For Slightly Mad Studios, the Need for Speed name was clearly a mixed blessing. A whole garage full of licensed cars and circuits, plus a guaranteed baseline level of success thanks to the well-known brand, had to be weighed against the fact that racing-gameby- committee didn't fit with Slightly Mad's hardline simulation stance.
With Project CARS – a communityfunded game started before Tim Schafer made it fashionable – Slightly Mad are free to create the racing game they and, more importantly, their community want to construct. The current version is a Frankenstein's monster – one of the regularly released builds that paid up 'investors' get to play with – but it reveals a lot about how the team are approaching the racing sim.
The handful of cars currently available manage to span both the entire horsepower range (from razzy go-karts to thinly disguised F1 machines) and several decades of racing machinery at once. Project CARS will eventually allow you to work your way through an entire motorsport career, building a team and selecting disciplines that suit your particular racing talents.
Commonality comes from the fact that every single vehicle is recreated to a startling degree of accuracy – you can identify the individual rivets holding the engine together and components like driveshafts and suspension coils rotate and bounce exactly as they do in real life. There's mechanical logic to everything that happens – which makes it much harder to blame handling quirks as you bury your car nose-first into a tyre wall for the eighth time.
You'll want to persevere though. Slightly Mad's games have never been short of thrills and, while it can occasionally feel like all four tyres have been simultaneously transformed into knobs of melting butter, slinging a high downforce racer through a sweeping corner as the rubber subtly squirms underneath you makes you feel like a bona fide hero.
With simulations, it's often easy to forget that there are two parts to a racing car. The metallic whirring mechanics and the soft, fleshy pilot sawing away at the steering wheel. Slightly Mad is as fastidious when it comes to replicating the latter as it is the former. While there will still be moments where you're cursing an AI driver for accidentally punting you off, in Project CARS it'll be because that particular driver has a tendency towards opportunist overtaking moves rather than a lack of situational awareness. This being a work in progress, if you've dropped the cash on membership you can help tune the game's AI yourself by experimenting with a series of sliders hidden in the difficulty menu.
The Need For Speed licence and its accompanying budget isn't all roses and kittens, though. Project CARS returns to the drawing board as far as official manufacturers and locations are concerned. Don't expect to be chucking Ferraris and Porsches around – at the moment the vast majority of vehicles and tracks are non-copyright-infringing lookalikes rather than the real deal.
Of course, these cover versions are close enough that if the official Audi licence is secured, it'll take little more than a texture swap to add the marque's Le Mans and DTM contenders to the game. It's a similar story with the circuits – Belgian Forest is transparently the Spa circuit, Connecticut Hill is Watkins Glen in the US and so on. It's the same trick that rFactor pulled and it's even less obtrusive than fictionalised versions of recognisable vehicles because, aside from the name, they're beautifully fettled versions of the real tracks.
Technologically it all benefits from the proprietary Shift 2: Unleashed engine, which runs beautifully. It also apparently allows for your PC to reappraise the forces in effect on your car 600 times per second and is laden with more novel visual fluff than a Star Wars re-release. The odd cardboard cut-out tree remains, but if the tracks are to match up to the staggering fidelity of the vehicles hopefully they'll be excised between now and the nebulous 2013 release date.
Because the game is being built with its dressing gown hanging open and all its hairy, dangly parts on public display, it's pretty difficult to treat what exists at the moment as much more than a statement of intent. If Slightly Mad stick to their promise of delivering exactly what the fans want, it could also change dramatically en route to release.
What is there, though, hints at a development team that has been freed from the shackles of a restrictive partnership and are indulging themselves as fans of the genre rather than commissioned contract workers. The brakes are off and while that could result in a huge, messy accident, it could just as likely lead to a glorious victory lap.
Review by Mike Channel.