Project Cars 3 Review
Into a new direction
The original Project CARS was a bold experiment. The name itself stands for Community Assisted Racing Simulator, as the developers Slightly Mad Studios set out to fund the game through investors and fans, without the pressures of a typical publisher. They enlisted the help of professional drivers, went through fan feedback, and eventually launched a good first effort. Two years later, the team followed up with a sequel, but the upwards trajectory many hoped for wasn't achieved, as the game suffered from many of the same shortcomings. For the newly released Project CARS 3, rather than keep working towards an ultimate goal, the developers decided to throw much of it away and instead switch to a more arcade experience. While not a bad game, it may upset a lot of existing fans, and it lacks anything fresh to draw in newcomers, leaving you wondering if this switch was even worth it.
In the single player career mode, things look pretty different as well – but as with most changes in PCars 3, these updates are new to the franchise, not the arcade racing genre. The career now follows a fairly typical linear progression, where players buy their first car and start at the E-tier of road racing. You then work your way up through the tiers up to A and Hyper Cars. Each tier features 4 blocks of events; the blocks each consist of 4 individual races. To help inject at least some variety, there is also a series of GT car event blocks, plus Invitational and Challenge event series. Still, the career mode design is quite dull in structure and doesn't change the deeper you progress into it.
In order to be able to move on from one event block to the next, and from one car class to the next, you have to achieve a certain number of goals. Up to three goals can be earned from races, and they usually include a variety of objectives: finish first, reach a certain top speed, perform a number of quick overtakes, and so on. The objectives seem fairly random and so each event asks something new of the player. The event variety is pretty limited – standard races see you face off against up to 32 AI opponents, which gets rather hectic and is the first sign that the series is moving into a new direction. There are also hot lap events, where you must set a target lap time without going off or touching barriers; a variation called Pace Setter has you racing three laps and the average time is the target. Lastly, Breakout events have you smashing boards on the track to score points. All of these are fairly typical and somewhat dull events, but at least there's variety. While you start off with some quick events that take under 5 minutes, later in the campaign you do get into some longer sprints.
As you complete events, you will earn currency, car experience, and driver experience. The driver XP is only really used to unlock new cars to buy at the Showroom, car XP reduces part costs, while currency is a critical part of the new career mode design (again, new for this franchise, but not the genre). Money is important because as you move between events, the game very quickly begins to ask you to race specific cars – either an exact make and model, or a specific manufacturer, make year, and so on. Such restrictions set in very early and can take up entire blocks of events, forcing you to spend money on cars. But if you do manage to pick a car that's fairly flexible and matches those requirements, you can make major upgrades to it via a simple system, by purchasing new tires, engine components, and so on.
The car upgrades cause your vehicle's overall performance rating to rapidly increase, and can bring your car into the next performance tier easily. So, if it wasn't for the overly strict requirements of career events, the game has a very viable path to keep you in the same ride for a long time as you move through the career. However, all these new cars and upgrades cost money, and this is where the game can be fairly stringent. Even playing every single event available, you will still be short on cash quite often. To add insult to injury, the game nickel-and-dimes you by making you pay to swap car parts you already own. Money also acts as a way to shortcut your way through the career mode – if you don't feel like grinding through event blocks and achieving objectives, you can simply pay to unlock the next event block, or entire car class.
As for the cars, there are just over 200 of them, from a variety of manufacturers. From Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Lamborghini to Toyota, BMW, and Porsche, there is pretty good diversity in both makes, years, and models. All of the cars are upgradable beyond their starting class, and the upgrade prices don’t increase stratospherically even for higher end models, which is nice at least. Beyond the straightforward upgrades, you can also tweak settings such as tire pressure, brake balance, and so on, as the game attempts to still have some simulation aspects left in it. The cars can also be further customized with new visual options such as colors, liveries/decals, rims, and tires.
The track selection spans nearly 40 locations, with 100 track layouts. There are fictional tracks that take players across deserts, mountains, and ocean side towns, as well as real world tracks like Silverstone, Nurburgring, Fuji International Speedway, and others. There are some omissions from the list that Project Cars 2 players will be familiar with, but in return the tracks have been touched up to include more off-road detail, such as structures, helicopters hovering, and so on. One unique aspect that the developers seemingly brought back from their very first games – like Need for Speed Shift – is that there is a system of perfecting corners and following the best racing line, used with or without visual assists. Doing so earns experience and is often one of the goals of a racing event. In both the track and car selection, Project Cars 3 offers good value in terms of sheer amount of content.
Besides the offline career, there's online play. In multiplayer, the game borrows from others in the genre. There's a Rivals system where you can continuously compete in trying to beat community lap times and challenges over the course of a day, week, or month. You can race, or do Breakout and Pace Setter events against others, or participate in scheduled events. The scheduled events follow the expected structure of qualifying first, before the set-time event race. Again, it's the traditional arcade race game experience, without anything that stands out.
With a revamped career mode switching to the traditional arcade approach, critically so has the gameplay. On default presets and medium difficulty, the experience very much crosses into arcade territory. It's not quite as simple as Need for Speed or DiRT, but it's miles away from the previous entry in the series. There are some differences between cars, and upgrades certainly make you feel it, but on the whole it's a very straightforward racing experience where players don't need to worry much about grip, opponents, or keeping it clean and staying on the track. The steering is responsive, and it's easy to corner and perform high speed manoeuvres, as well as drift. The cars do feel rather heavy, which is a sensation not often seen in modern games.
Of course, you can turn off all assists and try to challenge yourself – but be warned that the opponent AI has a different set of rules. They simply hold their line, and if you turn aggressiveness up, may block and try to bump you off. They themselves though rarely lose grip, and particularly in the rain don't seem to care much for the changing conditions. The fact that some races have 32 cars on track cause some absurd situations, especially on tight corners. AI will smash into you and each other, with much disregard. Mechanical damage is no longer in the game, so at least you don't have to worry about that.
Speaking of rain, this is the only weather effect in the game, and it's a rather basic implementation. Rain happens quite often in career mode, and it doesn't look particularly good. It begins nearly instantaneously, as the race track becomes wet and covered in puddles within moments. It also seems extremely taxing on PC performance, which is significantly degraded when rain begins. And that's sort of the indicator of how the game looks – not great. The visuals certainly seem dated, with very flat lightning, no car reflections, and just low quality track detail. Audio design is similarly dull, with not much detail in the car engine sounds or other effects. Surprisingly, one standout presentation feature is the fact that there is pretty significant car damage – not very detailed, of course, but the simple fact that cars can lose their entire hoods and bumpers to expose the stuff underneath is unheard of in recent years, with licensed vehicles. The side mirrors seem invincible though.
It's always a risky move to switch directions, but it's even more questionable when it seems to be to your detriment. Project Cars wasn't exactly a groundbreaking sim racer, but at least it posed an alternative, in a field that's fairly thin on options. By switching into the arcade lane, this third game simply gets crowded out by the leaders of the genre, and even by its own parent company's other franchises, like GRID and DiRT. Project Cars 3 just doesn't bring anything new to the arcade racing table, and the experience it does offer can be had elsewhere for better. A spinoff name would have at least made it clearer that this was not a sequel to PCars 2. Instead, it will give returning fans a shock, while newcomers will be largely indifferent to this by-the-numbers design and experience.