Ever since announcing itself to the world as the premier car porn simulator, Project CARS has always tried to walk a tricky balance between simulation racing and accessibility. Project CARS 3 is much clearer about where its success lies. The game still has that suite of laser-scanned tracks, cars and an expansive career mode, but it’s also very clear in being an accessible game, first and foremost.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Project CARS series. Even though serious sim racing has never been my forte, I’ve always appreciated its expansive career mode and endless range of tracks. Its inclusion of kart racing was something that I especially loved, even if the constant whine of a kart engine isn’t for everyone.
The Project CARS series was something for people who loved oldschool racing games. Like the Shift series that Slightly Mad Studios built their studio name on, Project CARS was all about progressing through the grand spectacle of professional racing. You started from the bottom, racing what Australians would lovingly describe as “shitboxes on wheels” before working your way into bigger, faster races.
It was structurally very similar to the Forza Motorsport series, although Project CARS 2 had you picking the class of car you wanted to race, and working up from there. It’s very similar in Project CARS 3, although now you pick the car you want to start with and can upgrade it as you go along.
Unsurprisingly, some events and certain challenges require a certain class or breed of car. The preview build allowed reviewers to experience up to Road B in the career. What’s interesting is that you don’t have to progress through every stage individually — stages and challenges can be directly unlocked by paying credits, which are earnt through racing and in-game achievements.
If you are going through every stage solo, the career will take you through the Road series of vehicles before entering five classes of GT vehicles. There’s also invitational events and challenges, all of which opens up after winning particular or a certain series of events.
A main focus for Project CARS 3 in particular has been the gamepad experience. I spent a ton of time playing the original Project CARS with an Xbox controller, but the controls could be a little finnicky if you weren’t prepared to put in the hours. And that’s kind of always been the series’ problem. It wasn’t sim-like enough for the iRacing, Assetto Corza crowd, and not accessible enough for those who just wanted to pick up and drive.
Project CARS 3 is a lot better in that regard. Cars are less likely to oversteer now, although it’s worth noting that my experience has been locked to the earlier class of cars. Project CARS 3 doesn’t have the level of aggressive haptic feedback that you’d find in Codies’ F1 series, although I haven’t played either game with, say, an Xbox Elite Series 2 controller.
Visually, the game’s most reminiscent of the Forza Horizon series, with a stream of notifications appearing by default as you overtake, master a corner, overcome section times, and so on. The initial stages especially remind me a lot of GRID, where you’re pulling hot laps around nondescript cities until you earn enough credit to race on recognised courses like Brands Hatch and Oulton Park.
I miss the inclusion of kart racing — it reminded of classic ’90s games like Manic Karts or Superkarts — but Project CARS 3 is taking the right direction at the perfect time. In a world where COVID-19 has shut down or severely hamstrung global sport, virtual racing has found a surprisingly appreciative audience. And as people start to deal with the reality of rolling lockdowns, escapism has become increasingly valuable.
Project CARS 3 isn’t going to seriously challenge iRacing or rFactor 2 when it comes to its competitive structure. But it’s much better placed for people who have been stuck at home, looking for something to pass the time to replace the void left by their favourite motorsports. The pCARS 3 multiplayer experience has been reworked as well — there’s daily, weekly and monthly asymmetrical multiplayer events to compete in, along with multiplayer tiers so you can focus on steadily improving and competing against players in your rank, rather than just getting slaughtered by the most dedicated racers.
From the preview I’ve played, the game’s real strength lies in the ability to pick up a controller and play. That’s a little step away from the glorious, all encompassing simulation that the Project CARS series initially built its identity — and investor base — on. But in the current state of 2020, a lot of people could probably use an accessible racer more than one focused on the simulation crowd.
Project CARS 3 launches on August 28 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. The PC build will support 12K triple screens for those with dedicated racing setups, if that’s your thing.