Review: Project CARS 3 takes a more casual approach to sim racing

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Project CARS 3 is quite the change of direction for Slightly Mad Studios’ racing series. Where Project CARS 2 went deep into the simulation side of things, demanding a heavy time investment and alienating more casual race fans, Project CARS 3 is an effort to turn the series into more of a pick-up-and-play racing game that can appeal to drivers of all skill levels. Whether or not that’s a good thing is going to depend, largely, on what you want out of a game like this.

For me, it hits a sweet spot between arcade and simulation that not many racing games do these days. As much as I like Need for Speed and Burnout and the like, sometimes I want something a little bit more grounded—but I also find serious sim racers daunting, and demanding of a level of investment that I don’t really care to give. Project CARS 3 finds its niche somewhere between the two extremes.

This is most immediately apparent in the career mode. Where Project CARS 2 re-created a driver’s journey to greatness through season after season of racing, Project CARS 3‘s career mode is a series of individual, objective-driven events—mostly single races, with a few small tournaments throughout the piece. The career is broken down by car class, from E-class road cars to hypercars and GT, which you’ll gradually progress through (though you can spend in-game currency to unlock later events early, if you want to drive right into the high-end stuff).

A screenshot from Project CARS 3

Each class is made up of a series of events, each with three specific goals—winning is usually one of them, for race events, but others are things like completing a set number of clean overtakes within a certain time, mastering a certain number of corners across the race, or achieving a target time in a hot lap. Completing these objectives is the key to progressing through Project CARS 3‘s career mode.

Related: For a completely different sort of racing game that also launched recently, Kandagawa Jet Girls is worth a look. Here’s our review.

It’s a nice framework for that pick-up-and-play approach that Project CARS 3 is clearly going for. You can always just jump into an event and quickly tick off an easy objective or two, and get that feeling of meaningful progress, without the feeling like you need to dig in for a marathon session. And if you do want to play for a long haul, there are always the trickier objectives that require a bit more practice before you can nail them—thinking about some of the time trial targets, in particular, that demand perfect racing lines with no room for even the slightest error.

There’s also a meta progression system through player and car levels. As you race, you earn little bits of experience for just about everything you do—a clean sector, a nice drift, a good lap time, a podium finish—while in-game achievements (“Career Goals”) offer bigger buckets of experience at certain milestones. That experience is applied equally to your player level and that of whichever car you were driving; increasing your player level gets you credits and unlocks new cars for purchase, while levelling up your car gets you discounts on upgrades and additional slots to save tuning setups. 

A screenshot from Project CARS 3

It’s the sort of gamified progression system that you see in every blockbuster game these days, but it fits Project CARS 3‘s ethos well. There’s a constant feeling of progression, whether you’re dropping in for a quick burst or playing a longer session.

The trade-off is that it can feel a bit shallow. As demanding as something like Project CARS 2 can be on your time, it fosters a deep investment in every aspect of your career. A race is never just a race, but part of something bigger. In Project CARS 3, a race is usually just a race, forgotten about as soon as you’ve earned all its objectives.

Project CARS 3 also endeavours to be more approachable in its control and handling, with a wide array of driving assists. At the most beginner-friendly level, your car will just about drive itself—the AI will help you brake and steer to stick to the ideal racing lines, as well as the help you get from things like stability control and anti-lock brakes. Dial it all the way up to professional, and it’s just you and your wheels. (I’m no expert on realistic car physics, but with minimal assists, driving in Project CARS 3 feels authentic.)

A screenshot from Project CARS 3

It mostly works. In races against AI, this customisability works like a charm; between driving assists and AI difficulty settings, any race can be as much of a cakewalk or a challenge as you’d like, while XP modifiers gently encourage you to tone down the assists when you feel comfortable doing so. The benefits are less noticeable in multiplayer, simply because a good player will always beat a bad one, regardless of assist use—by necessity, they sacrifice control for ease of use, and it’s that control that will allow a good driver who doesn’t use assists to come out on top of someone who does every time.

And then there are time trial events, where assists suddenly seem much less helpful. The target times are strict, and clearly tuned toward more competent players using fewer assists—even hitting the easiest target time for a hot lap challenge usually requires a level of proficiency that the beginner assists don’t allow for, and that takes a lot of practice to achieve. I know that repeatedly retrying an event to shave milliseconds of your best time is one of the things that the sim racer crowd finds appealing, and it certainly has its place in Project CARS 3, too. But in contrast to the rest of the game, it’s not an optional factor—if you want an easy time of it, you can’t just turn up the assists, turn down the AI difficulty, and cruise into first place like you can with regular races. 

Elsewhere, Project CARS 3 can be a bit of a grind. The money needed to buy new cars and upgrades comes slowly, and it’s not unusual to reach a roadblock in career mode because a race demands a specific type of car that you don’t have and can’t afford. When that happens, you have no choice but to keep revisiting previous events again and again, just to grind out enough cash to progress. 

A screenshot from Project CARS 3

On the other hand, if you can’t be bothered with any of that and you just want to race, Project CARS 3‘s custom event mode lets you jump into any car you want, on any track you want, and just play. It’s a great way to see everything the game has to offer—120+ tracks across 50 different locations (including New Zealand’s Ruapuna Raceway) and some 200 different vehicles—and you’ll also earn a bit of XP, too.

Project CARS 3 is a big departure from its predecessor, that moves away from the hardcore simulation to something slightly more oriented toward casual play, but without going all the way to the arcade side of the racing spectrum. For many, that’s going to be a dealbreaker—but that’s fine, Project CARS 2 is still alive and kicking. Project CARS 3 is something that’ll coexist alongside it, in its own little niche. It hits a sweet spot between arcade and realism, between a deep simulation that requires a lot of investment and something you can just pick up and play. There’s plenty of enjoyment to be found in that.

Score: 4 stars

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Project CARS 3 is developed by Slightly Mad Studios and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.