(PROJECT CARS 3 is out now on all platforms. Distributor provided review copy.)

If it hasn’t become clear by now from my previous reviews, I’m not a big fan of hardcore simulations. I love RTS games, but the moment they start getting bogged down in what I call “spreadsheet masturbation,” I tend to tune out. Which doesn’t mean any of them are inherently bad games, it’s just that I lack the patience and focus to deal with the intense amount of dedication they require. The same applies for any of genre; once things become riddled with minutiae the joy of exploration fades out for me. 

With that being said, I can totally understand why PROJECT CARS 3 is going to rub fans of the series the wrong way. It’s finally the installment that says goodbye to any semblance of realistic simulation and embraces the joy of arcade racing with open arms. Gone are the heavy customization options of vehicles and many of the admittedly impressive calculations that go into planning a solid race. In their place is a more casual, but never simplistic take on racing, one that emphasizes the thrill of the moment in a more visual and pop-culture sort of way. 

To compare it to films, if PRIMER is to time travel movies what GRAN TURISMO is for the racing sim, then PROJECT CARS is the LOOPER equivalent in this case. Neither means that either one is objectively any better, only that they’re both different takes on a heady subject, one choosing to focus on the science and calculations, while the other on making the experience feel as cinematic as possible. 

Which, surprisingly, doesn’t always translate as clearly as it should. The campaign mode, for example, is often far too grindy and meandering to really satisfy the “racing legend” feel that the game aims for. Too many times you’ll come out of a race only to find that the rewards are meager to say the least, and before you know it’s right back to replaying old contests or grinding better lap times just to afford the next car or upgrade. 

But alternatively the game still impresses with weather and its effects on the track, as well as some of the best handling found in racing games this year. Every car has a distinct feel to it, and there’s a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when you start to get a hang of a brand new vehicle.

It’s the seemingly small details that hampers the biggest joys of PROJECT CARS 3. On the track, with all the other stuff out of the way, the game is a thrilling celebration of driving fast and outsmarting your opponents on tight corners. It feels like a big budget Hollywood movie, coming out as an underdog and struggling your way to the finish line. The beautiful graphics and lovingly rendered cars (with an impressive number of licensed models) all amplify this perfectly.

But gathering XP, money, and all the necessary hoopla just gets boring very quickly. It’s much more fun to hop behind the wheel in multiplayer or a pure arcade race to get that adrenaline thrill. Unlike the FORZA HORIZON series, which understands the importance of letting the fantasy run wild, PROJECT CARS still lingers on its past as a more “serious” racing simulator, and it can’t quite let go of it for the full arcade experience. 

That’s fully understandable too. The pedigree behind PROJECT CARS is staggering, especially since it was purchased by Codemasters, the iconic studio behind some of the biggest racing games in the world. The game is saddled with expectations it couldn’t possibly meet, and trying to satisfy both audiences will end up satisfying nobody. At times it seems that developer Slightly Mad Studios understands that, putting much of the control into the hands of a surprisingly stern auto-assist, while at others trying to make up for some perceived transgressions in burying the lead under a menu system that can only be called messy. 

Said menu by the way didn’t let me adjust graphics options or any system related settings until well after my first race, and even then it was fiddly to get anything done – despite that I was playing on a controller, which seems to be the default setting the game is designed for. 

But these are ultimately small problems in a game that feels as fun to play as PROJECT CARS 3 does. At its finest moments it’s a zen-like experience that captures the imagination and lets you fully immerse yourself in a racing world that doesn’t feel cumbersome for those who just want to go fast and look good while doing so. 

It’s not for everyone, but for most it’s the perfect starting point if you’re car racing holds any interest to you – just as long as it’s just the racing part.