There have been a lot of driving games lately, especially on the build up to the Christmas period last year, so Project Cars has a tricky task to stand out amongst the triple-A titles on the PS4 and Xbox One. But stand out it does, at least from the couple of hours we had with the latest preview build, as it reminds us of the first time we played Gran Turismo.
Project Cars is a driving simulation game of that ilk. It has realistic cars on realistic tracks and, like our first experiences with GT back in the day, it's tough - at times unforgiving. But we like that. It's a driving game that rewards persistence and practice. And it brings a few extra things to the party too.
Its development history has been interesting to follow considering funding was partly crowd sourced by a keen community of driving game fans, and that has resulted in almost a love letter to the genre. It dispenses with the idea of having to unlock content in order to drive a certain car or race on a specific track, giving you access to all from the off, and thanks to the aid of professional racers, such as former Stig Ben Collins, the physics of each car feel just right.
Although there's a career mode you will get just as much fun from the single race options as the customisation model is remarkable. It is this mode that we were able to try out on the preview code on the PS4 version and we made the most of the ability to choose just about any available vehicle and any of the tracks.
Track and car can be matched by the player, along with number of laps, which is pretty standard. What's less standard for driving games however is that you can have up to 39 opponents racing at the same time as yourself - which we did to sometimes hilarious effect. 40 cars zipping around a small track results in plenty of aggression - think the M25 on a Monday morning but with fewer crashes.
You can also fine tune the weather and time of the day to the minutest detail. And you can choose for the time and weather to act either in real-time or dramatically exaggerated. This allowed us to do things like have a sunny day around midday turn to thunderstorms at night time within three or four laps of the track. And Project Cars handles the transitions amazingly.
That enhances the already stunning graphics. You can see from just screengrabs or the trailers rolled out so far that it will be an incredibly tasty game, but they don't even given credit to how good the track rendering is in motion. Indeed, the tracks look so good that you don't want to stick to an in-car view all the time. You don't see enough of it outside the windscreen to really appreciate it, so when the final game comes out, even if you are a stalwart in-car driver like us, we suggest you should partake in at least a few laps around each track in third-person mode just to get the majesty of it all.
Another aspect we were very impressed with during our preview session is rain. Dynamic weather is a big trend in driving games at the moment, but we can honestly say that Project Cars has the most realistic looking and sounding storms and rain we've seen. The dirt mottling on the windscreen is a superb addition and the spray from cars in front looks real. Handling is ridiculously tough in the wet - especially in cars like the Audi R8 LMS Ultra or Aston Martin V8 Vantage - but we found ourselves switching on rain more often than not it looked and sounded so good.
During our hands-on time we tried plenty of tracks, including the Circuit des 24 Heures as used for the Le Mans, Silverstone, Hockenheim (at which we had a dreadful time with the McLaren P1 due to our own deficiencies), and along the Azure Coast in France. The latter is one of the examples of road race circuits also included and makes for a lovely change of scenery.
There are still things to iron out on Project Cars before release. Career mode wasn't accessible yet and karting felt a little spongy on the preview build. There were also some graphical glitches and bugs encountered in races, but they are to be expected at this stage. Hopefully, developer Slightly Mad Studios is still on course for a 20 March release (representing a delay already), but even if not we are hopeful that the finished game will be well worth waiting for.
Project Cars will be available for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Wii U.