There are a lot of racing games gearing up for the end of the year, but Slightly Mad Studios' effort is the only serious racing simulation to appear on new-gen consoles and PC.
There are a wealth of racers on consoles (and PC) these days, but for the most part these don't cater to the simulation crowd. Forza Motorsport 5 is the only thing coming close to on Xbox One, while PlayStation 4 gets Driveclub, which finally arrives in October, but that clearly isn't steering anywhere close to the idea of simulation.
This leaves Project CARS, Slightly Mad Studios' partially crowdfunded game, as the lone simulation offering. It will hit all platforms, except Wii U, this November (Nintendo fans will have to hold out until next year, but at least it is coming to Wii U).
At Gamescom the PlayStation 4 version was finally playable. And who would turn down a few laps on Hockenheim in a BAC Mono? Everything appears fine from what we can gather, as we use a DualShock 4 to steer our vehicle.
Development of the game has been crafted under the "five percent human component" monicker. This five percent is to guarantee the difference between something that's good and something great, and it's been applied to all aspects of the project - graphics, handling and sound. And that human input comes from two race drivers who know the tracks intimately.
An example of this is the collaboration with Ben Collins (former Stig of Top Gear fame) and race driver Oli Webb. Webb delivered live input from each of his racing weekend to the developers, explaining minute details, like how the sunlight hits at certain curves at certain times of the day, and the behaviour of curbs on rarely driven tracks such as the one in Monaco. It goes to show how much attention to detail there is with Project CARS, and as you'd expect, Oli Webb considers this the first game he can truly use to full effect as a simulator.
It is refreshing to hear how casually Slightly Mad Studios sidestep the pressure to deliver a excessive amount of cars in the game, unlike Gran Turismo, which constantly pushed car numbers to a point where you know some models were likely completely overlooked by players.
In Project CARS there will be around 50-60 tracks (all variations included) and Slightly Mad Studios are one of only three companies holding the actual Le Mans license. At times the attention to detail is almost scary. There is a tremendous belief in the project from the developers and it's easy to tell why when looking at the game.
Everything is unlocked from the start: you pick your career and off you go. Every car is available. You pick abilities and there are lots of options to fine tune the simulation - all they way to a true driving simulation experience. There is great pedigree with the team as their previous effort GTR 2 remains one of the finest racing simulations ever made.
Project CARS wants to improve on that. It has the DNA of GTR and combines that with the latest developments of the modern era of racing. Dynamic weather and times of day are in place. It can even start raining in the middle of race now, allowing you to race through a thunderstorm and emerge as the weather clears into the final lap. The Le Mans license allows for real-time endurance races spanning 24 hours. Add in the day and night cycle and dynamic weather and you're in for something truly special.
And that takes us to a little feature, exclusive to those who play Project CARS on PC. Project CARS offers support for Oculus Rift and we tried it with the new Development Kit 2. We did not miss the opportunity to strap on the VR headset and race around a virtual Hockenheim. The experience is both extremely impressive and somewhat disappointing at the same time.
With your headset on you really feel as if you're sitting in the car. You can turn your head to look left and right out of the windows. Look over your shoulder and stare down on the speedometer. It truly makes for an impressive illusion. With the new HD displays of Devkit 2, the image is sharp enough that you can read the numbers on the odometer. But there is still an optical blur when compared directly to the PS4 or PC versions on normal screens. Perhaps what's needed are 4K displays, as it really doesn't deliver the same fidelity as larger screens.
One great thing about playing Project CARS with Oculus Rift is that it gets your positioning just right. In theory this would allow for an even better experience, but the lack of depth of field and "foggy" pixels on the horizon makes it difficult to race as if we were there. Even with a great knowledge of the track you're going to miss braking points - simply because it is more difficult to read the visual input. It's not down to the graphics of the actual game as Project CARS is future proofed with support for three 4K screens on PC: it's simply a matter of the capacity of the current build of Oculus Rift.
Nevertheless, the experience was outstanding and gives us a hint of what may be in store for racing fans in the future. In a few years sitting in a decent racing seat with a steering wheel, and combined with Oculus Rift DK3 or DK4, racing sims will offer something completely different. But for now we prefer the clear and razor sharp HD-image of the PC version in direct comparison. Or even richer and sharper images of the PS4 or Xbox One versions.
Loading next content