In the moment with Project Cars

— 2:12 PM on May 7, 2015

There's a whole process involved with playing Project Cars in my home office—a ritual, if you will. First, I pull an older X79 rig off the shelf and populate it with a couple of GeForce GTX 680 graphics cards from other test systems. Cabling comes next, followed by switching the monitors in my triple-wide cockpit to point to the freshly assembled machine.

Then the wheel and pedals come out. It takes a moment to get the Fanatec duo situated just so, with the pedals wedged up against my subwoofer and the wheel lined up perfectly. I lean my chair back a few degrees and lock it into place, and then I literally strap in. The pedals are stiff enough that slamming on the brakes causes my chair to slide backwards, so I've got loops of rope to tie the armrests to my desk.

Finally, with everything in place, I put on my headphones, dim the lights, and drive.

Source: Steam

Although the PC-centric racing sim was only released yesterday, I've been practicing this ritual for quite a long time. Slightly Mad Studios kicked off Project Cars in 2011 with a crowd-funding campaign that promised backers access to early builds during development. I signed up in 2012, and I've been peeking in on the game ever since.

Much of that sampling has happened over the past few months. The earliest builds were very rough around the edges, as one might expect, and the balance of fun to frustration wasn't good enough to hold my attention. I found myself playing more and more as the game slowly took shape, though. Seeing details added, dynamics honed, and features polished has given me a new appreciation for the complex cocktail of ingredients that comes together in such an an ambitious project.

Check out the official hype reel, which should really be viewed full-screen at the highest resolution your monitor supports:

For months, I've been telling people the gameplay looks as good as the trailers. Now that the came is finally out, you can see for yourself. Project Cars is easily one of the best-looking games around. Although the intensity of the action sometimes makes it difficult to fully appreciate the gorgeous graphics, the visuals are uncannily close to real life at times.

Just as importantly, Project Cars feels real. Or it does to me, anyway. I don't know what it's actually like to slide exotic supercars through tight corners at highway speeds, and the game obviously doesn't recreate all the physical forces and sphincter-puckering fear associated with doing that in the real world. But the cars respond as I expect them to, often by punishing my bravado. The handling is about as far from arcadey as you can get.

When coupled with my high-quality wheel and wrap-around displays, the realistic driving dynamics and life-like graphics put me more "in the moment" than I am in any other game.

A cockpit isn't required to appreciate Project Cars, though. Wrestling the wheel can be quite a lot of work, and the environment isn't particularly conducive to relaxing. That's why I've also spent a lot of time playing on my home-theater PC, slumped on the couch with an Xbox 360 controller. Driving with my feet up isn't as visceral and engaging, but it's still a lot of fun. As an added bonus, the gamepad's triggers and analog sticks make it easier to pull off epic power slides. The graphics seem a little more believable, too, perhaps because being a little farther from the screen helps to mask the imperfections.

Project Cars is highly rated on Steam and Metacritic, so I'm not alone in my praise. The game isn't just for sim fans, either. There are loads of configurable driving aids, allowing newbies gradually to embrace their inner Stig. The selection of cars and tracks is ample, though the choices aren't as extensive as in the latest Forza or Gran Turismo. I've been playing for months, and I've yet to tire of the selection. In fact, I keep driving the same cars and tracks over and over again.

Despite all my hours behind the wheel, I've sampled surprisingly little of the game itself. The career mode is largely a mystery, the extensive tuning options don't interest me, and I haven't bothered with online racing yet. Quick races are my bread and butter. Project Cars lets players drive any car on any track in any conditions they'd like, which is exactly what I want.

After buckling up, I select a mix that fits my mood, place myself at the back of a full grid of opponents, and then see how many beautifully rendered cars I can snake through while accelerated time and weather cycles dazzle me with their own eye candy. Before I know it, my bedtime is long gone, and I'm talking myself into one more lap of the Nürburgring.

And maybe one more after that.

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