Project Cars 3: Hands-on Review

Project Cars 3 is being billed as a spiritual successor to 2009’s Need for Speed: Shift, which might explain why Slightly Mad Studios has made this unexpected sequel more accessible compared to previous entries in the series. 
What was once a challenging racing sim can now be outfitted with an assortment of assists that make it far more palatable for newcomers. As a racing novice myself, being able to dive into a championship and feel rewarded by completing challenges was a wonderful change of pace, and had me invested instead of walking away with my exhaust pipe between my tailgate. 
However, veterans don’t need to worry, since Project Cars 3 still offers a robust racing sim experience if you’re keen to truly test yourself on the track, relying on realistic mechanics to succeed instead of overly forgiving assist tools like I did. But despite all this flexibility, Slightly Mad Studios’ latest outing can feel a little too traditional for its own good, rarely stepping outside of established genre conventions and suffering as a result. 
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Project Cars 3 begins with you running a simplistic race in an extravagant supercar, roaring round the track at unprecedented speeds while leaving rival drivers in the dust. It’s a thrilling opening event, and one which sets the pace for things to come. The announcer warns you that you’ll be commandeering a slightly more realistic vehicle after this taster session, which is where the revamped career mode truly begins. 
I’m thrust into the garage and asked to purchase my first vehicle, which is a far cry from the supercar I adored during the opening race. But it’s still no slouch, capable of competing in the first few championships without much trouble. Project Cars 3 also gives each vehicle its own experience level, which you’ll increase by completing events and objectives. This opens the floodgates for further customisation, a system which has been expanded upon greatly compared to the first two games. You’re encouraged to make each car your own, instead of cycling through new models and throwing old, useless ones to the wayside. 
Customisation essentially remedies this tried-and-true convention of the genre, allowing you to take a tuned-up banger and pit it against the big boys with the help of a multi-faceted upgrade system. Enhancements to tyres, weight, suspension and other values can be applied and removed at a moment’s notice using the game’s unique currency, meaning you can move a favoured vehicle between each graded class with ease. 
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Some events will demand you use a car from certain regions such as Japan or America, so jumping into the finer workings of Project Cars 3’s upgrade system is essential, especially if you’re hoping to nail the top lap times or emerge victorious in a 20-person strong event. I must admit having to constantly adjust my small selection of cars in the opening hours did prove frustrating, since I didn’t have enough credits to simply purchase another vehicle to circumvent the adjustment of upgrades. 
But I see what Slightly Mad Studios is going for here, and it’s a novel approach to racing sims which doesn’t leave newcomers behind, and does a compelling job of making you feel like a small fish swimming in a very big pond. So, it’s unfortunate that so many of the events you’ll be competing in are generic archetypes such as traditional races and hot laps where you’ll be aiming to meet the same milestones again and again. 
Events are spiced up somewhat with a trio of objectives to complete in each one. These normally involve performing clean overtakes or perfecting corners while still aiming for an overall victory, adding further incentive for me to sharpen my fairly mediocre motoring skills. Much of the time I’d miss out on first place, but I’d nail the objectives and still be rewarded with a handsome helping of experience. 
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Project Cars 3 excels at making you feel rewarded even in failure, like you’re always moving forward and making progress. It takes some welcome cues from Forza Horizon 4 in this regard, where you’re constantly making progress through the campaign even if you’re not quite leaving rivals in the dust with every event. 
As someone who isn’t hugely familiar with the genre, being able to throw on a couple of assists and still feel pretty great about my performance is really something, and not an easy feat to accomplish without making such achievements ring hollow. Slightly Mad Studios rides the line marvellously here without losing the core identity of a racing sim, so hardcore players can still abandon assists and find themselves in for a stiff challenge. 
It remains to be seen if this sense of reward will have the same impact in later events, or if the act of taking a starter car to the upper echelons of supercar championships won’t feel completely absurd. But the individual components of Project Cars 3 help it stand out amongst the crowd as a racing sim for everyone, even if it isn’t the most compelling when it comes to the actual events you’re competing in.
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The journey thus far is certainly a gorgeous one, though. This is doubly true when utilising an RTX 2080 Ti at 4K resolutions. Tracks across America, Japan and China shine with gorgeous textures and models, further enhanced with a beautiful day/night system which takes myriad weather effects into account. It’s a huge improvement over the previous two games, and rivals some of the genre’s brightest sparks from recent years.
First Impressions
Project Cars 3 is gearing up to be a stellar sequel from Slightly Mad Studios, building upon the finest parts of its predecessors, while simultaneously crafting an experience that stands a chance at attracting an entirely new audience. While it doesn’t really try anything new or groundbreaking beyond its upgrade system, this is a solid racing effort I’m excited to see more from.
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