Project CARS 3 runs a great race in other areas. The old magic that made me love the Project CARS series certainly exists. Moments of beauty and accomplishment, like when you watch the sunrise across the finish line of a gruelling Nürburgring race that began twenty-five minutes ago in the terrifying darkness.
That’s almost as bunghole puckering as the times when dynamic rain washes over, turning what was a “locked-in” final lap into a cardiac about to occur.
There’s a more than decent racing game thrumming underneath this hood, and Project CARS 3 has few peers when it comes to car and track count (211 and 51, respectively). All that being said, the fancy packaging and arbitrarily excised features will irk the old guard, even though much of the old challenge and handling model persists. As it stands, I think this is a new ride worth getting to know, but only in the fullness of time, patches or a price drop. For now, Project CARS 3 is behind the pace of the console exclusive racers it’s so desperate to compete with.
Project CARS 3 was reviewed on PS4 Pro using a digital copy provided by Bandai Namco Australia.