It drove pretty well with a Gamepad, but the reviews – as well as the core audience – certainly wanted a lot more than that.
I didn’t blame them.
IGN called Project CARS 3 “a racer so fundamentally different from its immediate forerunners, it’s bordering on unrecognizable.”
It was hard to argue with Luke Reilly’s assessment.
After spending two years of my life doing QA work on this game, the little victories we accomplished as a team along the way – from implementing fantastic gamepad support, to a useful in-game livery editor – all struggled to overshadow the obvious. Project CARS 3 was a catastrophic misstep from a company who desperately needed to get back in the good graces of it’s fans.
You don’t need internal sales figures to tell you what the data on Steamcharts shows quite prominently; not a whole lot of people are playing this game.
Companies don’t make mistakes like this very often, where they intentionally create a product the majority of their customers won’t be interested in, and analyzing what went wrong becomes a valid use of our time if only to prevent others from making the same mistakes.
That being said, even though I’m privy to a fair bit of insider information, there are certain lines I won’t cross when talking about this game. I’m obviously not happy with SMS and things will probably stay that way for a long while, but I don’t feel the need to reveal company secrets.
That’s not me trying to cover my ass from a legal standpoint, a lot of what went wrong with Project CARS 3, and why it never truly became the spiritual successor to the two Shift games from a decade ago is just… educated observations that I think anyone could make.
But for whatever reason, they didn’t.
Let’s throw it back to the two Need for Speed: Shift games, just for a moment.
When you look at these games through a critical lens, there’s really not a lot to the core racing experience, or even the gameplay loop itself. The races aren’t terribly long, there’s no equipment degradation or pit strategy to worry about, and car upgrades really just boil down to slapping on the remaining parts you haven’t purchased yet. Regardless of whether you’re playing the original Need for Speed: Shift from 2009, or it’s 2011 successor Shift 2: Unleashed, these games didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel. They are carbon copies of Forza Motorsport, a series that itself was already being criticized for repetitious, grindy, unrewarding gameplay by the time its’ critically acclaimed fourth iteration came out.
But this isn’t why people liked Shift.
With the help of Dr. Stephen Baystead and Mick Gordon, the Shift games were more akin to concept albums.
The menus were often dark and gloomy. The soundtrack was remixed to have several thematic renditions of each song, rather than just blasting you with the likes of Rise Against or Jimmy Eat World and hoping you could tolerate it. And behind the wheel, everything was cranked up to eleven. Not only were the engine and tire samples beyond obnoxious, but visual effects had been dialed up to an equally intense level.
Even if these various elements weren’t all that realistic, they served an overarching thematic purpose: sell people on the physicality, emotion, and intensity of driving a race car. And for the most part, it worked. A series that was on paper a pretty run-of-the-mill Forza Motorsport clone, had its’ own unique identity that gave people a reason to play it.
In other words, the Shift games had soul. They were a rock concert with race cars, and earned a place among the more serious sims available at the time. Don’t believe me? Those who were around for the days of NoGripRacing.com can most likely recall the astronomical download counts surrounding mods for both Shift games. Even the people who were quite vocal about their displeasure for the game’s direction, were still playing it in their spare time. It was just that much of a visceral experience.
Project CARS 3 omitted this aspect altogether.
Engine sounds are muted and dull. The soundtrack is this ambient electronic elevator music. Menus seem to feature every color of the rainbow. The loose particles that would hammer your windshield and pile up on the side of the track in the Shift games, are nowhere to be found. Even the rudimentary effects like motion blur and depth of field, seem to be a step backwards.
The game was not-so-subtly implied to be a spiritual successor to the Shift games, while missing a quintessential part of the formula that made Shift a genuine alternative to Forza.
In a lot of ways, the title resembles Van Halen’s ill-fated Van Halen III project from 1998; just because Eddie is on guitar – or in this case it’s the same company responsible for Shift games – doesn’t mean the project will automatically produce something as iconic as Hot for Teacher, or as viscerally appealing as Shift. There was a very specific formula that fueled each project’s respective success, and it just wasn’t adhered to at all.
Next, we get to the selection of content within the game.
There are instances where Project CARS 3 actually works quite well as a pick up and play simcade racer, and it all depends on the car/track combination you’re using.
Some of the tracks such as Long Beach, Havana, Monaco, and Shanghai (above), mixed with smaller fields, give the game a sort of Project Gotham Racing vibe and generally show off the stellar visuals of the Madness engine without drawing attention to dated track environments that have been reused for several games in a row.
Giving people too much shit to play with, makes the game feel like a hodgepodge of too many different ideas going on at once. Throwing nearly every single track from the pCars franchise into the track roster, and letting people drive anything from the Lotus turbine car to a rallycross Fiesta when there aren’t even any rallycross tracks and oval racing appears to be an afterthought, results in a game that doesn’t have any sort of concrete identity.
On paper, Project Gotham Racing 3 and Project CARS 3 are identical games. The difference is, PGR 3 clearly conveyed to users what it wanted to be and what you were getting – supercars on city streets. Project CARS 3 dumped all of the Hot Wheels onto the car city carpet and just sort of hoped you’d find ways to entertain yourself. Racing games, at least in my opinion, need a little more structure than that, especially when the most recent title in the series – Project CARS 2 – was still fresh in people’s minds.
Rather than recycle 90% of the content from Project CARS 2, it may have been worth trimming the content to something more focused and streamlined – honing in on exclusively street circuits with a much smaller car selection. To it’s credit, pCars 3 expanded the list of street cars compared to previous games, and it may have been worth focusing on that category of vehicles alone.
The core selection of street cars you make use of throughout career mode, mixed with a couple of modern GT cars such as the Corvette C8R and Ford GT saved for the very end of campaign, would have given the game a tangible identity that you could point to and say “pCars 3 is kind of like a reboot of PGR, with high performance cars racing around circuits set in urban areas and an emphasis on competitive play.”
This isn’t based on some fantasy of mine; as we’ve seen play out over the past two decades, the reception to simcade “city sprinters” has been unanimously positive. Metropolis Street Racer went down as the best driving game on the Dreamcast, Project Gotham Racing was a beloved franchise across two generations of consoles, and DriveClub seems to have been loved by all who played it – even with the objectively rocky launch it endured.
So even without changing the name of the game – as a lot of people seemed to have suggested on social media – the core audience would have quickly picked up on what this game was attempting to be, and probably embraced it for what it was as they’ve done with literally every other city sprinter game created by an AAA dev studio over the past twenty years.
Instead, they just got angry that it seemed to be a regurgitated version of Project CARS 2, but with pitstops and tire wear removed for some inexplicable reason.
Lastly, we get to the online side of things.
I think it’s safe to say that iRacing and Gran Turismo Sport have gotten online racing functionality down to a science. Racing games aren’t like first person shooters or sports games where college kids drunk off their ass want a one-click launch button and to be blasting other retards in seconds. When it comes to racing games, people prefer to treat it like rec league footy; they want a specific date or time when a race is set to take place, and it’s up to them to both plan their evening around it, as well as practice ahead of time. That generally seems to work given how racing games are much more difficult than running around and shooting people. Players need this practice not just for themselves, but in order to remain respectful around other drivers.
Project CARS 3 dipped it’s foot into the water in this regard, but never did enough to accommodate some of the things the core userbase was taking for granted in other titles.
The most prominent omission that sticks out to me is within the Scheduled Events game mode. This is the pCars 3 equivalent to iRacing official races, where you sign up for a race ahead of time, and then at the top of the hour it automatically launches and brings you into the server.
In iRacing and Assetto Corsa, there’s a number that’s prominently displayed on each race’s sign-up page, letting you know just how many people are registered for a given event. I shouldn’t really have to explain this concept but I’m going to anyways; this lets you see what combinations are popular, what you should be practicing, and what races to avoid since nobody else has signed up for them, either.
In Project CARS 3, this simple GUI number doesn’t exist.
Every single online event you sign up for, you’re going in blind. It is entirely possible to wait twenty minutes for an IndyCar race to start, only to discover just three people are in the race and one of them is some kid who has no intention of actually driving. This happened to me quite regularly when trying to play the game in my leisure time. It sucked.
Elo rank and Safety Rating systems are appreciated – like capitalism, they’re not perfect, but they’re the best thing we’ve got to clean up online racing – yet it’s important players have an equal chance to succeed with them as they do to fail.
Project CARS 3 struggles in this capacity, as the pick-up-and-play pad handling results in much closer racing than anticipated among users who might not be prepared for it, and certain car/track combos breed insanity. You are simply not going to earn safety rating at Lydden Hill in a Stadium Super Truck, nor in a Formula E car on a street circuit, and most certainly not in Road E or Road D cars at abbreviated versions of tracks like Monza or Silverstone. There is just not enough real estate on the track for everybody, resulting in the vast majority of players losing safety rating through no fault of their own.
The game wants players to crash and bash and have a good time in a lighthearted environment, but the races are being scored as if they’re still playing a hardcore racing simulator. In hindsight, it might have been worth scrapping safety rating altogether, and just sticking with Elo rank.
Then we get to the event rotation itself. Unlike Gran Turismo Sport, iRacing, or Assetto Corsa’s third party racing apps – all which stick with just a handful of car/track combinations over a period of several days – the scheduled event rotation is constantly cycling in I believe ten minute or fifteen minute increments. You’ll do an IndyCar race, and return to the menu to find six completely different races available to select, with no underlying theme to them.
Players don’t get much of an opportunity to practice a certain combination or get familiar with racing one specific class of car online, further driving players away from races. They don’t know how many people have signed up for a race, and the combinations switch so frequently that online racing ends up being more trouble than it’s worth.
This unintentionally wreaks havoc on a main mechanic of the game – car upgrades.
The game encourages you to blast through career mode and amass a collection of upgraded cars for various classes, which you can then take online. However, because events rotate between classes so frequently, you might spend $150,000 to build a Road B car for online racing, only to use it for precisely one race that nets you a whopping $11,000 in prize money. Building this car has put you over $100k in the hole, and you have no idea when you’ll be able to use it again to try and recoup some of your investment.
It’s messy, especially with money being so hard to come by in the game.
And… that’s really it.
Project CARS 3 really could have been the Shift 3 people had been waiting a decade for. It fixed the atrocious pad handling that plagued both Shift games, implemented a livery editor that was relatively easy to make nice looking skins with, and made somewhat smart advancements in the area of online play based on what other games were already doing.
And yet… it didn’t happen.
For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, there was no effort made to turn the game into a visual thrill ride, when this was the key cornerstone of the Shift experience. This alone was what sold the general public on the Shift titles – not the car roster or the career mode or the physics model – the fact that when you booted the game, browsing the menus got you hyped to play it, and actually climbing into a car, the engine sounds were incredible, shit was bouncing off your windshield, and crashing looked cool. None of this made the transition into the next console generation or is even remotely present in Project CARS 3.
I don’t know.
Funneling players into a PGR-like experience consisting solely of street tracks, supercars, and maybe some GTE or GT3 cars at the very end of the game, would have provided the game with a tangible identity that many were already familiar with and wishing would return.
Giving people the option to race IndyCars at Indianapolis, only to discover the wrong aero kit was used, and for them to cruise by pit lane every lap and see a giant barrier blocking pit entry, just made people mad and wonder what the game was trying to accomplish.
Even without the online refinements mentioned, these two design choices alone could have seen the game fit nicely alongside the more serious sims of 2020 – an entertaining yet not-so-serious alternative to the vast array of hardcore offerings on the market, just as the two Shift games were a decade prior.
The skeletal framework of Project CARS 3 is genuinely quite good, but in terms of game design felt more akin to dumping all of your Hot Wheels out onto the floor, and it’ll go down as an unfortunate missed opportunity.