A strange thing happened to me while I was playing a nearly-finished version of Project CARS at the weekend. I was using a single-seater 'Formula C' car at Oulton Park. I'd been using cockpit cam for a couple of hours, but I cycled through the other views just to see what they were like. And then I said out loud: "No way." Then again, a second later: "No way." And a third time, another second later, in a kind of refusal to accept what I was seeing. "No way." Helmet cam in Project Cars is like nothing else I've ever seen.
Or, to be more accurate, like nothing I've ever seen in a video game. But I have seen it in real life. Maybe it was a coincidence that I switched into the cockpit cam at exactly the right moment for the in-game weather, car's motion and look-to-apex camera movement to convince me, but the simulation in that moment was completely convincing. A recreation of reality.
Firstly, it's worth mentioning that Slightly Mad Studios have a track-record (no pun intended) of producing great helmet cams. Need For Speed: Shift is famous for it. But it's also worth mentioning that the game has been designed with the aim of recreating the experience of driving racing cars in extreme authenticity.
The 'CARS' in its name is an anagram for 'Community Assisted Racing Simulation' because it was crowd-funded by the racing game community, who were allowed to give input and test the game depending on how much money they pledged to its development. I am not a backer, but the people who did back it are just like me. That article I wrote about how racing games need to be more hardcore (opens in new tab) echoes their thoughts. And now here's a game on PS4 and Xbox One (and PC, of course) that looks set to actually deliver that experience.
I've played a heck of a lot of racing games over the past 27 or so years. From Super Hang-On and OutRun (opens in new tab) arcade cabinets in the late 1980s to reviewing the likes of Gran Turismo 6 (opens in new tab) and GRID Autosport (opens in new tab) on GamesRadar, racers are my favourite kind of game. But few have ever really conveyed the feeling of weight that a real car has. Most racing sims, particularly Forza 5, have such slippery-feeling cars, it's a job to keep yourself on the circuit. And that's what puts people off driving sims. They try to turn the first corner and instead slide off into the gravel as the rest of the field disappears into the distance. That isn't fun. That will never be fun.
Project Cars does have that when you first play it. Head out of the pits in a Formula A car, hit the throttle and you will instantly spin. But wait! That's just because the tyres are cold. Feed in the throttle slowly using R2 and do a slow lap to get some heat into them. Once they're up to temperature, you'll have way more grip. And that's where the physics really start to shine. And are magnificent fun.
Here, the gameplay properly kicks in. There's challenge, weighted against magnificent reward. Snetterton's Bentley Straight gives you so much speed to contend with it's a wonderful challenge to slow a car without losing control at the following left-right. But it's doable. Even with a DualShock 4, it's doable. Such realism in the physics engine has benefits across the experience. Contact with other cars isn't constrained like it is in Codemasters' F1 games. Drive a low-nosed car into the back of another and you'll punt it over your nosecone. Cars will flip if that's what they would do. And the result is exciting because it's spectacular.
The other aspect of this hyper-real simulation is the weather. Games like Forza Horizon 2 have real-time weather changes, and Driveclub's wet races have to be seen to be believed. But Project CARS' weather system provides a second "no way" moment. Driving on the beautiful California coastal road, I set the weather to change from clear to thunderstorm and at 5x speed. Watching the clouds literally roll in is amazing. The colour tones change and the rain starts to clatter down on the roof of your saloon. Again, the simulation of real life is startling. There's a cosiness to being inside a car while the storm pours down outside. This realism is evoking emotional responses because it's so close to its muse.
For whatever reason - maybe because console gamers have grown accustomed to more immediate gratification - hardcore racing sims have eschewed Xbox and PlayStation in favour of PCs. So seeing a game like this on console is a revelation. PS4 has enough power to be able to trick a brain that's experienced racing games for decades that what it's looking at is, in fact, real life. In that single-seater, you don't play Project CARS like a video game. You drive it like you would a real car. It's a massive, fundamental difference but - crucially - one that makes it no less exciting. It's knuckle-whiteningly fast, it's beautiful, and it's full of spectacular incidents. If the finished game can realise this potential, it could change how we think about racing games.