AAA virtual reality (VR). That’s something the community has dreamed about since the day the initial Kickstarter for Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift launched. Nearly three years later with no consumer hardware available that’s still a dream, but if anything Project CARS serves as wonderful reassurance that we are getting there. Things are moving, and it’s most certainly in the right direction.
A realistic racing simulator, Project CARS does make allowances for the less knowledgeable racer – or those not willing to be bogged down in torque stats and degrees of turning arcs – in a similar vein to that of Forza Motorsport. Driving lines, auto-braking, assisted handling and other aids are available to tweak to your liking, though the huge variety of vehicles never gets close to the relaxed state of the DiRT series: make a mistake and you will pay for it. The influence of Slighty Mad Studios’ earlier work on the Need for Speed: SHIFT titles is unmistakable, not least in terms of the default viewpoint being first-person.
That selection of vehicles is perhaps Project CARS raison d’etre. From high-powered performance machines to hatchbacks and even go-karts, and everywhere in between, Project CARS‘ catalogue of more than 70 vehicles offers a staggering variety wherein no two vehicles feel quite the same. Furthermore, players will visit more than 30 race tracks, and variations thereof leading to a count of over 100, affording the opportunity to put each through it’s paces in unique settings.
‘Plentiful’ is the byword of Project CARS, then. ‘Excessive’ could also be thrown at the videogame however, when it comes to the variety of gameplay modes on offer. Not content with simply offering a career mode, exhibition races and online gameplay, Project CARS presents a myriad of different racing opportunities all blessed (cursed?) with a lengthy introduction from a disembodied voice. The career mode is the staple and is well presented, taking you through a calendar of events and working your way up the ladder signing better contracts with sponsors and manufacturers, but it does feel somewhat ethereal at times. There’s a distance between your performance and the resulting accolade, almost as if events were scripted purely by numbers.
When it comes to VR, Project CARS isn’t perfect but it’s perhaps closer than any other AAA videogame has yet come. The in-game design is simply amazing; never has the race felt so real. The amount of depth that is added by the ability to turn and look at the driver next to you or crane your neck to see the angle of the descending corner ahead, simply by moving your head, is nothing less than a breakthrough for racing videogames. Project CARS is aiming for a realistic simulation of being a racing driving in the thick of it, and it’s never closer to achieving that goal than with the Oculus Rift. The in-helmet camera is a marvel of both design and interpretation; closing the gap between in-game world and real-world by the relation of actually wearing a helmet in the form of a HMD.
The performance of Project CARS in VR is commendable. Though the framerate may be a little low for the eventual consumer hardware there were no noticeable drops in the many hours VRFocus has spent with the videogame. It’s a comfortable and rewarding racing experience unlike anything else yet seen in VR, and at this present moment there’s not much more that could be asked of a simulation launching before VR has a mass market audience.
Sadly, outside of the racing the design leaves a lot to be desired. There are no menus designed for VR, and as such a lot of squinting or removing the HMD is required to navigate the complex series of boxouts and options that Project CARS offers as a hub. Furthermore, while the videogame automatically detects if an Oculus Rift DK2 is connected in ‘Extended Desktop’ mode, there is no ‘Direct to Rift’ option in the release build. This is undoubtedly a shame as the configuration process will require most players to spend time figuring out the best resolution option for their own personal interpupillary distance (IPD); Project CARS falls foul to that long winded problem of offering a resolution scale that doesn’t quite translate to the Oculus Rift’s own.
Despite it’s flaws, Project CARS arriving with VR compatibility from day one is a not insignificant achievement. It highlights the progress which has been made over the last few years and will undoubtedly help pave the way for even more AAA videogames to offer support for the technology. Alone it can’t be said that Project CARS offers a compelling enough reason for the uncertain gamer to adopt VR, but for those already convinced by the technology and in possession of an Oculus Rift DK2 it’s a near-essential purchase.