Project CARS: The community driven racing game finally hits top gear

Project CARS has been sitting in my Steam library for the better part of a year. This early version is remarkably stocked, bar the locked career mode, placeholder textures, and internal notes such as ‘spindle text to be provided by Steve Dunn’. Classic Steve. With a bit of spit and polish the folks at Slightly Mad Studios could probably have released their racing sim a year ago. But they don’t want to make a racing sim. They want to make  the racing sim.

Every time I log onto Steam,  Project CARS is updating. Since October 2011 there have been over 900 versions of the thing. That’s what’s unique about it: it’s seriously community driven. 80,000 registered users and professional drivers alike have had access to weekly builds, lending their voices to feedback and therefore their hands albeit vicariously to design.

So, what does that mean for you, besides sounding like a big fat invite-only party? Simply, it means more content. This so-called World of Mass Design (WMD) results in the largest assembly of courses ever in a racing game. Compare their size: the 20,832km Eifelwald dwarfs the 871km-long Chesterfield. Within that spectrum sits tracks such as Brands Hatch, Donington, Silverstone, Imola, Hockenheim, Laguna Seca, and fantasy courses along the California and Azure coasts. From England to Dubai and Japan, it feels like a truly global collection.
Le Mans has room for a whopping 55 vehicles, all trading paint and screeching tyres
An extensive vehicle roster spans dozens of disciplines, from humble karts to radical Radicals. While it’s not quite  Forza or Gran Turismo  (no Honda, Lotus, Ferrari, Mazda, Mini or Dodge) a huge number of vehicles can squeeze onto a track at once. Le Mans has room for a whopping 55 vehicles, all trading paint and screeching tyres. And yes, those cars flip.

Visually, it’s extraordinary. Night racing shows stars reflected in bodywork and headlights glinting off road bumps, while at sundown orange hues lend events serenity. Rain, whether light drizzle or severe thunderstorm, is particularly impressive, adding splashing puddles, streaming droplets and torrential pounding sounds on the hood to cockpit views. You can store multiple weather slots for a single race, enabling it to make the transition between, say, clear and cloudy, and even sync the game to your location’s exact time. Minutely variable time and weather go a long way to transforming the mood and ambience of each course.

The four coloured stripes in Project CARS ’ logo represent career, solo, competitive online, and community. Career’s a no-go at this point in my build, but everything else is unlocked. Time trials let you select up to three different leaderboard ghosts against which to race, and the ability to filter by control setup evens the playing field nicely, while community events offer great scope for future daily and weekly challenges here. Currently there’s just one: an opportunity for players to showcase their Brands Hatch hot laps in the Ariel Atom.

Multiplayer showdowns, meanwhile, let players direct their own race weekends. These weekends are essentially playlists in which you queue up different tracks, conditions, practices and rules and then play through them without ever having to see the (admittedly stylish) menu screen.

Indeed, the game keeps its intimidating sim roots well hidden beneath an appealing aesthetic of lady narration and electronic rock. Head into the tuning setup and you’re hit with a wealth of possibilities. There are options to change tyre compound (softer compounds trade faster wear for enhanced grip, so select slick tyres for dry weather and grooved tyres for wet), tyre pressure (decrease to counteract under steer), and brake ducts (opening them cools the brakes faster but increases aerodynamic drag). You can save setups for easy access.

There’s a danger in pointing your ear too far in the direction of your community, however. Feedback helps, but mind the vocal minority. I’ve charted  Project CARS ’ changes, and the game you see today doesn’t appear drastically different to the one I had in my Steam library a year ago.

Maybe I just don’t appreciate that Slightly Mad calculates the physics in Project CARS 600 times a second. That the volumetric throttle system checks ambient track temperature to determine how much torque is available. That there are three coupled simulation models on the tires one for the carcass, one for the tread, and one for the contact patch, and that heat transfer simulation handles flow between tread layers, rim, wheel well and brakes.

Or maybe Slightly Mad span its wheels listening to hobbyists and backseat drivers. While it’s shaping up to be the PC’s premier driving sim, the game isn’t the revolution it might think it is. What does all that technical stuff mean to Jonny Car Game? Not much if you just like driving fast. Thankfully, Project CARS has that. And if you want to be a geek about it? Project  CARS has that too.

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