Project Cars 3 review - an effective new direction for the broadest racing series around
Project Cars 3 is an odd one. As it's ever been with this series, really - Slightly Mad by name, totally bonkers by nature you might say of the developer - but this third outing for one of the the most expansive racing games on the market is the wackiest yet, jettisoning sim staples such as tire wear and fuel usage for something that's laser-focussed on the Forza Motorsport crowd. So is it a sim or isn't it? After a couple of dozen hours with it, I'm not entirely sure myself, and fairly certain I don't really care - whatever this is, it's an awful lot more fun than its predecessors.
It's still every bit as funky, in its own way, but the first thing you'll need to know is that Project Cars 3 properly addresses the inconsistent handling that's blighted the series from its inception. How it goes about that might not be to everyone's taste - Project Car 3's generous cast of automobiles are overstated things with a tendency towards oversteer that can be quickly and easily caught by a handful of opposite lock - but having spent so much time with past games tinkering with deadzones and sensitivity options it's most certainly to mine. These things are a pleasure to drive rather than a pain.
It's such a fundamental fix that its importance can't really be overstated, but before getting carried away I should probably tell you about what's gone on elsewhere, because it's quite something. Playing Project Cars 3 is like taking in whatever's in your front drive for a basic fix, only for the mechanics to go overboard and throw in some underfloor lighting and swapping out the rear seats for a pair of subwoofers. It's unexpected, yet I still ended up loving it.
Maybe it's something to do with Reiza taking the Madness Engine to make the brilliant Automobilista 2 earlier this year - as pure a sim as has come out this year - freeing Slightly Mad Studios to take Project Cars 3 in a new direction that's got more in common with DriveClub than it has rFactor. To my surprise, it works. This is essentially a hardcore arcade racing game, sort of akin to the TOCA Race Driver games of old as it wraps up the wide world of motorsport in something that's approachable to all.
Oh, and it's a lot like Forza Motorsport too. Project Cars 3's career feels like it's been lifted from Microsoft's series back in its pomp, as you start in a humble roadcar before splashing the cash you earn in short class-based races on upgrades to turn that same car into a tarmac-devouring, race ready beast. Except it feels like it might have also been dropped on the floor in the process.
The menus are an utter shambles, there's at least one too many XP systems, the AI's erratic and there's a scruffiness to it all - from the occasional glitching texture to dumb details and oversights such as the South England Duo Championship that takes you to Kent's Lydden Hill and, er, Leicestershire's Donington Park. This doesn't have the polish of something like Gran Turismo or Forza, and it's full of the sort of rough edges that'll be familiar to those who've played previous Project Cars.
Yet for all those rough edges it works, the ability to tool up a street car is as compelling as it's ever been and complemented by one-off events with a good sense of humour (there's a race around an icebound Oschersleben in vintage Lotus Formula Fords that's absolutely savage) all held together by a handling model that's always involving. In its move away from exacting simulation, it's also managed to gain a bit more authenticity too - I'm pretty sure Project Cars 3 is the only racing game that lets you slap a set of proper Pirelli P-Zeros or Michelin Pilot Sports on your car, those licenses perhaps easier to come by when the tires here are magical, everlasting things that don't degrade like they might in other racing games.
And authenticity is something that Project Cars 3 excels at, with plenty of details that have sent my motorsport-loving heart soaring more than a few times in the past few days. Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo might have a bit more polish, but they haven't - as just one example among many in this most generous of games - got anything like the selection of Porsches available here. There's the 935 in every guise, from Moby Dick through to the modern-day take, and more often than not they're available in the proper livery too. I've taken Hurley Haywood's Brumos Porsche 911 RSR around the Daytona road course it conquered in 1974's 24 Hours, and have sploshed around a recreation of classic Silverstone, where Woodcote's the only chicane, in Vic Elford's Porsche 917K. This might not be as arduous a simulation as some other driving games, but I was too busy grinning from ear to ear the whole time to really care.
And I've only just started. Where else can you take Jim Clark's Lotus Climax for a jaunt around Cadwell Park in the pouring rain, or see the sun set over Monza as you explore the differences between the Lotus 49 and its winged cousin the 49C? (Forgive the fixation on Norfolk's finest, but I'm a bit of a fan and Project Cars 3 probably does better by Colin Chapman and his marvellous machines than any other game I've played thanks to a partnership with Classic Team Lotus, and if you've more modern tastes there's even the forthcoming Evija hypercar).
Project Cars' breadth has long been its strength, and at long last it's something that's a pleasure to engage with. The series' sim status sometimes sat a bit awkwardly, and its cars were certainly awkward to handle, but I never considered it might work better like this. Be warned that it's still a Project Cars game, with moments of inelegance as commonplace as its moments of beauty. With its reinvention as a brash arcade racer, though, it feels like the series might just have found its true calling.