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Project Cars 3 is turning its back on racing sim tradition

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

In Project CARS' past, extreme detail was championed. You could press a button for 'engine on', pirouette like an ice dancer on the first corner due to too-cold tyres, and even start a gruelling career in karting, with the dream of one day making it into the equivalent series of F1. Well, forget all that. Project CARS 3 is the gamiest entry by miles, foregoing race weekends and practice sessions—in fact that entire track day atmosphere—and giving you instead a fast car, short races to enter, and three things to do while you're at it. Yes, this is going to irk the hardcore sim racing fanbase, but Project Cars 3 is a game.

The presentation is uncharacteristically flashy, oddly reminiscent of the likes of Asphalt 9 on iOS, with lots of XP bars and circles filling up and expanding colour bars that transition nicely into menu screens, giving everything a very modern and slick sheen. Instant gratification is the order of the day compared to the previous games' long-haul approach to pretty much everything. It's like the hard edges and awkward, clunky bits of the old game's chassis have all been lopped off and what's left has been covered with sleek new bodywork.

This would normally mean the game would struggle to find an identity, not being serious enough for the hardcore fans yet too unforgiving for newcomers. Interestingly, Project CARS 3 deals with the situation in impressively seamless style. Serious sim racers will undoubtedly play it with a racing wheel, through which the realism of the handling is abundantly obvious. Driving lines are smooth, weight distribution is sublime and playing in the look-to-apex helmet cam makes it feel involving. If you want to experience a simulation of real life racing, it's still here in spades and can be just as punishing as ever if you so desire. But conversely, less committed racing game fans without a wheel and pedals setup now benefit from a completely overhauled pad control model—and they're in for the biggest treat.

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

Where in the past pad control was far too twitchy and finicky for many, there's now superbly balanced, context-sensitive steering that lets you waggle the stick less subtly without sending your car straight into the sand trap. It's still very responsive and decisive when you need it to be, and you can still upset the car enough to arrive at a corner backwards if you ask too much of your adhesion with the road's surface, but it's a massive improvement for playability and yet still capable of supreme precision.

The overhauled career mode is reminiscent of Forza Motorsport 7—now far more focused and streamlined, giving you tiered collections of themed events so you needn't stick to just one discipline for extended periods. You're into the action way faster than before, again adding to that videogame feel. Each batch of events culminates in a points-based championship showdown, but not every criterion for progress is simply based on finishing position. Instead, the game often asks you to do more interesting things like draft someone for 5 seconds before passing them, overtake a certain number of cars cleanly in one race, or even master a certain number of corners before you cross the finish line.

This makes every corner a minigame in itself, as you have to brake properly on entry, hit the apex on the inside and then power away onto the straight beyond in a smooth fashion in order to achieve mastery of each turn. New visual markers hover over the track, telling you where to brake and where the apex is, which gives experts clear indicators for meeting the challenge requirements while also giving newbies overt driving instructions without filling the screen with the traditional and messy dynamic racing line.

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

One other big change is in car ownership. You can now buy a car and level it up through racing it repeatedly. Furthermore, mods are now available to purchase and install, laid out clearly so you can see exactly what performance boost you'll get for your in-game money. These upgrades can be uninstalled too, and there are also customisation options for your car and driver so you can really make your car your own. And with over 200 licensed cars in the game, with everything from classic racers to Formula E, it's very likely your dream car will be in there somewhere.

Besides career, there's a multiplayer mode that sadly wasn't available to try in this build, plus a Rivals mode which pits you against the world in leaderboard challenges—again with tiers so you can aim higher than the rank you're in without feeling like a complete loser for being in the 60th percentile. Nice.

There are 12 new track layouts to enjoy over the last game, including Shanghai streets, lovely Tuscany country roads and the ever-enjoyable Interlagos GP circuit. Racing around Interlagos in a single-seater is great fun, especially if you use the look-to-apex mode of helmet cam. Of course, you can actively look to the apex yourself if you have a VR headset, though the effect is still convincing in old-fashioned 2D on a monitor. All of the views are practical for racing, from bonnet cam to chase. The driver's eye and chase cams look noticeably more aesthetically pleasing than the roof or bumper views, though the reflection effects on Ultra are pretty spectacular.

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

The game runs really nicely even in this unfinished state, and offers a 144hz mode. You can choose to supersample your frames too, which seems to be the only thing to cause noticeable frame rate drops on the RTX 2070 I tested the game on, running everything else on Ultra at 1080p with apparent ease. 4K is available too if your rig can handle it.

However, it should be noted that even on Ultra, the game doesn't always look quite as impressive as you might expect. The bodywork reflections and shadows are nice, certainly, but the road cars often look more plasticky than metallic, and the lighting on buildings can look disappointingly flat. Similarly, the dynamic weather lacks the subtlety of even the first game's engine at present, though there's still time for tweaking before the game's August 28 release so we'll wait and see what the finished build delivers. 

All signs point to it being a very capable racer, and certainly the most accessible serious sim I've seen in years. Whether the career mode becomes more involved as it progresses remains to be seen, as well as how the online experience deals caters for the more hardcore fans who demand practise sessions and qualifying laps.