Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4 , PC (reviewed)

Slightly Mad Studios could have saved themselves a whole lot of trouble if they called this game something other than Project Cars 3. They could’ve gone with Project Cars: Shift or Project Grid or even Vroom Vroom Colorful. Because while this is a decent simcade racing game, its fundamental DNA has changed enough that it’s not really a Project Cars game as we come to know them.

A more accessible racing game

The hardcore Project Cars fan base is ferociously mad about this. And they have good reason to be. SMS removed pit stops, tire wear, and fuel consumption. Car damage is cosmetic but not mechanical. The race weekend event structure is gone. No more 30 minutes of practice, 10 minutes of qualifying, and 30 minutes of racing. Key elements of hardcore sim racing are gone.

But it’s absolutely baffling that they would permanently remove so many features that appeal to hardcore players. Leave these options off by default, for new players, and let hardcore racers worry about tire wear and fuel consumption. Let us do qualifying laps in single-player if we want to. (Note - the timed multiplayer events still have qualifying laps, similar to Gran Turismo Sport.)

Sim racing has always been an experience dictated by a “build your own experience” set of options - traction control, anti-lock braking, steering assist, braking assist, driving line, etc. Why not let us build an experience that would make us happy?

The Project Cars name is built on the enthusiasm and engagement of the hardcore sim racing community. It began as a crowdfunded project wherein contributors actually saw a return on their investment. CARS actually stood for “Community Assisted Racing Simulator”. The enthusiasm and financial investment of this fanbase lifted SMS up. It’s not necessary to abandon us to court beginners.

Now each single-player event is a bite-sized morsel consisting of just a few laps, wherein you try to push from the back of the grid to the front. Unfortunately, being able to push from the back of the grid to the front requires the AI to be dumb.

AI was never Project Cars’ strong point, and making the AI dumber hasn’t improved the racing experience. In some car classes and tracks, you can blast past the AI with barely any effort at all. But the AI doesn’t seem to have to slow down in wet conditions, nor does it need to shift. This is a ridiculous kludge that makes a bad situation worse. You end up with an AI that’s either too fast or too slow to be interesting. Given PC3’s emphasis on single player experience, that’s inexcusable.

SMS’ goal was to make sim racing more accessible to the masses and ease them into the experience. It places floating markers along the track to indicate where you should brake, turn, hit the apex, and accelerate. The racing line is a good assist, but without an existing understanding of racing, it doesn’t effectively communicate the structure of “brake, turn, apex, accelerate.” This is a cool system, and if you don’t want to see these icons, they’re easy to turn off.

This feature is useful, and it also works well with the quickplay multiplayer functionality. The quickplay throws you into a race immediately, in a track that you may never have seen before, in a car you may or may not be familiar with. The icons give you a fighting chance in a situation like this.

That being said, it’s still a little too quick to reward me with a “Perfect Corner!” rating when I know that I left time on the table. Assetto Corsa Competizione measures your cornering speed and skill better, but is a more hardcore sim that’s harder to approach for newcomers. This is a good idea that feels rushed, which is the whole vibe I get from PC3; it needed six more months in development before they released it and asked us for $60.

Improvements

But it’s not all bad news.

Project Cars 2’s force feedback (FFB) was inconsistent and hard to deal with. Some cars, like the undriveable Honda Civic, were completely dead, with no force feedback at all. Users created custom FFB settings but they never felt as good as Assetto Corsa Competizione or iRacing did straight out of the box.

Project Cars 3 has improved the FFB, and its performance is more consistent throughout the range of cars I’ve tried. I can tell when I’m about to lose rear traction and when I need to save myself from spinning out. Its physics engine performance also feels more consistent. When I spin out, it feels like the result of user error, not the physics engine deciding to screw me over. However, my warm feelings about the physics engine may simply be due to better communication via my FFB wheel.

SMS claims that it improved the pad control, but I can’t really speak to that to be honest. Since I got my wheel, racing on a pad has always felt hateful to me, no matter what game I was playing. That being said, it feels about as good as Forza Horizon 4, if that helps you make a decision about it.

The graphics have been maligned as a step backwards compared to Project Cars 2. My PC exceeds the hefty recommended specifications (i7-8700k, 16GB RAM, RTX 2070) and runs in 4K and it looks... okay, I guess? The inside of the cars and the external environment look rougher than Project Cars 2 for sure.

At Ultra with most bells and whistles turned on, I can manage about 40fps. Once I turn reflections and a few other things down, I can manage a pretty steady 60fps. If reports online are to be believed, console players are having a much rougher time of it.

The graphics are high contrast and a bit gaudy, but it’s definitely not the worst racing game I’ve ever seen. However, that’s a damning assessment for a just-released marquee title. I don’t show up to racing games for the graphics, but compared to its competition, Project Cars 3’s visuals fall into a weird middle ground. It’s not as beautiful as Forza Horizon 4 and it’s a bit too glossy to be a hardcore racer.

Teach a driver to apex, and they’ll race for life

Project Cars 2 changed my life. I played it in 2017 and it was the beginning of a love affair with sim racing. Before PC2, my racing genre experience consisted of running from the cops in Grand Theft Auto and slinging blue shells in Mario Kart. I didn’t know my Ferraris from my Lotuses or my RWD from my FR. But I loved how difficult PC2 was, how much discipline it demanded, and how it refused to reward me for mediocrity.

My interest in racing games grew when I played Gran Turismo Sport, whose easier-to-handle physics created a much more approachable experience. I was obsessed with GTS and picked up my own racing wheel (the Thrustmaster T300RS) in 2018 to enhance my experience. Today, I play racing sims more than I play any other genre of game.

Hardcore sim racing is, by its very nature, a very technical game genre, and most of its top titles have no interest in holding your hand through the process of learning how to race (Hell, iRacing doesn’t even care if you fully understand its complicated menus).

It’s a genre that assumes existing proficiency and prior knowledge while featuring physics engines that punish you for ignorance. It’s very intimidating to new players, and keeps our hobby niche. In a way, that’s cool - devs have to compete by being the most realistic, the most challenging, with the best AI and multiplayer experience. We don’t settle for less, and the best games in the genre are truly fantastic.

But the call of real life takes people away from gaming every year. Kids, jobs, and the impending end of the world all compete with sim racing for your attention every day. Every gaming community needs new blood to replenish itself. Without it, age and attrition reduce your numbers faster than you can replenish them.

The fighting game community realized this a few years back, and developers responded with exciting, deep games like GranBlue Fantasy Versus that proved to be both accessible and financially successful. And that didn’t keep more complicated games like Guilty Gear from getting sequels. Meanwhile, classic franchises like Tekken got newbie-friendly auto combos that are easy for experienced players to ignore if they want.

The sim racing community needs games that teach new players how to race. Project Cars 2 changed my life, but a game that eased me into the hobby would’ve helped me get better, faster. Project Cars 3 makes a decent attempt at this. Its single-player mode pushes you to learn the basics of racing, the “outside / inside / outside” of approaching corners, when to brake, and when to accelerate. The physics have enough heft to provide consequences for overcooking your turns, while the cars feel different enough to teach you how different kinds of cars require different skills to drive well.

It’s not perfect. There are myriad ways it could’ve been a better teaching tool. It needed a better AI. Its hot lap challenges shouldn’t have stopped you after only a few laps, forcing you to navigate a menu screen to start practicing again. Maybe it shouldn’t be quite so forgiving when it comes to drifting. Its icon-based guidance system should’ve timed cornering and compared it to your car’s stats to see if your technique was really improving. And it should’ve left tire wear, fuel consumption, damage, and pit stops in as an option for new players to grow into.

Project Cars 3 tries to be everything to everyone and fails at that. But with a few tweaks, it could get a lot closer to achieving its goal. It’s cool to hate on Project Cars 3 right now, and if you have a PS4, Gran Turismo Sport may teach you everything PC3 could, while providing an overall much more polished experience.

New players should watch PC3 closely and see how patches improve the experience over the next few months. More experienced drives can hop into a custom event, use any track and any car, turn off all the assists, and enjoy the improved FFB for a few laps.

And if that doesn’t sound like your jam, Automobilista 2 is waiting for you, and it proves that the Madness Engine can provide an excellent hardcore sim experience with consistent physics and great FFB. As a side note: I think AMS2 is actually better than Project Cars 2 and was crafted with more care in terms of how its cars and tracks feel. If you’re feeling that sim itch, pick it up instead.

Beneath all the arcade gloss, SMS wants to ease new players into sim racing. That’s an admirable urge, but newcomers deserve a better teacher. I want to like this game, but it makes too many missteps for me to recommend it wholeheartedly, especially at a full price of $60.