First off, the good news. Actually, make that great news - at the third attempt, Slightly Mad Studios has finally got pad handling in Project Cars feeling absolutely brilliant out of the box. It's now possible to make Project Cars 3's impressive roster of cars really dance, and do so without ever feeling out of control - they tend towards the lairy, but any insolence is quickly seen to by putting your boot down and applying a turn or two of opposite lock.
It's good news because it means at last players can enjoy everything that makes Project Cars really shine. There's the tracklist that takes in esoteric locales such as Cadwell Park and Knockhill, while folding in well-known classics, historic venues such as Rouen and a few fictional ones besides (there have been a few casualties of licensing deals this time out, with Le Mans and Spa seemingly absent - I'm awaiting confirmation on that - but Interlagos steps in alongside the Porsche test track in Leipzig and a handful of new city backdrops).
There's dynamic weather that has you racing in sunshine one moment before a downpour has you sloshing around in puddles the next - and all the while Project Cars 3 looks beautiful. It's an immensely impressive audiovisual experience, the cars' barking that little bit meaner, their bodywork that little bit shinier. It is, on first impression, an absolute blast, and as close to being a Forza-beater as it's ever been.
And being a Forza beater really feels like something Project Cars 3 is dead set on. You'll probably have seen the headline changes already - Project Cars 3 does away with things like tyre wear, fuel usage and pit stops as it moves firmly away from sim territory and into something a bit more approachable. It's there too in the campaign that feels like it's been lifted wholesale from vintage era Forza Motorsport, where you're acquiring a collection of your own rides, upgrading modest sportscars to trackday beasts and beyond and being rewarded with XP at every step.
Which is all fine and dandy, but judging from the first few hours at least it's sometimes an awkward fit. The AI is cruelly fast, even on lower settings - or maybe the cruel truth is I'm too damn slow - which often makes the racing feel punitive and punishing rather than pleasant, and it's not helped by the lack of a rewind button that's pretty much de rigueur in more open-armed racing games. All of which makes progression feel painfully slow.
It's not helped, either, by a weird quirk of the handling that makes cars feel far too similar to each other. A criticism often levelled at Project Cars 2 was the inconsistency of its handling across its roster, with some cars feeling fantastic and others needing to be dialled in. The problem now, it seems on initial impressions, is it's all a bit too consistent. I took a road-going Supra, a Group 44 Jaguar and a Group C Nissan R89C on a back-to-back track test, and they all felt eerily alike, be that on pad or on a wheel - get into trouble with any of them and it's remedied with the same dose of heavy right foot and a dash of opposite lock, suggesting that the sense of individual character for each car has been lost somewhere.
In fairness, though, it's a problem that Forza Motorsport itself has to some degree, and maybe that's the price you have to pay when creating a racing game that's got its eyes set on a broader audience, as Project Cars 3 most definitely has. It results in a slightly odd feeling game, and it'll be interesting to see how it comes into focus the more hours I spend with it. Right now, though, I'm pleased they've got the pad handling sorted out of the box - it's just that there's a few other things you might have to end up tweaking if you're looking to get the experience you want out of Project Cars 3.
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