As a development house that built its name on attempting to deliver a realistic driving experience on consoles and PC, Slightly Mad Studios was building momentum over the release of the first two games in its Project Cars franchise. Somewhere along the way after Project Cars 2 hit shelves, it would appear that the studio went slightly mad. In early 2019, they announced the development of their own gaming console, the Mad Box, to compete with Sony and Microsoft. After the initial reveal of the Mad Box and some incredibly optimistic claims about its potential performance, news on the project went silent, and Slightly Mad Studios was acquired by Codemasters in late 2019. Nearly a year later, Project Cars 3 is here and may not be the game series fans were hoping for.
The starting grid
While a passion for bringing the feel of real driving to players may have been the aim of the first two Project Cars games, the third entry has yanked the handbrake and drifted hard into the arcade style. Driving for the sake of improving lap times or mastering circuits kind of went out the window in favor of an uneven career mode that focuses on passing arbitrary challenges and looking cool. Not that arcade-style racing games are bad (I find myself smitten with the great ones), but Project Cars 3 feels unfocused to the point of frustration at times.
Unlike its predecessors, you start out with a single vehicle that is granted after completion of the opening tutorial. You will have the option of participating in customized one-off events early on, but they won’t offer much value as all the cars are locked behind career mode progression. Strangely enough, all the circuits seem to be available from the outset. The initial events of the career mode are incredibly short and task the player with meeting objectives listed on the event poster. These objectives range from mastering corners to passing opponents to winning races and more. New events are gated behind fixed numbers of these objectives that have been completed.
Working through the objectives isn’t particularly difficult in most cases, but they never feel engaging or rewarding. Mastering a corner consists of driving your car over floating icons on the asphalt that indicate braking points, the apex of the turn, and the optimal positioning for the turn’s exit. Actually mastering said turn appears to be optional as opposed to just getting near the icons. Simply drifting over the icons triggers completion and what was clearly intended to teach beginner drivers some of the basics of racing fails at its only goal.
Not that the basics of racing will matter much for progression or winning because actually trying to race the AI opponents is incredibly difficult and often the opposite way to move through the pack. You are much better off just dive-bombing every turn or treating opponents like bumper cars. They certainly aren’t trying to race in the traditional sense. On the off-chance that a player would actually bear down and try to cleanly race to victory, the 2-3 lap event lengths ensure that you’ll have no chance at all to win. As the event qualifying from the previous games has been removed, you will be starting at the back of the grid constantly.
The menus and UI in Project Cars 3 get a big-time makeover and now look like something out of a late-2000s Need for Speed or mobile game. I’d certainly buy the argument that they are more of a fit for the arcadey experience that Slightly Mad is pushing for, but this kind of look only works when the rest of the game shares a similar aesthetic. All the tracks are making return appearances from Project Cars 2 and look almost exactly the same as they do in real life. It makes sense for a sim-focused approach, but when mixed with neon menus and giant XP bars, these iconic racing circuits feel out of place. The menus make it seem like car customization is a big part of the experience when, in reality, only paint swaps, wheel swaps, and some decals are available to apply to your car. Most other arcade racers offer more in-depth approaches to making a car your own.
That’s not to say that everything is amiss. The physics engine that powered the first two Project Cars games is still hiding underneath the new paint job and is capable of providing a good time when the structure of the career mode isn’t trying to wreck it into a barrier. Slightly Mad promised a new focus on controller input and the work has paid off. Many of the cars in the game offer a solid driving feel in dry conditions and there is a learning curve that rewards time investment with additional speed. Sadly, there are some weird instances where things make no sense. Driving on curbs appears to carry a speed penalty that goes against what every other driving game has instilled in me over the years. The wonderful wet track modeling from Project Cars 2 also appears to have been oversimplified to the point that any amount of moisture equals a coating of Crisco on the pavement.
There are times when I think that Project Cars 3 looks much worse graphically than Project Cars 2, yet other times when I’m not sure. I’m sure some of my apprehension towards the visual presentation may be the result of an art direction or color timing change, but everything feels less impressive than it did back in 2017 when I reviewed the previous game. The game did not run any smoother on my PC than Project Cars 2 and at times really began to chug. Inclement weather and multiple cars on camera are guaranteed to humble even the beefiest of hardware configurations. The PC version lacks the dynamic resolution option found in the console versions, which could have helped keep things smoother on the tracks. The lack of HDR is a disappointment considering the push for bright neons and heavy contrast. VR support returns but the expensive options and adjustments available in Project Cars 2 did not all make the journey to the new game.
The sound design could possibly be the biggest kick in the gut for returning fans of the series. Unleashing the sounds of the engines seems to have taken a backseat to just about everything else, even when you are in the cockpit camera view. Noises related to objective progression, weather effects, and more constantly cause engine sounds to be lowered in volume, removing some of the pleasure of driving the million-dollar supercars. One sound that won’t drown out the engine revs is high-speed contact with walls or other cars, which seem to be absent most of the time. The damage modeling from Project Cars 2 has been removed in the name of providing an arcade-style experience, but it seems like that crunching sounds of buckling metal also went with it. The decidedly late-90’s techno soundtrack fails at evoking nostalgia because it feels just as out of place as the rest of the design choices.
I feel like some of the resentment I’m feeling towards Project Cars 3 could be alleviated if it provided returning players the option to customize the experience back towards its sim-focused origins. The systems for tire wear, fuel management, or even pit stops are all gone. This would be understandable if the overwhelming majority of the content in the game was not real-life tracks and race cars that feel like they were copy/pasted into an Asphalt 9: Legends clone. Even the copying of content from the previous game got borked, as the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans tracks from Project Cars 2 somehow failed to make the cut. Most modern arcade racers have shifted to open-world designs that play up to the things that make the casual style of play fun. Adding techno, neon XP bars, and a 2-lap event length to Laguna Seca doesn’t result in a satisfying arcade-style experience.
While my disappointing experience with Project Cars 3 is clearly colored by my familiarity and enjoyment of the first two entries in the series, I tried to have a good time and managed to find it every once in a while. The guts of a good driving game are clearly here, but the total lack of cohesion in design will likely be off-putting to many in the casual audience Slightly Mad is gunning for. Fans who were committed to the first two games and were hoping the third outing would be the culmination of a decade worth of development towards simulation racing will be frustrated. Project Cars 3 is the first game to feature the all-new 8th generation Corvette, a car that driving enthusiasts were itching to get their hands on. It is used in the opening tutorial where its grand first impression is wasted on a two-lap quagmire of bad AI drivers and garish UI popups. Maybe that Mad Box console will come out one day and make things better. 5/10 missed shifts
This review is based on the PC Steam release. The game key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. Project Cars 3 is available now for PC, Xbox One, and PS4.
Project CARS 3
- Returns all the cars from the previous game + new additions
- Improved controller handling
- VR support
- Underlying physics remain solid
- Feels like two different games stapled together
- Uninspired career mode with poor event structure
- Missing iconic circuits from the previous game
- Graphical downgrade and poor audio presentation
- AI drivers hamper racing experience
Chris Jarrard posted a new article, Project Cars 3 review: Perfect for nobody
Ouch. Yeah, I was expecting SMS to totally botch this up. That company has absolutely no direction.
I wonder whether it was SMS themselves who thought it was a good idea to turn PCars into some kind of an arcade racer, or Codemasters had that idea. What about Codemaster's Grid series, which is thematically basically identical to that of PCars 3? Did Codemasters want SMS to grow into making the future Grid games?
Amazing what adding a marketing group to a game does.