Review: Project CARS and Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 cater to gearheads, but keep it too casual

Project CARS

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At a Glance
  • Slightly Mad Studios Project CARS

  • Red Dot Games Car Mechanic Simulator

I allow for a certain amount of magic in my life. While I know a fair amount about the inside of computers, there are other machines I use every day that I understand literally nothing about. How does a blender turn fruit into fruit-glue? How does my shower faucet go from freezing cold to burning hot with nothing in between?

And most importantly, how do cars work?

Actually, to be honest: I thought I knew more about how cars worked. I’ve changed a (real-life) tire before. I’ve changed oil. I play a lot of arcade-y racing games. But then Project CARS and Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 released within a few weeks of each other and I suddenly noticed this vast hole in my knowledge.

So I rolled up my sleeves and got my virtual hands greasy.

Good with a wrench

In Car Mechanic Simulator 2015, you live out all your dreams of being the slowest, most inept mechanic shop owner in the world who gradually comes to understand his chosen profession by screwing people’s cars up.

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015

Oops. (Click to enlarge)

Why did you become a mechanic in the first place? Was it to earn your dad’s approval? Maybe you’re a method actor and you’re trying to really understand the plight of the working class? Maybe you’re Bruce Springsteen?

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015

Actually, you’re apparently this dude.

Whatever your reason, I suggest you figure out your character’s backstory early. Explain to yourself why you don’t even know what a “rear sway bar” is, or why you can’t locate the steering column, but somehow you own a massive garage shop. And find out quickly, because your first job is coming in.

Okay, so now you have a car. What do you do with it? First you try to understand some of the more esoteric controls. Hint: You can only see what needs to be done to a car by walking up to it and pressing the “O” key. This was not explained by the tutorial, but is a very important part of the game.

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015

Another hint: If the job you’re doing provided a list of parts to swap, there’ll be a star next to the name of each part. Click that star and the game will highlight where in the car those parts are located. I tell you this because it’s another thing the tutorial will not explain.

And without that tutorial explanation, you may very well do what I did: Start hunting for the part in question, dismantling half the front suspension to get at the lower suspension arm.

I can imagine the conversation with the customer now. “Sorry, I know you came in just to get your oil changed. Yes I know it should’ve taken all of five minutes. No, your car isn’t ready. Listen, it’s in about a hundred pieces right now. Don’t—Don’t you yell at me! You’re the one who left your car with the mechanic who didn’t even know what a rear axle knuckle housing was!”

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015

That? Well that...sure is an engine...thing.

Dismantle. Assemble. Dismantle. Assemble. This is the core feedback loop of Car Mechanic Simulator 2015. A car rolls into (more like magically appears in) the shop. You check the job listing to see what’s wrong. You (most likely) put it on one of those massive car-lifting fork things. You disassemble a ton of parts—occasionally simulating a socket wrench by holding the mouse down over bolts. You remove the broken parts. You buy new versions of those parts on your 1998 Custom Edition PC. You install the new parts. You put everything back together.

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015

“Can we upgrade our shop to Windows 7 at least? No?”

Luckily that last step is made easy with a ghost-image of each part you need to assemble. And the game doesn’t allow you to assemble parts in the wrong order.

It’s really Car Mechanic Simulator Lite because I don’t think I could actually reassemble an engine from scratch, but I can certainly do so with the help of a nifty alternate-reality interface showing me where each part goes.

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015

Anything that looks like a ghost-outline of a car part? Yeah, that’s where you can reassemble something. It’s pretty easy.

That’s not to say Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 isn’t a helpful teaching tool. The more jobs you do, the more complicated the jobs that show up. Soon the game has you diagnosing what’s wrong on your own, fixing things based on vague descriptions like “It doesn’t sound right.” The types of descriptions I would give a real mechanic. And when the game switches, you’ll realize, “Yeah, I actually do know what the problem is when the car doesn’t sound right.”

You’ll probably tire of the grind long before the game runs out of scenarios to throw at you, and I’d like to see a larger selection of real-world cars to work on, but I enjoyed my time with Car Mechanic Simulator 2015. Throw on some classic rock, break out a PBR, roll up your sleeves, and…

Project CARS

…realize you still know absolutely nothing about cars. What the hell is this?

Project CARS

Project CARS is a stupid name, but at least it tells you what the game’s about, provided you know the backronym: Community Assisted Racing Simulator. Well, sort of tells you what the game’s about. The “Community Assisted” part actually refers to the crowdfunding campaign, I think. It’s not some sort of “It takes a village to raise a racecar” maxim.

Whatever. It’s a racing simulator. You drive cars, mostly in circles but occasionally on roads.

NOTE UP FRONT: Project CARS has absolutely abysmal performance issues on AMD hardware, whether because of AMD neglect, some sort of Nvidia manipulation, the Illuminati, whatever. As such, if you’re running an AMD GPU I literally cannot in good faith recommend this game to you at the moment, though AMD's working on getting new drivers out. Knock at least two points off the score at the bottom until it's fixed. Maybe more.

Also, the graphics are beautiful under the right conditions:

Project CARS
Project CARS
Project CARS

That’s really the sell, with Project CARS. It doesn’t have the largest collection of cars, nor the best physics, nor the most competent AI, but sometimes you turn a corner and it looks like this:

Project CARS

…and your jaw drops.

But let’s just acknowledge the graphics are phenomenal and move on, because this is after all a racing game. If all I wanted were pretty graphics, I could watch real cars drive around a real track.

As a game and not just a graphics showcase, Project CARS is a bit of a mixed bag. The AI is the most middling of the lot, with cars sticking rigorously to their optimal line pathing even when it doesn’t make sense. I know Forza’s “Drivatar” thing has a stupid name, but I will say the concept is sound—by “learning” from the way real people drive, it allows the AI to simulate a race in ways that make normal, preprogrammed AI routines seem really boring.

Even on the higher difficulties, the AI in Project CARS has a maddening tendency to stick to the line instead of reacting to its surroundings. Try to pass them? Lots of times they don’t care. They’ll stick to the line. Hairpin turn? They’ll stick to the line even if it means massive traffic jam and rear cars literally slamming into the cars in front. Crash into them? “Hey, I’d better get back to driving along that line.” All the time.

Project CARS

Unless, of course, the race begins with an AI-controlled rolling start. Then all bets are off. You’re forced to watch the AI drive your car for five or so seconds before assuming control, and where you assume control? That’s part of the fun! If you’re lucky you’ll take control of the car when it’s in the middle of a turn. If you’re really lucky, the car will be pointed like it’s ready to head off the track.

As for the physics and handling: I’m no expert, and thus can’t speak from anyplace except “plays a lot of racing games.” That being said, I’d personally argue the handling is better in Assetto Corsa, while some of the physics models (particularly the tire wear) is more realistic in Project CARS.

You likely won’t notice a huge difference unless you’re deeply invested in cars. To the layperson, both would be intimidatingly sim-heavy. A racing wheel is heavily recommended, because even if you peruse the many “Use these settings for your controller!” Steam guides for Project CARS, the game is still nigh-on-impossible to play correctly with a gamepad—not least because there’s no real force feedback. It’s like trying to fly a jet but you replaced the controls with a toaster, and you’re wearing mittens.

And that’s my biggest issue with Project CARS: It tries to be everything to everyone, but it isn’t really.

Project CARS

So you get keyboard and mouse controls that barely function. You get default gamepad controls that don’t even make sense—the sensitivities are so whack, the community has published numerous guides on how to fix it. You get races in Career Mode (already weird for a simulator) defaulted to two laps, as if that were enough time in a sim racer to pass all your opponents (hint: it’s not). Hell, two laps isn’t even enough for you to experience the tire wear model the developers painstakingly built, or require a pit stop.

There are all these concessions built in for the Forza Horizon/Burnout Paradise/arcade racing crowd (of which I am normally a member) and yet the game remains maddeningly obtuse. The game urges you to tweak your car before races—change tire pressure, adjust springs, whatever—and yet it doesn’t tell you (except for brief, general-overview fluff) what any of the settings do, nor why they matter, and it hides them in this awful UI. I mean, look at it again:

Project CARS

That’s not just unintuitive. It’s unfriendly. If you don’t already know what you’re doing in Project CARS, that UI is going to actively turn you away from learning.

Project CARS also forces you through ten-minute practice and qualifying sessions before races in Career Mode, and while you can skip past both (simulate to the end), that’s basically a good way to ensure you land seeded in last place for the actual race. Let me reiterate: The game allows you to set the real race to two laps, because it acknowledges some of you have limited time on your hands or whatever. But then it forces you to sit through about twenty minutes of prep before your two-lap race.

Project CARS

Again, it’s a hardcore sim clumsily bolted onto aspects of a friendlier arcade game, and ends up landing somewhere in between the two markets.

I wish they’d just doubled down on the simulator aspects instead, because those aspects are pretty good! Not a ton of cars, but a decent selection of tracks. Excellent graphics. Fantastic weather effects (both visually and otherwise). Handling and physics models that are at least on par with (and occasionally better than) the competition. If you have the patience to deal with its eccentricities—to dial in your controls, to tweak your car, to mess with the settings until they’re exactly how you want them—then Project CARS is a good game.

But you might not stick around long enough.

Bottom line(s)

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 and Project CARS are both super-niche games for a super-niche crowd that, for some reason, make a bunch of concessions to “ordinary” people. Car Mechanic Simulator could use more cars so it feels less like a grind, sure, but its biggest sin is how easy it renders car reassembly—literally 50 percent of the game’s appeal minimized. With Project CARS, the simulator aspects are co-opted and somewhat compromised by a desire to simultaneously appeal to the arcade racer crowd—without actually being an arcade racer. I think both are good games, but slightly miss the mark for both casual passersby and enthusiasts.

Regardless, I’m done with cars. I’m turning off the Springsteen. I’m removing my driving gloves. I’m throwing out that DVD copy of Drive that’s sitting in my living room. I’m done. See you on public transportation.

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