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Game review: Project CARS 3 (PC/VR)

08 Sep 2020

Slightly Mad Games, fresh from their sale to Codemasters, bring us the third entry in the Project CARS motor racing franchise.

As Project CARS 3 loaded, I got the same feeling wash over me as I do with most annually iterative sports game. I knew Project CARS 3 would be different to its predecessor, but just how different? And would those differences warrant the purchase of the latest game, especially if players have invested in the DLC for the previous game?

If you’ve played a Project CARS game in the past, you will be aware that the games don’t take prisoners. They’ve been more of a racing simulator than something that you can just pick up and play, like Codemasters’ Grid, for instance.

The first Project CARS game was pretty much unplayable without a racing wheel. Things got better for gamepad drivers with the second game, but it was still pretty unforgiving. 
Other than a new front end, some tweaks to the car physics and a visual polish-up. At first glance Project CARS 3 seems a lot like Project CARS 2. But it isn’t.

Project CARS 3 has loosened things up a little - which is likely to upset the hardcore racing fans. Instead of spending hours tinkering and tuning a car in order to keep it on the track whist racing, players can now, pretty much, pick up a controller and race to victory. 

From my point-of-view, the car physics seem a little more refined than in the past. Whether this sacrifices realism, I’ve no idea, as I’ve never driven around a race track at 100mph. I certainly found the racing to be a lot more enjoyable this time out.

The game features a huge number of circuits, 51 locations in total, many with multiple variations. Long time Project Cars players will recognise most of these and, indeed, played for them before as DLC for the previous games.  

There are some omissions, I noted that there are no kart tracks (nor are there any karts this time). This is a bit of a shame because I enjoyed kart racing in VR in PC2. But there are plenty of other cars to choose from, including loads of open tops, which are particularly good in VR.

The game features over 200 licenced cars to race at launch. There’s everything from a Honda Civic to a Ferrari Testa Rosa. There’s hot hatches and supercars. Classic to modern open-wheel racing cars. There is a career mode, online multiplayer Rivals challenges and custom races. 

Progress in the Project CARS 3 career mode is achieved one of two ways. You race and win money to unlock other races and buy cars, or you complete race challenges and earn stars for unlocking races. It’s a bit weird, to be honest. You’d think that winning races would be the primary driver for advancement.

Multiplayer allows players to jump into quick races, sign up for scheduled events or enter a custom lobby. Be prepared to come in last. Rivals races are challenges that are time limited, which if successful has players award points which are totalled up on a leaderboard against other players.

Quick event is really only a customised single race. The circuit, cars, time of day track conditions and two weather types can be selected. The game features the same fantastic dynamic weather and time of day effects as previous iterations. You can have a lot of fun setting up custom races. For instance, I set up a race around Bathurst’s Mount Panorama circuit with Formula E racing cars, but during blizzard conditions, with snow on the ground. I’d imagine Bathurst doesn’t get much snow in real life. 

The game’s massive number of cars, a huge number of tracks, amazing weather and time of day effects are all, however, really under-utilised. The lack of a custom multi-race championship, qualifying and practice sessions is a missed opportunity. Indeed, the removal of the pits, tyre wear and fuel consideration are similarly peculiar.   

Where Project CARS 3 really excels is in its implementation of virtual reality. Players with a compatible SteamVR headset will be able to totally immerse themselves in the racing experience. And it is sublime.

I played the game using an HTC Vive Cosmos with the tracking mod and my lighthouse base stations. This gave me pinpoint accuracy in the VR space. I used a Thrustmaster T300RS racing wheel and pedal kit to really feel like I was behind the wheel of a racing car.

To be fair, I could have tinkered with the visual settings to better optimise the display for VR, but even with 10 opponents on the track, the VR performance was still very good. It’s very difficult to convey the VR experience that Project CARS 3 affords players. You are there, sitting in the driving seat of a racing car. Racing with an open-topped car is amazing. The more forgiving racing physics make the VR game even more fun with better control for breathtaking slides around corners.  

I reviewed Project CARS 3 on a powerhouse of a gaming rig, to get the most out of the game. The review rig runs an Intel Core i9 10900K, 32GB of DDR4-3200 RAM and an Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti. You may need to lower some of the settings to keep your framerates up, but as long as your machine is within the recommended specification, you should be OK.

Whilst I still found the game very enjoyable, I have to wonder what Slightly Mad/Codemasters were thinking with Project CARS 3. With Codemasters having F1 (F1 2020), hardcore rally (Dirt Rally), casual rally (Dirt) and casual racer (Grid) all sewn up, you’d think there was a space for the Project CARS franchise as a hardcore racing sim. Instead, the game, really, occupies the same space as Codemasters’ Grid games.

I can see many fans of PC1 and PC2 being very disappointed with Project CARS 3 toning down the tuning, removing pitstops and generally moving away from being a racing sim. Being pragmatic, and ignoring the game’s title, personally I think that the game is a lot more fun than its predecessors. 

It’s less frustrating and the VR is amazing but, arguably, it is Project CARS 3 in name only. But players that have previously been put off by the technical nature of the previous games, should give Project CARS 3 a go. Racing sim fans can, if they feel they must, stick with Project CARS 2, which still holds its own.  

Verdict (2D): 8/10
Verdict (VR): 9.5/10