There’s a unique sensation, familiar to people who switch from commercial operating systems to Linux, that I like to call the Linux Gap. At first, everything seems normal and logical; the pieces are in different places and have different names but they all do the same things. Then, you find a piece that’s just missing, or a design choice that puts one person’s pet peeve ahead of how the majority of people want to use the system. It’s a moment when you realize this software was built by committee, not crafted as a user experience, and that might be an enormous pain in the ass.
That, in a nutshell, is Project CARS. Thanks to how it was built, and who it was built for, you’ll experience the Linux Gap a lot, no matter how undeniably impressive the game is.
Project CARS (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Steam and Wii U version coming soon)
Project CARS was funded by selling coding tools to dedicated racing sim fans, who did the work and get a share of the profits, hence CARS: Community Assisted Racing Simulator. It was guided by Slightly Mad Studios, a developer specializing in racing games, but ultimately it was down to the nerds. How obsessed are these nerds? So obsessed that a few of them built a custom keyboard for this game.
Being as everything was curated by massive nerds willing to work on spec, and that it’s a racing game, which largely exist to be eye candy, it’s almost shockingly pretty. That said, you can see the seams, here and there; the rearview mirrors in particular have a ton of pop-in on the PS4, if you decide to use them.
The sound could also use a little more work; the music is spare and the audio is entirely shifting noises and engines revving. Similarly, it could also stand to be dialed back: The sim-like nature of the game means it’s loud, at least until you fiddle with the settings. And boy, can you fiddle with the settings; this game is rife with menus that let you tweak almost every conceivable piece, from lens flare to weather conditions.
Racing games aren’t noted for rocking the boat, and considering this was developed by racing sim nerds, don’t expect the game to get creative. It’s about driving ridiculously expensive cars very fast around lovingly crafted tracks that are note accurate. That’s all you’re getting.
In the actual playing… well, it’s a racing game. More specifically, it’s a sim, so you’ve got all the fishtailing and crashing and general screwing up you’ll go through if you don’t obsessively play racing sims. I’m not complaining: To me, this screwing-up process is actually a lot of fun and utterly hilarious, if a bit counter-intuitive if you’re used to more arcade-esque racing games. Eventually you’ll find a car and get in a groove: For me, it was discovering the go-karts and that I could take on big-boy racing tracks in what amounted to glorified lawnmowers. I went down US-1 in a go-kart, and I laughed myself sick the entire time.
I will say there are some odd issues with the physics, in the sense that sometimes you’ll spin out or roll straight into the guardrail, and unless you know how racecars work, you won’t understand how it happened. Nor will the game explain it to you, even though it will be happy to punish you for it by invalidating your lap time. But really, why should that be any different from the rest of it?
This is where that gap I was talking about comes in: If you are a casual racing fan, this game cannot stand you. It assumes that you’re familiar with the conventions of racing sims, and that you’ve got a wheel and pedals hooked up to the game. If you aren’t and you don’t, well… get ready to learn the hard way. The game explains nothing to you, even the most basic controls, which thankfully have a default layout similar to most games with cars.
For example, instead of the standard third-person view every racing game defaults to, this one’s in the first person. Only after scrolling through every conceivable camera view that is essentially useless to anybody not making YouTube videos will you actually find the third-person view. God help the gamer who foolishly thinks that going into the camera menu in the options will fix this problem, since you can’t change the view from there.
The entire game is rife with this kind of myopia. You can tweak the sensitivity of your thumbsticks and how the game looks when you pin the needle down to the fiddliest conceivable detail. But to find a car or a track, for example, you have to scroll through an enormous menu you can’t sort by any genuinely useful criteria, and you’ve got no way to compare one thing to anything else.
Worse, the information you do get is just raw numbers without context; the “info” tells you nothing about the handling, which in a racing game is everything. A car you choose might handle like a dream, or it might have all the aerodynamics of a brick on wheels; you won’t have any idea until you try it out. The game at least makes this easy… but there are dozens of cars to try, across dozens of tracks.
The track menu is, if anything, worse. Sure, you can look at tracks by geographical location. Whoop-de-doo; how about by miles or number of turns? How about difficulty? I’d never been so grateful to have spent too much time watching Top Gear.
On one level, I understand what happened. The racing sim gamer community is obsessive-compulsive even by the standards of nerds, and the console end of things has been annoyed for years that they can’t fiddle and fuss the way their PC cohorts can. So, they made a game, for consoles, where you can fiddle and fuss to your heart’s content. In the process, they forgot about the people who just want to race digital cars and have fun doing it.
If you like racing, this has pretty much every conceivable permutation of track, car, weather condition, you name it, that you could possibly want. Similarly, the career mode is absurdly detailed, to the point where the game sends you email you have to check to progress, so if you get sucked into that, you could probably spend years on this game.
That said, the complete lack of local multiplayer, all because racing sim fans like their cars at 60fps, hamstrings one of the key features in racing games, playing against your friends. At least give us the option, for crying out loud.
At least one of their pet peeves is addressed in a way any gamer can appreciate: There’s no track DLC, you aren’t stuck on a handful of tracks until you unlock the rest, and you don’t have to wait to unlock any cars, either. It’s all here, right from the start, and no matter what you want to do, you can do it. Want to tackle the Nurburgring in a Mercedes crossover in the middle of a terrible rainstorm? Feel free!
In a way, it’s a shame Project CARS didn’t take the time to be a little more user-friendly. When you race, it’s fun, and it’s designed to let you customize it right down to the tire marks. But an inability to see the forest for the trees ultimately hampers it for all but the narrow segment of gamers it was built for.