Today, triple-A titles mean, and need, huge investment, and publishers would rather avoid taking risks. Yet before when they'd miss the true potential of a supposedly niche title, it'd mean the death of a project before it began. Now, creators have the potential of seeing their dreams realised, and connecting directly with players through crowdfunding. And that's what London-based Slightly Mad Studios did when it asked racing fans for financial support to realise its vision of a racing simulator. But the developer didn't stop there; it let players in on the development process, to help refine the creation. And so it began work on CARS - the Community Assisted Racing Simulator.
And after several delays, here we are, with the racer lining up to the starting grid on new-gen consoles as well as PC (the latter being where we did our racing for this review). The game's introduction runs the full breadth of the developer's vision, covering the range of options available for the player through glossy videos and plenty of voiceover. There's a lot here, and for a range of enthusiasts: driving assists and difficulty can be fine-tuned to your individual preferences, and you're free to tinker with the start of your long in-game career. There's a purity to the progression here, no money is earned or XP unlocked. Instead, you sign up to a race team and drive primarily for points. If successful, you'll be waved onward with an invitation to a higher class of racing. And there's plenty of divisions to sink your teeth and time into. Starting with karts and smaller production cars, you'll be racing towards choosing between various GT classic or Formula racers, and forward to the legendary Le Mans prototypes towards the latter end of your career progression.
Playing the Professional mode is a challenge from the off. Literally. Even trying to drive away from the starting grid immediately showcases that this is no arcade racer. Switch on the ignition, start the engine, disengage the clutch and engage the gear when the light hits green. And this type of detail is true for every aspect of the game. A complete racing weekend is simulated, consisting of training runs, qualifying and races that feature multiple pitstops. It's not just perfect racing lines that'll see you finish on top either; you'll need tactics to win, and to stay tuned to the team radio to listen for instructions and tips.
It makes for an adrenaline-fuelled, highly-compelling experience. With a suitably chosen difficulty it's hard going to fight your way from the back of the pack to the podium. Each race becomes its own epic, rather than just powering through the season and hoping perseverance will pay off. While there is a Rewind function to erase mistakes on the race course, the experience here isn't about repeated use until you cross the finishing line first. Every aspect of the car and the racing conditions needs to be weighed, considered if you're to succeed.
However, the drive is not as merciless as one might fear in the face of these claims. On the contrary, the vehicles react with more forgiveness than say in Forza Motorsport 5. The grip is slightly higher, and even cars like the RUF Porsche can be kept under control with significantly less effort than you might expect. That is certainly the influence of pro drivers like Ben "The Stig" Collins who, among others, contributed his input throughout the design process. The former Top Gear driver disliked playing earlier racing games because he believes driving physics are just too strict. In his opinion, although you can simulate every aspect accurately, there is the human element and so far it's remained completely sidelined. In a real car you can feel the force against your whole body, something that in a game simply can't be translated. With that in mind the team has worked hard on finding a balance between addressing accurate physical factors and getting the feel right, for example, with things like the tire temperature now having an influence on their grip.
The console versions of Project CARS trail behind the PC build a little when it comes to visuals, through this is a beautiful game no matter which platform you're playing it on, and it's the same game under the hood. On the race track there are up to forty-five vehicles roaring past each other, each with its own damage modelling, and they're all being hammered with a dynamic weather system. It's atmospheric and graphically stunning, but there is the odd graphical hiccup, with screen tearing when the action gets intense. And while there's not a consistently high level of detail across all the courses, you can forgive it because the track number's hitting the triple digits, and the range is superb. There's not only some serious race tracks, but they're accentuated by stretches of fantastic scenery (provided you can take your eyes off the road to admire them) as the Career's riddled with special races that let us drive several historic cars and supercars.
It means plenty of variety. Something that Project CARS is very good in offering, to a point. One of the weakest elements of the game is the lack of car availability. In solo and multiplayer online races you'll see there's only a handful of cars to choose from in some of the classes. Many manufacturers are completely absent from the game because they were simply not interested in cooperating with the developer. It seems a mistake, because the game is potentially going to do very well with simulation racing fans. Ah well, if they change their minds there's always DLC.
There's an interesting difference between this and the other venerated mainstream racing simulator, Gran Turismo. Sony's long-running franchise emphasised the collecting of cars as one of its main draws, with racing almost secondary. Project CARS takes that secondary consideration and builds everything else around it. This title celebrates motorsport, the on-track racing, the thrill of the chase, the joy of finally learning the quirks of your new favourite ride. The quality of it all sees Project CARS easily roar into the racing genre's Hall of Fame. But it doesn't quite overtake the competition. There's something missing in terms of size and balance, and the audio is unfortunately a bit of a tragedy. While the car engines sound good, the crunch of collisions and the squeal of tyres are too low in the audio mix.
However, these are small issues. The bottom line is that Project CARS manages to refresh the racing simulation genre, and in doing so sets a new level that future entries into this genre need to, at the very least, match in order to compete with the competition. And even then, we suspect that Slightly Mad Studios will have refined this title further in the form of future DLC and patches.