The market for driving games is a niche one. Where some revel in the thrill of gunning enemies down in shooter titles, fans of the genre find enjoyment and solace in the thrumming of loud car engines, the squeal of tyres while drifting, and of course, the adrenaline rush that comes with winning a championship. Project CARS 3, much like its predecessors, has all of that, with a couple of improvements and new features added to the mix.
Hailed as a driving simulator, the franchise is established to be more challenging and realistic than its arcade racing counterpart, offering a nuanced experience through gameplay elements like manual gear shift, reduced driving assists, and weather disadvantage. Punishing, unforgiving, and challenging with a satisfying pay-off has always been its style, but the newest member of the Project CARS line-up is set to change things up a little – by steering into a more beginner-friendly direction.
For anyone who has ever heard of Project CARS, this game is the Dark Souls of driving sims. The learning curve is rather steep, made more bearable and less frustrating with a raft of in-game assists, alongside the First Time User Experience (FTUE) feature.
A new tool that’s only present in Project CARS 3, the FTUE allows players to fine-tune their experience without having to navigate through all the technicalities, such as the driving assist options, and AI difficulty and behaviour. This would undoubtedly be handy for newcomers, especially for those with little to no knowledge of how driving sims work.
Being on the tracks yields a new corner marker system that replaces the old racing line feature. In place of a painted line along the track, you’ll see coloured indicators highlighting when to break, turn, or accelerate, while also labelling any apex or exit points. As a neophyte to the racing lifestyle, the extra guidance proved extremely useful, particularly in the moments leading up to sharp, tight corners. That doesn’t mean they should be treated as a hard and fast rule – there are times where you can speed up despite the cue to decelerate, and such moments will get increasingly frequent the more you practice, which is the key ingredient to getting better at driving. The core audience of Project CARS 3, of course, is likely to disregard the indicators and go at their own pace.
Don’t mistake the extra guidance for complacency, however. While the marker system does make racing a more enjoyable affair for newcomers, a large portion of technical handling and mastery boils down to constant practice, and a lot more experimentation on the player’s part. This is where the Custom Event mode comes into play, with the option to do practice laps across a slate of maps bearing different corner angles, weather conditions, and the like. It’s the optimal environment to fiddle with the controls and pick up or improve on your driving basics, since there’s no pressure to beat the clock. Sure, it can be a little monotonous or purposeless, but when you end up clinching first place in the campaign races, the sheer gratification of winning more than compensates for the blood, sweat, and tears.
The entire driving experience wouldn’t be as smooth if it weren’t for the much-improved controller mapping capabilities. A common issue with the past Project CARS titles was the frustrating, iffy gamepad controls that don’t translate well for the driving sim experience, but it seems the folks over at Slightly Mad Studios have really looked into refining the controller handling system to allow for greater accessibility and gameplay ease.
When hooked onto the Logitech F310 Gamepad, maneuvering on the tracks felt rather fluid, and turning at the corners appeared to correspond with the displacement of each nudge on the joystick. In general, the racing and driving experience was relatively problem-free – until the appearance of sharp, precipitous turns, that is.
Unlike a driving wheel that gives you more room to steer, there’s a limit to how much you can nudge the joystick on the controller, which means pulling off tight maneuvers at the corners will likely put you at a disadvantage over the AI in a race. A possible workaround for this would be to gently throttle into a turn, but considering how that’s the prime spot for overtaking, making a clean turn may prove challenging for the advanced circuit tracks. Of course, a steering wheel would be the best pick here, but for those without one, a gamepad is sufficient in a pinch.
It wouldn’t be a driving title without the biggest star of the show: cars, cars, and more cars. Gearheads and long-time fans will be glad to know that Project CARS 3 boasts the most number of cars in the franchise’s history, offering more than 200 licensed vehicles from the most iconic automobile brands. For the first time, players are given the full freedom to own and customise their cars as well, including changing the colours of their liveries and decorating them with decals, rims, tyres, and more, right down to a complete conversion kit that will change out their aspect entirely. Check out the gif below to see just how much you can customise your car(s):
Like its predecessor, Project CARS 3 mainly builds a competitive driving culture around the Career mode, except that it’s been totally revamped this time round. In addition to winning races, players are required to progress through various race categories starting from the Class E car class, and complete a fixed set of objectives to earn XP and credits. The progression system is sound, for it allows for a gentler learning curve with a gradual build-up to higher difficulty levels, while also encouraging players to gun for better performance through a three-star rate system.
Certain maps put a restriction on the type of car used, and that can be a little annoying if you don’t have enough money to purchase the specified model, and are unable to progress on because the prerequisites haven’t been met. Granted, in-game currency can be used to unlock other race categories, but that seems like a waste given how you’ll still need the money to buy or upgrade more vehicles.
Accompanying the Career mode is a brand-new asynchronous multiplayer challenge called Rivals. This leadership-based competition offers daily, weekly, and monthly challenges that are classified into three categories – Hot Lap, Pace Setter, and Breakout – to keep things fresh. The first is a traditional time trial competition where players seek to break their own race times, while the second records their consistency and average performance over three laps, all of which must be completed cleanly. Breakout is easily the most enjoyable mode, as it allows drivers to smash through a series of carefully-arranged polystyrene blocks, each with a points value, to find the most optimum route. It’s a nice reprieve from the norm, serving as a good outlet to vent your frustrations, or explore the circuits.
Custom mode, a fan favourite of the series, makes a return as well, alongside the online multiplayer feature that’s locked for preview. Racing sessions are fully customisable here, from the type of cars and tracks (even the locked ones), and weather options to AI behaviour.
Speaking of, AI behaviour is something that can be improved further in the game. When cruising the roads in Career mode, the computer-controlled opponents always seem to have some sort of unfair advantage – and we’re not talking skills-wise. Like most racing titles on the market, Project CARS 3 brings in dynamic weather elements, and for the sake of realism as a driving sim, reflects the track conditions as per real life. Circuits are thus more slippery on wet days, and cars are greatly susceptible to skidding or spinning all of control when oversteering. Yet, the AI drivers are hardly affected by such effects, constantly lapping around the racecourse at ridiculously high speeds and aggressively cutting corners without any consequence. And if they do lose control? The recovery time is absurdly fast.
It doesn’t help that they can be extremely aggressive during laps, too. See, here’s the thing: a little bit of collision here and there is fair game for driving titles. But when you are the only one getting consistently pushed off-course or bumped to the side from the rear, while all the other parties get away with no repercussions (not a single scratch! How!), the experience can get sour really fast. You can alway manually decrease AI aggressiveness in the settings, of course, but it shouldn’t be an issue in the first place, especially with Project CARS 2 having experienced the same issue.
Being a preview build, it’s understandable that game bugs do crop up occasionally. During one or two instances, the race car glitched out and flickered all the way to the end of the race, while another time saw programme code taking over the body text. Most of these issues have been flagged out by the team, who is currently working to resolve them.
AI woes aside, Project CARS 3 did a commendable job with its visuals, audio, and soundtrack. The circuit tracks boast great detail and accurately-replicated inspiration from real life. Switching to the cockpit view during a scorching day yields a realistic blinding glare on the windscreen, with raining weather causing a muted, murky surface where water droplets are seen sliding off. Braking sounds are crisp with the right amount of squeal, and the purr of engines makes for a comfortable, steady presence. Accelerate, and that thrum turns into a calm, gurgled roar. Adrenaline-pumping beats will accompany players before the start of a match to hype things up, and wind down with soothing, calming tunes during downtime in the garage or showroom. Hardly any performance issues were detected, either, with gameplay remaining smooth and consistent throughout.
A hybrid between a driving sim and an arcade racer, Project CARS 3 turns a turn to attract a more accessible community, while retaining some of its signature elements for its core audience. The eight-hours-or-so preview session slowly grew to become a neat asphalt-biting experience with the welcome option for more beginner-friendly guidance, alongside the impressive concoction of graphics and sound design. AI behaviour proves to be the game’s greatest nemesis, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the other game modes. Alternatively, you could also channel that frustration into beating other players, which hopefully, would be a more scintillating challenge.
Project CARS 3 will release on 28 August 2020 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC via Steam.