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Project Cars 3: hands-on with early code

Published: 31 July 2020

► The next instalment of Project Cars
► On console and PC
► Hands-on with an early code

Project Cars is back, but not as we know it; after being swallowed by Codemasters – home of F1 2020, DiRT 5 and GRID – the latest instalment of the realistic racer is back and sporting a very different look. In an apparent effort to leave the more realistic sim crowd and enter the more lucrative arena of arcade-style sims, PC3 is brighter, busier and more accessible than ever before. But is that a good thing? Keep reading to find out.

Fire up Project Cars 3 and the Codemasters effect is evident. Where the PC2 menu was sombre and dark, PC3 is bright orange: it’s not a big thing, but it’s a clear hint at the massive direction change Simply Mad Studios has made. A quick scan of the tabs at the top will reveal a new Rivals mode, too, which replaces the self-explanatory mode seen in the previous games. 

Career mode

Project Cars 2 always felt like an accessible racing sim, with a career mode attached. While it was enjoyable, and saw you progress through the ranks, it wasn’t the main event. However, Project Cars 3 turns the tables; career mode is now the main draw with the other stuff a supporting act. 

Taking a leaf out of Grid, Need For Speed, Forza and pretty much every other big-budget racing game besides GT Sport, PC3’s career mode now gives you a selection of events, all of which earn you XP as you race and provide money for new cars and upgrades. It’s a far cry from the PC2 of old, that’s for sure.

It’s a visually very busy approach, with XP points, arbitrary, neon-coloured graphs and thumping-music popping up at various points ­– and it continues into the racing, too. Pick a Time Trial challenge, and you’re flung into a generic ‘Cuba’ track, with more thumping-music. When racing, things get a bit Mario-Kart' rather than leaving you to it, PC3 asks you to drive into icons, apply power at the correct time, and brake whenever you see an exclamation mark. It’s possible this is exactly what casual racers need – but I found it somewhat distracting.  

Get a corner right and before you can focus on the next, the game rewards you for a ‘perfect corner’. Get your braking wrong, power-out to compensate and the game exclaims at your drifting skills. It’s a far cry from the gritty, 'you and the track' aesthetic of PC2. 

The racing is pretty much the same; your engineer returns to talk you through the very different racing experience, but he's lost amongst the forgettable music, the icons and the attention-grabbing visuals.

The handling

And what about the actual handling? It’s everything you’d expect with all the training wheels, but the ‘driver aids’ can be switched off entirely if that’s your preference. 

Regardless, it’s still on the more realistic side of the spectrum. Cars feel twitchy – especially the Group C ones – forcing you to carefully consider throttle and braking application. 

Too much throttle and the back end will disappear, too much brake or trail braking and you’ll find the rear axle inexorably overtaking the front. My first few laps of the Fuji Speedway had more in common with a spinning-top – but once you’ve cleaned up your inputs and take less liberties, it gets good and rewarding. 

Get in the zone, and you notice other good things about PC3. Turn the music off, and the cars sound great – particularly the Shell Porsche 956/962 we stick to for several laps of the Fuji track. There’s also some clever, subtle, features too; there’s camera shake in braking zones, though you’ll want to make sure it’s not set too high. Too much and it can make you a bit queasy. 

Either way, there’s a solid, somewhat realistic handling model underneath.

Early verdict

For better or worse, Project Cars has gone from Palme d’Or to summer blockbuster, and the results are mixed. The handling is fun and Forza-like, the cars are still spectacular-looking, and career mode is now an attention-grabbing scatter gun of XP, credits and everything else you’d expect.

The end of every race is a flurry of graphs you don’t care about, bonuses you don’t yet understand, and the promises of unlocking more of the same. And racing in Project Cars 3 is like playing Project Cars 2 inside a pinball machine. It’s a shame in some ways, because the handling and engine noise in PC3 – combined with the feeling of nailing a lap –is engaging enough.

It’s clear the new approach is designed to net new fans – and it probably will – but it seems to have come at the price of  the identity Project Cars has built up over the years.  The first 15 minutes of this game could’ve been from a handful of titles – albeit decent one – but something has been lost.

By Curtis Moldrich

CAR's online editor and racing-sim enthusiast