Until now, Slightly Mad Studios' identity has been largely wrapped up in other brands – predominantly EA's Need for Speed franchise. The developer has made other racing titles since it last worked on NFS: Shift in 2011, but Project Cars feels like a definitive statement of identity. The game joins a sim-racing field alongside already-established competitors like Gran Turismo and Forza, but it also does things its own way, challenging the ways of the past. Project Cars doesn't radically change the genre, but longtime enthusiasts should take heed of this new franchise.
The career mode lets you start in any one of 16 series, all the way from karts to Formula One-level vehicles, so where you start isn't determined by the cars you've bought in your garage. At the end of each year you can stay in the same series or accept a contract to race elsewhere (if you've proven yourself). You can accept invitations for one-off events in other series during the season for a little variety.
I like the ease at which you can experience much of the content, but the career mode has room to improve. For instance, team contacts aren't tied to money, sponsorships, or specific manufacturers' cars – so other than acting as gateways to the series, the mode feels like a calendar more than a career. There are big-picture goals for your career like completing multiple series, and achievements you can flash as part of your Driver Network Profile when you go online, but it's not enough to make your career feel fulfilling.
The lack of a monetary system confers more freedom and is less stressful (you can even cancel a contract mid-season and start somewhere else), but it is perhaps the reason your garage is deemphasized. The game contains more than 60 cars (many licensed), but cars aren't the showpieces relative to other sim series – you don't collect, apply decals, or upgrade them.
That's not to say that Slightly Mad doesn't care about cars – in fact, the opposite seems to be true. I liked trying out the different series' cars, and even the feeling of starting over and having to acclimate myself to new handling. A similarly challenging process occurs during qualifying. Here you start out on cold tires and must straddle the line between going all-out and being careful, since your lap times are disqualified if you go off the track. For a game whose career mode could be beefed up, it's a real-world touch that thankfully increases the stakes as well as highlights the developer's attention to car handling.
This makes the game sound hardcore, but thanks to numerous customization options, it's only as hard as you want it to be. Race lap length, allowing restarts, and simming portions of the race weekend help, and amenities like pre-set weather/time-of-day progression, customizable HUD, and pit strategy templates are also welcome. Furthermore, online races (allowing you to use the game's entire roster of cars) contain features like optional mechanical failure and a variable mix of A.I./human opponents. Community events centered around specific leaderboards make Project Car's online mode a capable component.
In a genre where it can be hard to differentiate yourself, Project Cars makes its mark. It's not as strong as it could be in all areas, but Slightly Mad Studios' attention to detail and racing chops make the game a contender.
This review pertains to the PS4 version of Project Cars. The game is also available on Xbox One and PC.