Producer Andy Tudor looks a tad annoyed. I guess my last two questions sounded too negative, which was not my intention. Though I do want answers, I choose to assure the man behind Project Cars that I really like what I've tested so far. It's easy to read how much he wants to convey the studio's vision of the ultimate racing game to me, and by extension, you. I can't blame him. Three years of development and millions of pounds spent to create cars and tracks as authentic as possible is an ambitious project.
After putting in 25 laps around Silverstone in an Aston Martin DBS GT3, I ask Andy if the tyres grip a little too well, as it seems almost impossible to put the back end out or get the grip to drop in the front end. Tudor looks at me as if I was born yesterday, then explains the team decided to activate every car assist that exists in the game to prevent those attending today from experiencing Project Cars as the world's toughest racing title. I ask for them to be turned off completely, and get to grips with the revised tyre physics.
An hour later, I'm sweaty and satisfied. Project Cars isn't as unforgiving as GTR2, but it still feels very close to the real thing, and the car's balancing feels amazing. Just like in Forza Motorsport 5, it's easy to know where the car's centre of gravity is, dependent on whether I accelerate or brake, while the tyre grip provides an indication of how close to the limit I am.
There are some issues, however. The PlayStation 4 version I try suffers from an unstable framerate, and I wonder whether Slightly Mad Studios are trying to cover too much ground and pull in too wide an audience in the time they have left on the project.
"I have read that several others are concerned about the same thing," Tudor responds when I field the latter question to him. "And I honestly do not understand the criticism. As developers we were starting from scratch, taking arcade physics and steering them towards a racing simulator. Now we've started on the other end, and it changes everything.
"We spent over a year perfecting our already amazing physics engine that we used in games like GT Legends, GTR 2 and Shift. What we have today is so realistic that professional drivers like Oli Webb and Ben Collins are more than happy to use Project Cars as a training tool. What we did after is insert a series of aids for the less-informed drivers and made them easy to activate. The game will be no less fun for it, just less unforgiving."
I follow up about that frame rate. With little over a month before the game has to be submitted to review by Sony and Microsoft, the issue is worrying, as is the lack of content we're seeing: today's demo only covers two courses and two cars.
"I would first like to highlight the fact that this is the world's first racing simulator that from day one has been developed in close cooperation with our fans," says Tudor. "We would never have been able to make this game if it were not for all that. Crowdfunding aided the development and gave us incredibly valuable feedback since its inception. With that said, we have some work to do before we feel completely satisfied and we are still working on the optimisation of the PS4 and Xbox One versions."
That said, there's obviously a lot more work to go. We find out weeks later, just before this magazine went to print, that the game is delayed from this winter to spring next year.
The producer goes on to explain how the project has been exciting since inception, and how it was originally pitched as a competitor to Gran Turismo and Forza, but "no publisher was willing to bet on the title". The high-risk nature of the concept, according to Tudor, is the reason the studio turned to its fans instead, and with Kickstarter still a pipe dream in 2011, they created their own crowdfunding model.
I ask art director Darren White how the team are approaching the aesthetics of the game. GTR2 was realistic in both handling and design, but the Need for Speed: Shift titles leaned more towards a Hollywood look with exaggerated lighting effects and shadows.
"You're right," agrees White. "With Shift and Shift 2 we focused on an exaggerated look somewhere between a JJ Abrams movie and a traditional racing simulator. Something I think worked excellently for just those games.
"In Project Cars, we have worked hard to offer a look that really screams photorealism. There is no exaggeration, no Hollywood-esque lens flare effects or excessive bloom. During development, we have all noticed that as soon as we tried something a bit exaggerated aesthetically, it pulled the player out of the driving experience we're trying to offer."
I air the criticism levelled at the Shift games for cramming fictitious trackside details in real life courses. Darren laughs.
"I know what you mean. We tried for that festival feeling, and the hardcore fans were up in arms. I understood them. But at the same time, I wanted a more lively and eventful feel to the design, especially in Shift 2."
"But with Project Cars, there's nothing like that. We have, as I said, worked extremely hard to try and offer a 100% accurate picture of what it really looks like when you yourself are sitting there behind the wheel. 85,000 players are playing Project Cars every day and we keep hearing about it if something is wrong. Many of our fans are incredibly dedicated."
I return to the game and drive out in the Dubai Autodrome in a LeMans car built by Audi. Sweat beads on my brow as I fire the prototype rocket around the curves of the track, and the sun sets as I race, throwing down dark yellow rays onto the track. The effect is one of delicious contrast. There's no doubt Project Cars looks as good as it feels. If Slightly Mad Studios manages to achieve what it set out to do, and homogenise the various racing fields, then both Gran Turismo and Forza are in trouble. The unique driving sensation is amazing, even though it feels like I have a little too much tire grip all the time.
Ben Collins, a multiple champion in various different racing disciplines, and the man who was The Stig in Top Gear for nearly nine years, walks past. I pull him over to talk, and ask him his thoughts on the tyre grip.
"The tyre physics in the game are extraordinary. I have played every single simulator available and for the most part, they don't work well. There is seldom any discernible difference between hot or cold tires. "
"In Project Cars you feel a clear difference. The same goes for tyres which are worn in the wrong way by an overly aggressive driver who drives too hard, too fast. The cars have provided me the perfect amount of grip, That whole thing with skidding off the road at the slightest touch of the throttle [like other games do]? Not a problem with this game."
Collins has spent about 100 hours testing different versions of Project Cars. He tells me that he struggled to get through some changes that made the game more realistic, but that he is now very proud of the product.
The ex-Stig is right. And after racing go-karts in my younger days and racing for the last ten years, I can feel the difference in Project Cars as well. As we break from our hands-on for lunch, I talk to Colins further about his favourite cars and racing games.
"My favorite car is the Ferrari 458 Italia, for sure," he answers immediately. "Of all the cars I've ever driven, it is my absolute favourite. The balance of the chassis and the feel of the steering is unbeatable. Too bad it sucks in the game right now. Ferrari are difficult to work with, it costs a lot of money to license their cars, and we have not yet begun to look at the Project 458 Cars, but we will."
Even though it has nothing to do with the game, I feel compelled to ask about the incident when The Stig drove the hyper car Koenigsegg CCX on the Top Gear test track, and crashed it into a tyre wall.
"It was a pretty fun incident. it was almost undriveable without a wing on the trunk, it could barely take a curve at over 60 km/h. Our crash caused them to assemble one wing, and we could then set a fast time with the car. Now in hindsight Koenigsegg refuses to admit that it was I who got them to change the car's design and include a downforce at the back end of all their existing models. But yes, it does not matter. Koenigsegg may be super quick going straight forward but is lousy at taking curves, even with the new models."
Given how little of Project Cars I have seen, I feel a tad worried about whether the studio has the time to put everything together. The sudden delay proves unsurprising, but ultimately will benefit the game. If the team deliver on everything they want to put in, we could have a new worthy racing franchise on our hands.