London based Slightly Mad Studios hit the mainstream with Need for Speed: Shift and its sequel Shift 2: Unleashed, but the studio has roots in the hardcore simulation world in a way that might not be immediately obvious. Before turning "Slightly Mad", the team operated under the banner of Blimey Games, responsible for developing SimBin's much applauded GTR 2.
The appeal of the Shift series was the driving experience - albeit for different reasons than in "real" driving simulators, as the game tried to model what the driver feels inside his helmet while taking corners at 200 km/h. The cockpit experience, if you will. But where the game let down many sim fanatics was the actual contact between the track and tyres. When reviewing Shift 2: Unleashed I said that if one could combine its strong immersion with the highly accurate physics model of, say, the Forza Motorsport series, we could have the perfect racing game on our hands.
Perhaps Slightly Mad Studios had greater ambitions for the Shift games. Maybe they wanted it to be a proper heavy duty simulator, but publisher EA wanted to keep it approachable to the mass market and in line with the Need for Speed brand. Six months after Shift 2: Unleashed launched, Slightly Mad announced the development of a new driving simulator. This time, the aim wasn't to produce a game meant to be pitched to a publisher, but instead to directly connect with the fanbase via the beautiful new world of crowdfunding.
They set the bar unbelievably high. Slightly Mad Studios envisaged that the new simulator would cover all forms of motorsport from karting to GT to formula racing. In the single player career, the idea is to climb up from smaller to larger classes, while in multiplayer you can team up with a friend or even form clans. You can supposedly also create your own decals and tune-ups.
It's all powered by a cutting edge DirectX 11 game engine supporting varying weather conditions, dynamic day and night cycles and detailed physics. The team is even getting advice from a real race driver Ben Collins, who was The Stig for seven years.
For a crowdfunded game, it's not unsual to get to play beta versions early, but Project Cars takes this one step further.
From the very beginning Slightly Mad has periodically released a playable development build of the game, offering their backers an opportunity to discuss and provide feedback every step along the way. The community has also been listened to - for example, the game was originally to be ported to the PS3 and Xbox 360, but the community voted it's better not to split resources between the two generations, but to focus on PC and next-gen instead.
This alone makes for a rather interesting project. But how is it panning out? Is it able to challenge more traditionally developed racing sims?
I must confess that I was disappointed with the first versions of Project CARS. The physics model seemed somewhat sticky, a little too much Shift-like, and the fancy graphics brought frame rates down in an instant. That was, however, a couple of years ago and the game - as well as the technology - has improved markedly since.
The latest build released early in January is finally catching up with the early promises. The physics have made a giant leap forward. If the feel was comparable to Shift before, now it resembles GTR much more.
Still, many of the good points of Shift remain. The car modelling is as beautiful as ever, the tracks aren't completely clinical in their look and feel and same old helmet camera which turns to look at corner apexes can be found here as well. Heck, even the sound effects kick ass.
As expected from a PC sim, the game is filled with little switches and settings you can fiddle around with. Whether it's the wipers or headlights, or the height of the bench inside the cockpit, it's all there.
In the garage you'll be checking tyre pressures in bars and tilt angles in degrees. HUD elements can be moved and turned on or off. There are so many camera views that they are divided into distinct groups. The race can be set up virtually any time of the day (or night), in any weather, with time progressing in real time as you race around. Practice, qualifying and warm-up sessions? Just enable them if you like.
The game is somewhat playable with a game pad, but Project Cars bursts into full bloom with a good steering wheel. The use of force feedback is commendable, and it will tell you exactly how the G-forces and trackside bumps are influencing the car. The wheel doesn't play dead even while idling or running on long straights. Engine vibrations can be felt, and if you don't hold it steady at top speeds, twitchier cars such as formulas may spin out of control.
One potential Achilles' heel is the scarcity of licenses. Understandably, a crowdfunded project does not have enough moolah to buy the most expensive automobile or track rights, but Slightly Mad Studios seems to have found at least a partial detour around this problem. There's plenty of tracks to choose from, from American ovals to F1 classics, but the way the tracks are named is a bit funny. For example, Spa is Belgian Forest, Suzuka is Sakitto, Silverstone is Northampton and Hockenheim is Badenring. Brands Hatch is surprisingly called Brands Hatch.
Unusual names also appear in sponsor decals, which are imitations of the genuine ones. But, fortunately, the cars themselves are a real deal. To give you a few examples, you'll be racing Gumpert Apollo, BMW Z4 and Lotus 49 which toured F1 tracks in the 1960s. The number of cars is by no means a challenge to Forza or Gran Turismo, but if every vehicle has authentic characteristics, it's enough for this type of game.
The developers still have some work to do to polish the product from a promising racing title to a perfect one. Minor bugs and UI mishaps are not hard to spot, and some of the cars seem to be further along the development curve than others. The game's AI is definitely a work-in-progress. On some tracks computer-controlled opponents crash and spin like there's no tomorrow, but where the AI works, it seems tough but fair.
Crashes are another area of concern. The game engine is able to model damage by crushing metal and chopping away wings, but the way cars touch each other is almost tragicomically clumsy at this stage. I honestly saw dozens of rivals taking a skyward road and flipping over during my 6-hour test session.
These are, however, issues that can be polished off. It is too early to say how immersive the game's career and season modes will be, because they're still largely missing. I would hope they don't structurize the game too much by locking the cars as a simulator really doesn't need a forced progression system like that. It's already been a pleasure to time trial around many circuits, and if Slightly Mad Studios manages to fine tune the racing experience while adding a solid multiplayer component, Project CARS will have a good chance to stay ahead of the pack for a long time.
In any case, the competition in the simulation genre is clearly heating up - and it's a good thing. The old veterans will have to face not only Project Cars this year, but also the Italian Assetto Corsa, so there's no shortage of options for racing enthusiasts.