What does Project Cars 3 have that other racing games don’t?

, | Game reviews

Racing isn’t just about speed.  Speed is the goal, sure.  But the important part is knowing when to relinquish speed.  The important part is figuring out when and how much to slow down.  It’s hardly surprising most racing videogames downplay this part.  In most videogames, you mash down the accelerator, feel the exhilaration, and have a win!  But what’s distinct about Project Cars 3 — at least among consumer-friendly racing games — is that it downplays speed.  It emphasizes precision, consistency, calculation, practice.  Project Cars 3 has plenty of speed, but that’s not what it’s about.  Instead, it’s a game based on driving well.  And it’s about more than that.  It’s ultimately about something too few racing games know how to express.

Plenty of race games concede that, yeah, sure, driving well is a thing.  They might acknowledge it and sometimes even reward it.  But what’s extraordinary about Project Cars 3 — and distinct from the previous games in the series — is that its entire structure is based on driving well.  It has the events, physics, track variety, and expansive car catalogue of the previous Project Cars games.  But what’s new is that it’s all tied together by a progression system based on good driving.  

It’s a multi-faceted progression structure.  You’ll fill lots of different buckets with progress, which is a great hook.  Something is always advancing.  Your car collection, your upgrades, your car’s level, your experience points, your accumulated career objectives, your accolades, your available races, the very tracks themselves.  Every time you drive, whether you’re winning, losing, practicing, or just exploring, you’re progressing something.  There is not a wasted revolution of these cars’ wheels.  

The foundation for all this progression is experience points.  As you race, green text announces various deeds or accomplishments, each adding experience points toward your tally for that race.  You get points for completing laps, for passing cars, for hitting high speeds, for drafting, and so on.  You get more experience points for clean passes, efficient cornering, and staying on the track.  You get bonus experience points for driving without assists, or against harder AI difficulties.  An accolades system will give you experience points when you hit thresholds for dozens of ongoing achievements, like driving from the cockpit view, driving certain tracks, putting mileage on your cars, buying upgrades, beating your own records, and so on.  You get all these experience points regardless of whether you won the race.  It doesn’t even matter if you came in last place.  Project Cars 3 won’t hold it against you.  It doesn’t care whether you won or not.

So what do you get if you win a race?

Nothing.

Okay, that’s not entirely true.  Some events have winning as an objective.  And there are tons of accolades for winning events.   These will eventually give you experience points after a certain number of wins, which are tracked for different cars and tracks.  But what’s remarkable about Project Cars 3 is that there’s no inherent reward for winning a race.  Instead, it’s just one of the many factors that goes into various progression tracks.  

Each event has three career objectives, and sometimes one of the objectives is to win.  But there’s always more to it than that.  Get a certain number of clean overtakes.  Meet a speed goal for a particular section of the track.  Draft for a certain amount of time.  Stay in the top ten for the duration of the race.  Since every event has three objectives, and oftentimes winning isn’t one of them, you might find yourself not even caring whether you win.  You’re here to drive well, not just fastest.  

These objectives will give you some experience points, but you mainly do them to unlock more events in the career mode.  Not that you’re limited to what’s available in the career mode!  You can set up custom events with any track, event, and car.  Custom events will add experience points to your profile and your car, and it will advance your accolades.  But the career mode slots all of the game’s progression systems into one of the most gratifying campaign structures you’ll find in any racing game.  And it’s never just about winning a race.  It’s always about driving well, learning the track, and trying different cars.  It’s about learning and experimenting, and making progress the entire time.  Frankly, it puts the progression in other racing games to shame.

While Googling for details about the progression structure — Project Cars 3 has lousy documentation —  I mainly found articles [sic] about how to level up fast and earn tons of money in the least amount of time.  These were written as if they were revealing some way to subvert the progression structure and circumvent grinding.  Basically, they recommend you dial down the AI and drive a bunch of laps around an oval track in a fast car.  But what these people fail to realize is that they’re playing a game that will reward them with progress regardless of what they do.  If you want to spend two hours driving around an oval, that’s one option.  But if you want to avail yourself of the variety the game offers, if you want to navigate its carefully built structure of encouraging you to drive well, that’s the other option.  They’re equally viable options because this isn’t a game that throws down grinding as an obstacle, or time sink, or fun tax.  Instead, it’s a game that lets you play however you want, and it then reacts with a generous and flexible progression structure.  Only an idiot would think he’s somehow subverting that progression structure by driving in a circle for two hours.  The rest of us are actually playing the game.

Besides, Project Cars 3 has a smart approach to money.  It’s going to give you a reasonable amount and it’s going to give you lots of things to spend it on.  Remember, you don’t get anything for winning races.  You’re not going to earn a single cent when you come in first place.  Instead, you earn money with experience points.  Every tenth of a level — levels are divided into ten chevrons — you get a sum of money.  It’s a drip feed that gets faster as you reach higher levels.  It’s a relatively slow progression, which I imagine might feel too slow for people who just want to jump into the fastest supercars.  You know, people who Googled how to grind for two hours on an oval track.  Which, ironically, they were doing with supercars in custom races anyway.  Besides, if you really want to jump ahead to the supercar races, Project Cars 3 will let you spend money to unlock events in advance.  

Meanwhile, I’m happily taking my time making progress in cars that have personality.  I’ll take a Mazda RX-7 or a ’66 Mustang or even a Honda Civic over something ruthlessly engineered and meticulously honed for a racetrack.  All those advanced Ferraris and Lambos and McClarens just look like candy-colored Batmobiles to me.

But here’s where the multiplayer piques my interest.  You can race with other people, of course.  Theoretically.  If you find other players.  I’ve had no luck with quick play.  There are hosted multiplayer races every 20 minutes.  You have to register for them, since they’re limited to 32 players.  You can spend the time before the race running qualifying laps to advance your starting position.  But whenever I’ve tried, when it comes time for the race to start, I get a “no matches found” error.  Which is pretty rude.  I just drove a bunch of laps qualifying, so if no one shows up, at least let me race against the AI.

But the multiplayer that interests me — and that proves this game has an actual player base even if they’re aren’t doing live races — is a mode called rivals.  At any given time, there are monthly, weekly, and daily events.  These are a specific combination of car, track, and conditions.  You get a certain number of attempts to log your best lap.  Each time you drive the event, you’re positioned on a leaderboard.  Your ranking earns you points that apply to a month-long season.  At the end of each month, the points are tallied and you’re ranked and rewarded accordingly.  The only reason I don’t play the rivals mode more often is because I’m so invested in the campaign.  But if I were to ever finish the campaign, the rivals mode is basically infinite content with open-ended difficulty.

But what’s really compelling about rivals mode is that it’s putting me on different tracks in different cars.  I don’t have any frame of reference for caring about one supercar over another, and I’m not really looking forward to the campaign’s hypercar and formula car events.  But when I’m put behind the wheel of one of these generic looking beasts, and I’m told to do my best, and I’m encouraged to grapple with its crazy power, and I’m then ranked on a leaderboard and given the option to try to do better…well, look what just happened: I cultivated a little bit of an attachment to this particular candy-colored Batmobile wannabe.  

Project Cars 3 also applied the experience points I earned to the car, even though I don’t own it.  It’s like playing a demo for a game, and then the demo telling you, “Hey, the progress you earned in the demo will carry over if you buy the full game!”  Now I’m keeping my eye out for the daily deals in Project Cars 3.  If that crazy little high-strung Lotus Type 51 that I used for today’s rivals event goes on sale, I might buy it.  Before I know it, I’ll be racing hypercars and formula cars and not even minding.

These rivals events are also where Project Cars 3 really gets you with its expectation that you drive well.  Because if you go off the track or bang into a wall, your lap time is invalidated.  This is true of any event, but during the rough-and-tumble direct head-to-head races, invalidating a lap time isn’t a big deal unless it’s one of the objectives.  Which it often is.  

(When your wheels go off the road during a race, if you gain any advantage when you return to the road — perhaps you took a shortcut or knocked another car out of the way? — Project Cars 3 won’t stand for it.  You get a rude “gonk” sound effect, your car is temporarily turned into a ghost, and your speed is briefly retarded.  Now you’re slow and everyone else is freely driving through you.  They’re also probably laughing at you because you went off the track, dummy.  This is mostly a game about positive reinforcement for driving well, but it’s not above some negative reinforcement.)

Where invalidated lap times really matter is during pace setter events.  These are simultaneously my favorite and most despised way to play Project Cars 3.  A lot of events are based on setting a lap time.  Pretty straightforward.  You keep trying laps until you get good or you get lucky.  Sometimes a combination of the two.  But pace setter events are based solely on getting good.  Your time in a pace setter event is the average of three laps.  Did you go off the track at the end of the third lap?  Now you don’t have three laps to average.  Did you get lucky and shave a second off one of the laps?  That’s not going to help until you can do it three times in a row.  The pace setter events are all about learning the tracks and driving them consistently, not just driving well once.  They’re Project Cars 3 doing what it does best.

The entire game is built around this philosophy.  Don’t just drive fast, drive well.  Don’t just get lucky, get good.  This is almost unprecedented in racing games.  I say “almost unprecedented,” partly because I’m sure some hardcore racing games I don’t play have found a way to encourage driving well over merely driving fast.  But I say “almost unprecedented” mainly because developer Slightly Mad Studios has done this before in the two Need for Speed: Shift games published by Electronic Arts in 2009 and 2011.  But this is the first time one of their Project Cars games has been built around this structure.

For instance, the concept of mastering a track is directly from Need for Speed: Shift.  The idea is that the game remembers when you successfully hit the entry point, apex, and exit for a curve, each clearly marked on the track by a small floating icon.  This is very different from the colored line that many racing games adopted from Forza.  Colored lines are dynamic based on your speed, so they’re pretty much idiot-proof.  Just follow the line, mash the brakes if it’s red, mash the accelerator if it’s not.  As much as I appreciate the assist, I sometimes felt the colored lines were playing the game for me.  But the icons in Project Cars 3 are static.  They’re strictly tied to the geometry of the track, regardless of your car’s speed or traction.  You have to work out on your own how to use the markers.

When you hit all three markers, you get a check mark on the curve and that portion of the track turns green in the minimap.  You’ve “mastered” that corner.  Here, have some experience points!  When you’ve checked all the curves and colored the whole track green, you’ve mastered the track.  Add another notch to that track’s accolade!  This is straight out of Need for Speed: Shift and it’s a perfect example of how Slightly Mad has “game-ified” good driving.  It’s also a great way to get intimate with the tracks.  You watch for the markers, you learn them, you dance with them, you work out a routine.  And eventually, you master the track.  It will now be that much easier to shave time off your laps.  

One thing that has evaded Slightly Mad since Need for Speed: Shift is selling all the systems they’ve created.  Electronic Arts knows how to put sizzle in a game.  They know how to hook players early and lure them in for the long run.  They know player psychology.  But without Electronic Arts’ dazzle-factor, Project Cars 3 can come across as a bit cold and even obtuse.  Slightly Mad knows how to put these systems together, but I’m not convinced they know how to present them.  They’re doing fine work under the hood, but when it comes to the interior, they’re missing the comfort of fine Corinthian leather.  A lot of the stuff I’ve explained in this review isn’t explained very well in the game.  It’s certainly not emphasized as much as it should be.  

For instance, why isn’t there a breakdown of how I earned experience points after a race?  This is the fundamental progression in Project Cars 3.  It’s the foundation for all the game’s systems.  So why not make it clear how I’m earning these points?  Why not spell it out during the post-race results?  Why not show me exactly what I got from clean sectors, clean overtakes, and high speeds?  Why not separate out the experience points I earn from accolades over time instead of just lumping them in with whatever I earned from that last event?  I should be told why I earned 20,000xp from this attempt, but only 10,000xp from the last attempt.  If the whole point of the system is to encourage driving well, the system should be transparent.

This is also a problem with upgrading and tuning the cars.  There’s a disappointing lack of information about how tuning works, and even worse, there’s no way to track its effects after a race.  Why is there no telemetry data in the replays?  And why is there no documentation for the tuning options?  If you’re not an inveterate gear-head, you’ll have to Google stuff like toe, camber, spring rate, and damping.  It’s all in here, but none of it is explained.  Even then, I’m not sure what to make of some of the options.  I know how gear ratios work, but what am I supposed to do with a “final drive” rating? Do I want a 3.333 or a 3.786?  Project Cars doesn’t offer so much as a tooltip.  It’s almost as if Slightly Mad Studios forgot they put tuning in the game, so they never got around to finishing it.  Honestly, this stuff is usually above my paygrade, but it’s a testament to Project Cars 3 that I would be interested in learning.  Sadly, Project Cars 3 isn’t interested in teaching.

This also brings up an utterly baffling design choice.  You upgrade your cars by buying new parts.  This is neatly broken down by category rather than actual parts.  I don’t have to know what a camshaft or an ECU does.  I just have to decide whether I want those categories to be stock, performance, track, or motorsport parts.  Basically, level 1, 2, 3, or 4.  All cars have various categories that can be upgraded (the categories and components even vary by types of cars), and the interface tells me how each part will change the car’s acceleration, top speed, and handling.  I can also see how it changes the car’s performance rating, which determines the car’s class, and therefore what events it’s eligible to race.

So this encourages a lot of mixing and matching for a variety of reasons.  You’ll often want to toe the line of a car’s class to make it competitive for any given event.  To drive my Corvette Stingray in a class C event, I have to make sure the performance rating doesn’t get higher than 500, which will tip if over into class B.  So I’ll probably want to puzzle out which combination of the 30 different parts will put me as close as I can get to a performance rating of 499.  

And here’s where Slightly Mad Studios went slightly mad.  Every time I swap out a car part, I have to pay money.  And I don’t just mean to buy the part.  Even for parts I own, it costs money to install them, regardless of whether it’s a downgrade or an upgrade.  I can theoretically take a piece of paper and make notes about how the values change.  So why can’t I just freely install and uninstall the parts I bought to try different configurations?  Why do I have to pay money to tinker with my car?  Am I being charged for labor?  If so, can I at least look at different configurations and then choose “confirm” before I’m billed?  What an utterly inane design choice for how it disincentivizes experimenting with your car.  That’s arguably the whole point of the upgrade system, yet Slightly Mad Studios decides to penalize you for using it.  This hare-brained design choice is especially galling considering the economy feels so carefully tuned otherwise.

It’s as if the guys at Slightly Mad are such gear-heads that they know there’s a labor cost involved when you take your car to the mechanic, so they figured it would be a good idea to include it in the game.  But it’s not.  It discourages exploration and tinkering.  It applies a money sink to something that has no business being a money sink.  And what’s especially insulting is that it’s not even a big money sink.  It’s an annoyance that’s big enough to be noticeable, but small enough that I can’t imagine why it’s even in there.  Especially in the early stages of the game when you should want to experiment with car configurations, and when you’re saving up to buy more cars.  

But more to the point, it’s a problem in Slightly Mad’s overall approach.  This is a game powered by smoothly running and meticulously built systems.  These guys know racing games.  They know what they’re doing.  They’ve figured out how to build Project Cars 3 around a compelling and unique context.  So why won’t they lift the hood and let us admire the engine better?  And why would they shoo us off if we want to get in there and tinker around ourselves?  It’s almost enough to make a fella long for the crowd-pleasing bombast of Electronic Arts.  Almost.

But these days, I can’t imagine Electronic Arts publishing such a serious racing game.  And this is definitely a serious racing game.  It’s premised on you being patient enough to practice tracks, being invested enough in your cars to master how they drive, and caring enough to shave fractions of seconds off your lap times.  These are requirements for Project Cars 3 as sure as the minimum system requirements.  But unlike other serious racing games, if you don’t meet these minimum requirements at first, you will eventually.  It will reward your patience.  It will get you invested.  It will make you care.  Because when winning isn’t everything and mere speed isn’t the ultimate goal, when you progress by racing well instead of just fast, all that’s left is the joy of learning.  That is what Project Cars 3 is ultimately about, what it’s built to deliver, what it’s carefully tuned to create: the joy of getting better at something.

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  • Project Cars 3

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • At last a racing game carefully and entirely built around drive well instead of just driving fast.
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