There’s simply no denying that PC racing simulators are an entirely different breed to the so-called sims found on consoles. While Gran Turismo and Forza claim to offer perfect virtual representations of the vehicles found within, their reliance upon control pads makes their physics models only slightly more realistic than Mario Kart. There’s also the fact that the PC’s brute force allows for much higher resolution visuals slathered in antialiasing, which makes all the difference when trying to spot a far-off corner or braking point. Throw in beefier internet connections, and our 24-player races make the 8-car races on console look positively primitive. Yet there’s one area where the consoles have enjoyed a substantial lead over PC sims the sheer volume of content found in the most popular racing franchises. With budgets that PC developers would kill for, console creators are able to license hundreds of cars and dozens of tracks. in contrast, most pc simulators only feature a handful of cars and tracks. until now, that is. Project Cars is that is. Project Cars is the first PC simulators to deliver a garage that the top gear team would be proud of, ready to be raced over more circuits than we’ve ever seen in a PC racer.


MAD MONEY
Before we delve into the deep pool of content that Project Cars delivers, we should probably touch on the interesting development history of the game. Developer Slightly Mad Studios launched the project with a private crowdfunding drive in 2011, and it rapidly raised over US$3 million, making it one of the most successful crowdfunded games of all time. Key to this success was a promise that backers would receive a return on their investment if the game made a profi t, with the amount returned based on the initial investment. If the game sold one million copies at full price, those who chipped in ten pounds would receive forty five pounds in return. Those who ponied up the most expensive package of 25 thousand pounds could look forward to receiving a whopping 110 thousand pounds in return. Every backer also received access to regular builds of the game, as well as access to the developers to deliver feedback via the official forums, with higher priced packages getting more frequent code drops and closer access. However, the UK’s Financial Services Authority soon placed the project under investigation, as it had evolved from a simple crowdfunded game into an investment scheme. These schemes are subject to strict legal conditions in the UK, such as banning their promotion to the general public without proper authorisation and limits on who can invest, a term Project Cars was clearly in breach of.

At the beginning of the investigation, Slightly Mad stopped accepting new backers for the project, and it’s been closed ever since. This has led to a lot of forum flame from users who have seen the game’s stunning screenshots and are angry that they can’t get access to the closed beta. The second effect of the investigation was that Slightly Mad offered full refunds to anybody who wanted one, with no time limit on claiming their receipt. What wasn’t clear though was the change in the investment return. While the official game Wiki claims that backers will still receive a share of profits generated within the first three years of the launch, the website that hosted the Project Cars crowdfunding effort, WMDportal.com, now states that Project Cars is not an investment scheme, and finding information on the return on investment is next to impossible. Making matters even muddier are the game’s continual delays. The original ship date of 2012 on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 was eventually delayed to 2013, with the 360 and PS3 versions scrapped in favour of PS4 and Xbox One ports. This was then delayed until November 21, 2014… which was again delayed at the last minute until March, 2015.

We wouldn’t blame you if you were somewhat sceptical about Project Cars given its legal woes and three year delay, but we’ve been privy to something that most others aren’t we’ve been in the beta since it was an alpha. Judging by the current state of the beta, the game should indeed be finally ready to roll out of the garage in early 2015, no small feat considering the gargantuan scope of the title.

At the time of writing, the beta of Project Cars had over 60 different cars just waiting to be thrashed into submission. Starting at the low end are the zippy 125cc and 250cc karts, nimble critters that champions like Schumacher and Hamilton cut their teeth on, and they’re the perfect choice for newcomers to learn the fundamentals of cornering, braking and racecraft. The next step up are the Track Day cars, road-worthy rides that can handle the 9 to 5 commute, while being able to stretch their racing wings on weekends. Our favourite has to be the BAC Mono, a single seater with a top speed of 270km/h that handles like an F-16 fighter jet on steroids, although the three variants of the Ariel Atom are also hard to pass up.

SUPERCAR SHOWDOWN
No racer would be complete without a supercar or two, and Project Cars ups the ante with almost a dozen different models. Pagani, RUF, McLaren, Aston Martin and BMW are all represented, though the lack of Ferrari is a bit of a shame. When you tire of taking these million dollar rides for a spin, it’s time to strap yourself into the cockpit of the real racing cars, with the likes of the BMW Z4 GT and McLaren MP4-12C GT3 waiting to teach you the definition of speed. Throw in a bunch of classic cars such as the Lotus 49 and Ford Mustang, along with a handful of open wheelers, and Project Cars smashes the benchmark for most vehicles in a racing sim.
Project Cars smashes the benchmark for most vehicles in a racing sim.
Making the huge number of cars even more impressive is the absolutely staggering detail of each car model. From the fully realised interiors, with modelling so intricate that individual stitches in the leather seats can be seen, to the accurately rendered exteriors built using CAD models, the car porn in Project Cars is far and above any previous racer. Full support for the Oculus Rift will be included at launch, allowing virtual racers to truly appreciate the stunning car interiors. A built-in photo mode allows drivers to pause the game at any moment to frame the perfect shot, and the resulting screenshots are arguably the closest to photorealism we’ve seen in a game, regardless of genre.

TRACK PACK
All of these cars aren’t much good without anywhere to race them, and once again Project Cars totally over-delivers in the content department. Where games like Assetto Corsa ship with around a dozen tracks, Project Cars currently has over 25 in the beta. These are all individual tracks, not simply different configurations of a handful of base circuits. With each track offering multiple race routes, the number of circuits in total easily surpasses 50. While many of these are European tracks, such as Brands Hatch, Zolder and Silverstone, Aussies haven’t been forgotten. Our world famous mountain course, Bathurst, has been included in all of its hill-climbing glory, and Project Cars’ rendition of Australia’s favourite track is on par with iRacing’s recent, laserscanned rendition. Unlike iRacing, Project Cars uses a mixture of laser-scanned and hand-crafted tracks, and after driving most of them we honestly can’t tell which is which.

While purists might bemoan the lack of laser scanning across the board, the decision to include un-scanned tracks means Project Cars has the benefit of being able to include tracks that haven’t yet been treated to a laser show. Chief amongst these is the Green Hell, more commonly known as the mighty Nürburgring. From what we can tell, this has been split into three sections, suggesting that the game can’t handle recreating such a lengthy track while maintaining the environmental fidelity found within. It’s not surprising, as the circuits and trackside scenery are just as impressive as the car modelling, with particular attention paid to objects that bring life to each track. Gone are the empty, lifeless grand stands of other racers, replaced by massive 3D crowds that take photos, wave flags and cheer as you drive by. Race marshals are dotted at regular intervals around each track, ready to whip out a yellow flag when things go awry. And it wouldn’t be a racer without helicopters hovering over certain parts of the track.

Slightly Mad Studios, the developer of Project Cars, has always had a reputation for pushing the graphical boundaries in racing games, with the NFS: Shift series standing out as being particularly sexy. Project Cars is built on the same Madness engine used by the Shift games, but it’s been overhauled from the ground up. This is one of the few PC games that really makes the most of DirectX 11’s advanced techniques, leveraging today’s cutting-edge GPUs. Gamers with older DX10 graphics cards will still be able to play the game, as a DX9 mode is also included, but they’ll miss out on some of the eye candy.

ALL THE EYE CANDY
Heading into the graphics options reveals a laundry list of options, quite possibly the most we’ve ever seen in a PC game. In fact, there are so many options that they’re spread over two screens, and they cover such things as Environment Map Quality, Global Specular Irradiance, Crepuscular Rays and Post Processing filter type just a few of the more advanced options. With everything cranked to the maximum values, we were very impressed to see the game running at around 60 frames per seconds, albeit only once we’d activated SLI on our dual GTX 780 Ti system; frame rates halved when running on a single GTX 780 Ti. The game looked absolutely stunning in action, though we did notice some aliasing issues, despite the game’s support for downsampling and FXAA. We found that running FXAA on High, combined with a downsampling ratio that doubled the native resolution of 1920 x 1080 internally, cleaned up most of the jaggies while keeping the frame rate at 60. Unfortunately rain effects had a large impact on performance, with the reflective track, huge water plumes and accurate water beading on the car panels sapping up to 50% of the frame rates. Despite this, we think Project Cars will set a new benchmark for visual fidelity come release time, provided you’ve got the horsepower to run it.

An area that isn’t so impressive is the car handling. Currently the game has very confusing wheel setup options, especially in regards to force feedback tuning. Where most racers have a simple slider for feedback strength and dampening, Project Cars’ force feedback options has around 15 different sliders, all of which are cryptically labelled. We’re hoping this is just a debug feature and it’s removed in time for the final release, otherwise most racers will be put off by the need to spend hours tweaking the settings to match their particular wheel. We found that the initial settings were very lacklustre, with the wheel exhibiting very little feedback when snapping back from oversteer, hitting curbs and rumble strips, and basically delivering very little information we could actually use.Thankfully a fellow backer supplied his custom force feedback options to us in an easy to install file, and the difference was night and day. Suddenly we could feel the tires starting to lose grip when cornering too quickly, while riding curbs delivered a sharp yank in the right direction.

The force feedback is a result of the game’s SETA tire model, which combines three different simulations the tire carcass, the tire tread and contact patch, and a heat transfer simulation. Where older sims use table-based physics with unchanging values, the SETA model is similar to iRacing’s New Tire Model, which uses dynamic simulations instead of pre-baked numbers. According to Slightly Mad, the SETA model accounts for rubber deformation, rubber adhesion at various temperatures, rubber tack, and the shape of the grip cut into each tire. It also replicates flat spotting, an issue that occurs when the driver slides on the tires, leading to a flat spot on each tire, as well as hydroplaning, where the wheel glides on the surface of water. We’re not anal enough to notice when a virtual tire is flatspotting (We’re not? – Ed), but we feel the handling still needs some work to be in the same league as Assetto Corsa and iRacing. Having said that, handling has been the number one issue for the final months of development, and it seems to get better with each build. With four more months of development between the time we wrote this article and the latest release date, we’re hopeful that the game’s hardcore simulation ambitions will be realised with more believable handling.

PROJECT TIMESINK
Thanks to the wealth of content, the game’s singleplayer mode will take months to complete. The career mode is generously stuffed with different leagues, and repetition across different leagues is minimal due to the high number of tracks. We were especially impressed by the game’s AI drivers, which raced in tight packs like real humans, rather than the robotic conga lines of Assetto Corsa. AI drivers are also prone to making the occasional error, which is the perfect opportunity to show off the game’s excellent damage modelling, yet another area in which the game excels.

With just a few months to release, to say we’re excited about Project Cars finally arriving is like saying we wouldn’t mind taking the new LeFerrari for a spin around Laguna Seca. Despite several years of delays, our regular health checks of the beta have seen our anticipation evolve from “this looks ok” to “this is going to be the best racer to ever land on the PC”, with the proviso that the handling model gets as much last-minute attention as the graphics department. We’ll have a full blown review in PC PowerPlay very soon, but until then we recommend getting your cockpit and wheel set aside for a week of racing come the March release date.

OCULUS OF-COURSE-ULUS
Joining the ranks of Oculus Rift-ready racers, Project Cars promises full Rift integration come the consumer release of the Rift. The existing implementation of Rift is support is relatively rudimentary, and you’re going to need a supercomputer packing quad-GPUs to render its eyewatering delights at 75fps in stereo. PS4 owners can also look forward to full Project Morpheus support if and when Sony’s headset ever arrives, but we’d expect a large graphical downgrade to facilitate the smooth performance required for low-latency VR.

NOT REINVENTING THE WHEEL
One of the most painful procedures simmers have to go through is the controller configuration game, which can take hours to nail down depending on just how obscure your chosen controller is. So when we saw the pre-baked configs for over 30 different wheel and pedal sets just waiting to be autodetected, we breathed a happy sigh of relief… until we noticed that the included Fanatec Wheel Base config didn’t work with our Fanatec Wheel Base. Fingers crossed that this is just one of the many bugs needing to be squashed before the game comes out. Support includes every major wheel from Thrustmaster, Fanatec, Logitech, SimRaceway and Microsoft.