Project Cars
Project Cars allows for grids of over 40 cars in each offline race Slightly Mad Studios

Project Cars

Platforms: Xbox One (tested), PlayStation 4, PC, Wii U (delayed)
Developer/Publisher: Slightly Mad Studios
Release date: 8 May
Price: £50

Games for people who like cars and games for people who like driving can be two very different things.

The former are entertained by the likes of Forza Horizon with its music festival, fireworks, street racing and easy, controllable, drift-friendly physics; the financial clout of Microsoft ensures an enormous car roster to please every taste.

But those who revel in the challenge of wrestling an unruly, turbo lag-ridden 1970s Formula One car through the streets of Monaco and the forests of Spa have to look elsewhere.

Gran Turismo satisfied this niche for years, but its move from PlayStation 2 to 3 was a troubled one. GT5 was a crushing disappointment, and while 6 improved things, the AI remained terrible and every car sounded like a vacuum cleaner.

Now Project Cars is left to pick up the baton and give us petrolheads the game we desire.

Everything is unlocked, from the off

Where Gran Turismo and Forza require you to drive slow cars around small circuits for hours before earning enough cash to buy something better (and in GT's case, complete license tests to unlock more competitive races), Project Cars is completely open from the off.

You can start in karting and work your way up, or jump straight into a 200 miles per hour Le Mans prototype and play the part of defending champion. Every car and every track can be raced immediately.

Project Cars karting
Start in karting or Le Mans, it's entirely up to you because everything is unlocked from the start Slightly Mad Studios

Despite this, I started with karting. I used to race karts a fair bit at university, but have never found a game which accurately recreates them. Unfortunately, I'm adding Project Cars to that list. While the tracks and karts themselves look great, the physics are incredibly challenging, and not in a way which encourages practice.

Using an Xbox One controller I found heaps of understeer and very little of the turn-on-a-penny responsiveness professional karts are renowned for. Project Cars' realism is partly to blame - or rather, my lack of expecting the game to be so much of a simulation. Run wide onto the unused side of the track and your tyres will get dirty, compromising the next few corners. Just when you want even a difficult game to be forgiving enough to make you want to try harder, Project Cars is frustrating.

Project Cars
Cars of all era are here, but you won't recognise any of the unlicensed, fictional sponsors Slightly Mad Studios

Great track list - just not for the karts

The lack of any real-world kart tracks is also a shame - surely licensing Rye House or Buckmoor Park wouldn't have cost that much? Thankfully the car track roster is an impressive mix of real (Spa, Le Mans, Nurburgring (Nordschleife and GP), Monza, Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Laguna Seca, plus an unofficial Monaco and Suzuka).

All are beautiful, but some performance issues with the Xbox One version mean tree shadows are occasionally drawn in much later than they should be. This, and a disappointingly long list of teething problems and bugs will hopefully be addressed with a patch soon.

Upgrade to cars and things start to get more interesting. Whether you choose to pilot the Zakspeed Ford Capri, the McLaren P1 or an (unlicensed) modern day Formula One car, they all sound epic. Exhausts pop and bang, superchargers whine and some are ear-splitting and almost uncomfortable in the best way possible.

The weather and time transition effects are also something to behold. Watching the sun setting as you race around Le Mans is beautiful, as is the way standing water forms on the track surface - and how you can hear it on your roof.

Helmet cam

Project Cars
Helmet cam moves around to focus on the apex of each corner Slightly Mad Studios

A wide range of camera angles is on offer here, with my favourite being one inside the driver's helmet which turns subtly to face the apex of every corner, and blurs as your speed increases to simulate your point of focus stretching out ahead of you.

The way following cars light up your cockpit with their headlights is also a visual treat missed by most of Project Cars' rivals. Having to manually switch on/off your headlights and windscreen wipers is also a nice touch, and cars like the McLaren P1 also boast manual controls for its KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) and DRS (drag reduction system).

Project Cars takes a lot of practice and patience. It isn't a game where you boot up, jump in and blat any car you like around the 14-mile Nurburgring in record-breaking time. A few times I stacked it into the barriers before even reaching the first corner. But take your time, learn how the physics work, wait until the tyres are warm, stay on line, and Project Cars can be immensely rewarding. The way a car comes to you as the tyres and track warm up is hugely satisfying.

It clearly isn't suited to a controller - you really need a good wheel and pedal set to get the most out of it - but it's not as impossible as some players have made out.

Project Cars
Weather and day/night transitions in Project Cars are absolutely beautiful Slightly Mad Studios

Far from perfect

However, Project Cars in its current state is far from perfect. Delayed multiple times, the game has arrived with a wide range of bugs that need squashing. One causes the steering to occasionally stick to full-lock; another causes the sound to slow down; and another lets your rivals qualify impossibly quickly (as in, 15 seconds ahead of second place).

Although the artificial intelligence and racecraft of the competition is mostly very good - far better than Gran Turismo - they are sometimes completely unaffected by a wet track or driving on the grass.

There's an awful lot to fix here - although mostly relating to controller setup and more so with the Xbox One version, if forum gossip is to be trusted - and I really hope Slightly Mad Studios releases a patch soon.

Other negatives for me include the inability to select a helmet and suit for your driver; instead, he seems to change his outfit at random every race, and the cars' colours also change each time you drive them. Given the game is based around being a racing driver with his own Twitter followers and email inbox (both quickly become repetitive and add very little), you'd think picking your own suit, helmet and car colour would be an option.

Project Cars
Damage can be severe enough to end your race on the spot Slightly Mad Studios

Communicative enough to learn from

Many hoped Project Cars would be the Gran Turismo for the next generation, and in some ways it is. Being able to endlessly tweak a car's setup is there for those who understand it; the handling is tricky (actually, it's really very difficult with the driver aids switched off) but communicative enough to be learnt from; the range of tracks is excellent and the car list is good - there's a great range here, just not a huge number of vehicles in each class, formula or era. Visually and audibly, Project Cars is simply stunning.

But this game was made on a budget, and it shows. There are bugs everywhere and they need to be addressed - some much more critical than others - and the steering calibration (at least with the Xbox One controller, as used here) needs some work. You can dig into the expansive settings menu and tweak sensitivity and dead zones yourself, but this isn't something console gamers should have to worry about.

Project Cars set itself an almighty challenge, and while it has mostly succeeded in being a racing game for the drivers and not just the car fans, there are limitations, and the biggest is steering with a control pad. When this is fixed and added to the gorgeous graphics, realistically demanding physics, skilled AI, brutal sounds and stunning weather, then Project Cars will rightfully be compared to Forza and Gran Turismo.

Project Cars review score IBT UK