In October last year the guys behind Project Cars revealed that the game, which had been scheduled for release on 21 November 2014, would be delayed into 2015 ‘to avoid competition.’ We were disappointed at the time, as the slew of gorgeous screenshots and dramatic gameplay footage had left us eager to get behind the virtual wheel of the crowdfunded racing game.
Last week Bandai Namco Games UK, the game’s distributer, invited me to their London headquarters for an advance preview of the game. The team were keen to stress that this is not the final code, which is a good job, as there are a number of bugs that need to be ironed out before the game hits shelves on 17 March in the US and 20 March in Europe.
While there are a number of rough edges, there’s no doubt the game is gorgeous. Here’s what I learned after a few hours with the preview code:
You know all those screenshots you’ve seen with beautifully-modelled cars racing around picture-perfect race tracks? They’re not the figment of some Photoshop expert’s imagination - the game really does look that good.
When you’re racing on a sunny day the colours are a little bit cartoon-bright, but particularly when the weather turns a grey or the sun begins to set, the atmosphere the game creates really does suck you into the game world.
I love ‘grip’ racing in games, and normally learning braking zones and nailing every apex racing in the dry is my idea of fun, but I can’t help myself chucking the rain settings up to full-whack in this game. It’s simply beautiful - the way the rain runs across the cars’ bodywork, the way water sits on the track, the moody clouds in the sky - everything is just cooler in the wet.
The settings allow you to have changing conditions throughout a race, and when the rain stops a dry line begins to appear with puddles remaining on certain sections of tarmac. Very cool.
In general racing, your opposition’s artificial intelligence is quite impressive. In most games the AI feels like it’s on rails, with algorithms occasionally ‘randomly’ deciding it’s time to take a trip to the gravel trap. Although it’s cool to see AI’s making mistakes, it just feels a little fake. Project Cars’ AI seems to genuinely be aware of what you’re up to, giving you space when needed or diving up the inside if you leave a gap.
That being said, it seems to struggle with other computer-controlled opponents. You can specify a ridiculous number of cars on track, but when things get narrow and they’re all trying to fit into the same space they all hit the brakes and everything slows to a crawl.
That brings me neatly onto another frustrating point. The collisions in the game are truly awful. When you’re rubbing and bumping your car seems to be knocked about in an oddly random way. Worst of all are heavy shunts - at one point I was busy chatting to the PR rep and distractedly straight-lined a chicane, T-boning another car. It immediately flipped upside down. And I mean immediately. It took maybe a frame or two to go from four wheels to landing on its roof. I also then became wedged on top of said car. This should be getting fixed…
Visor cam takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’re in tune with it it’s the best angle in the game. Why’s it tricky to grasp? Well the focus changes depending on where you would be looking during a race, so the gauges come in and out of focus as you blast about. Secondly, the camera ‘looks’ towards the apex of a turn. This means it’s tricky to figure out exactly what angle the car is pointing at times.
But once you’re past that it’s simply brilliant. The way the audio is oddly muted as it would be inside the helmet, to the way rain runs off the visor in open-cockpit racers. It just adds one more level to the immersion you feel. Visor cam, while using an Oculus Rift headset, will be one of the great racing gaming experiences.
One of my favourite aspects of the game is the attention to detail. The crew have worked with a number of professional racers such as Ben Collins (the former Stig), Nicolas Hamilton (Lewis’ brother) and LeMans star Rene Rast.
They’ve naturally given feedback on handling and vehicle performance, but they’ve also added small touches, and it’s here that Project Cars excels; sun placement is correct, so that if you’d be blinded by low sun in real life, you’ll be blinded in the same place in the game; tyres shed rubber, leaving ‘marbles’ off the racing line that’ll cause you problems should you stray wide.
It’s little touches like that which really impress.
This preview code was very nearly complete, and the minor issues I encountered are just a few of the myriad minor bugs that the team are working on. The overall impression I was left with is that Project Cars should live up to the hype. It seems to have struck a decent balance between keeping hardcore racing gamers happy, while making it accessible to newbies.
I’m looking forward to testing myself in the final game using a wheel with harder difficulty settings, and the extensive career mode looks like it’ll be great fun if the AI problems are sorted.
We’ll be sure to have a full review once we get our hands on the final code, but for now we’re keeping our fingers crossed WMD can deliver on the gameplay to the same extraordinary levels they’ve achieved graphically.