The world of racing sims is rarely seen to be the most approachable of genres. Dripping in jargon and technicalities that can feel like another language to those not versed in gears and gizmos, it can be a daunting genre to get involved with. But Project Cars 3, despite its position as a highly rated racing simulator, is aiming to strip down the walls between sim and arcade racer, and hopefully entice a few new players along the way too.
"We had a concern that simulators and racing sims were kind of seen as fairly po-faced and fairly technical and fairly dry, and not welcoming. A little bit elitist, maybe," says Pete Morrish, production director on Project Cars 3.
"While we’ve still got what we’re renowned for, which is that amazing sandbox and toy set of loads of different cars and loads of different tracks and loads of different weather conditions that you can combine in whatever way you see fit – we popped on top of that a whole metagame, and a whole career system to really support newcomers to the franchise, and those that are maybe further down the continuum towards more casual, more “pick up and play” people, than the usual sim-head crowd."
At the core of this ethos is a completely rebuilt career mode, re-structured to encourage players to play how they want from the very start. Aimed to be a curated tour of the best cars and tracks the game has to offer, the new career mode also takes you through all 10 upgradeable car classes and gives you achievable objectives with scaled rewards throughout. If you're a newcomer to the racing sim genre, it's all geared towards helping you learn, moving you towards a place where you have to rely on fewer assists. Those who are more experienced are catered for too though, as you'd hope, with in-game credits used to help bypass events that don't suit your playstyle, and the constant accrual of non-mode specific XP will help overall progress too.
"We do other things like rewarding players for the path that they want to take through the Career Mode, rather than holding things back because they haven’t tried a bit of everything." explains Joe Barron, marketing and esports manager on Project Cars 3. "If you want to pick a particular discipline and stick to it, the better you get on it, you’re going to get similar rewards to people who are a sort of jack of all trades and spread it across a lot of different types of trials and things like that."
"So it’s making sure that we reward people for playing the way that they want to, rather than punishing them for not experimenting with all the different areas that are there."
From zero to hero
But it's not just the career mode that has had a serious revamp for this new series' entry. Project Cars 3 is doing away with the community events from previous games in favour of something much more curated, and accessible, in the form of the new asynchronous multiplayer mode known as Rivals.
"We’ve seen on both the previous two games that community events were super-popular, but they were a little bit basic in the sense that it was scenarios that we were setting up and then a sort of single big leader board," adds Barron. "That, in some ways, could be a little bit discouraging, because obviously the first time you go into that mode in the previous two games and see those leader boards, you’re seeing the top chunk of it."
"For some people, they might see that and think, “I’ve got no chance here” and they walk away and do something else."
With Rivals though, the team at Slightly Mad Studios has drilled down the Rivals mode into daily, weekly, and monthly challenges, all of which you'll earn XP for and Rivals Coins. Leader boards have divisions within them to encourage you to aim for a top of a much smaller division, with those leaderboards resetting at the end of each month, with relegation and promotion for racers across all of them.
Just to encourage you even further to better your game, the Rivals mode features dynamic ghosts, with the game automatically grabbing new ghosts from your closest leaderboard competitors.
"[Project Cars 3] wants you to get good. It wants you to enjoy racing and discover what we love about it. And that's what we're ultimately trying to share," explains Pete Morrish, production director on Project Cars 3.
Helping that mentality is the improved skill-based matchmaking, which Slightly Mad explains is using a refined version of the racing license system found in previous games to ensure you're racing against people closer to your skill level than ever before.
"It will mean that not just the quality of racing and fairness of it is better, but also that because you'll be racing in a similar skill level to you, hopefully the more you do that, the more you'll learn from each other, and the quicker you'll progress," says Barron.
Of course, there are some things that haven't changed with Project Cars 3, and that includes the quality of the graphics. There are improvements en route with this new title, with the headline offering probably being the long-awaited car customisation options, which finally mean your creative side can be seen on your car by anyone you race with - spectators included - meaning you've got plenty to brag about aside from your driving abilities.
Plus, there's been a big focus on improving the realism and intensity of the race - particularly trying to mirror the sensation you feel when playing the game in VR - including new post-processing and motion blur effects, camera shakes and collision damage experiences.
"Because racing games look good these days - all of them look good these days - you don’t position yourself differently by making it look even more like real life," explains Morrish. "You need to identify a slightly different way of doing it, and that’s where we’re at. So we’re really going for the visuals making it feel as though you’re racing a car, as opposed to just making it look like you’re racing a car."
From everything I've seen so far, Project Cars is an interesting blend of old and new determined to get more people racing - and learning - than ever before. It's an interesting tack for a serious racing sim to take, but one that's clearly been thought through from career mode to new multiplayer. I just can't wait to see how it handles when Project Cars 3 hits PS4, Xbox One and PC later this year.