Project CARS is not your average Sunday drive. Rather than attempt to tune the release to a common ideal, developer Slightly Mad Studios has instead served up a racing simulation that requires real effort if you intend to get the most out of it. Everything about the game – from the controls to the heads-up display – is malleable, enabling you to mould the experience to your own exacting tastes. This means that you have to be willing to tweak and tinker until you find your own personal sweet spot – and it's only then that the title tends to hit top gear.

It's a bold approach from a British developer clearly not afraid of taking risks. Those that have followed the industry closely for the past few years will know that the title started life as a crowd-funded affair for motorsport aficionados; it's only since the, er, project has picked up speed that publisher Bandai Namco has waltzed onto the scene. And you do get the sense that this has been built with workshop dwelling enthusiasts in mind: any sense of progression has been left at the pitstop – your reward for competing may merely be crossing the finish line intact.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the game is that it doesn't really explain itself – it leaves you to experiment instead. The default DualShock 4 controls, for example, are twitchy out of the box, and attempting to manoeuvre a Formula A vehicle – the game's not-so subtle nod to a particularly popular motoring pastime – will have you chasing your own tail if you don't delve in and adapt the sensitivity. Fortunately, the game gives you almost unlimited scope to do this – but with no explanation on settings such as Control Filtering Sensitivity, it can feel like guesswork at times.

And yet that tinkering mentality is arguably part of the appeal: tweaking tire pressure and analysing the impact on your lap times is where you'll be spending chunks of your time; the game wants you to explore all of its options – even if it's not especially forthcoming at discussing what many of them actually mean. It's for that reason that it demands a dedicated mindset: rock up on race day expecting to blitz the competition in your lazily assembled hot hatch, and you can expect the kind of schooling that will have you digging your old copy of Ridge Racer Type 4 out of the attic.

Alternatively, you can suck it up and attempt to determine exactly where you went wrong. The campaign mode – which allows you to start in any discipline that you desire – augments you with ample opportunity to practice, with each lap and adjustment steering you one step closer to that all-important podium place. But it's also cunning in its execution: a sudden downpour, for example, can throw a spanner into the works of even the best laid plans. It's true simulation: unexpected and unfair – just like real life.

Of course, this won't be everyone's cup of high-performance oil – and nor will the single player structure, which shuns the role-playing fantasy ride of its contemporaries for something a little more straight. As already alluded, you can start with whichever racing class you like – from frenetic superkarts all the way up to sports cars – and even set your own targets. There are historic goals mapped out for you to achieve – along with various awards and accolades for you to unlock along the way – but this is all guff ladled on top of the core white knuckle experience.

As you progress through the game and make a name, you'll be invited to one-shot events which will allow you to get a taste for different types of cars. You're never building up a garage of virtual automotive memorabilia here: you'll join an event, race the vehicle that you're told to, and hopefully finish somewhere towards the front of the pack. Robotically written email messages as well as a Milestone-inspired social media wall attempts to add some personality to proceedings – but any real satisfaction stems from practicing, perfecting your strategy, and finishing on the podium.

To be fair, the game does feel good when you're out on the road: the undulation of the many courses – ranging from British staples such as Brand's Hatch and Silverstone all the way through to foreign favourites like Bathurst and the ubiquitous Nordschleife – causes your car to bob and bounce; hitting top speed in, say, an Audi R18 conveys that all-important sensation of downforce. And, of course, weather plays its part: rain-slicked roads will lead to a loss of grip, forcing you to approach hairpins with a degree of caution lest you find yourself slipping onto a lap invalidating grass verge.

It's not necessarily a looker, though: the quest for 60 frames-per-second means that environments outside of the fictional coastal roads of California and France can seem a little flat – regardless of the many bloom and heat haze effects layered on top. This isn't a problem per se – your focus will always be on the tarmac directly ahead regardless – but it can feel like a bit of a letdown if you've already been spoiled by the visual thrills of rival DriveClub. More problematic is that the title's susceptible to framerate dips and tearing on regular occasions.

These fluctuations are forgivable if only because they mostly tend to occur when you're competing against a very busy starting grid; less acceptable are the interface issues which are a common thorn in the title's rear bumper. For a game that demands you tweak so much, we found ourselves infuriated with the way in which it would cancel settings that we'd just adjusted for no real rhyme or reason – or, on a couple of occasions, list us as the loser in a race that we'd just won. There are some real irritating bugs here, which, while mostly minor, take the gloss off things a bit.

It's not that the game's subject to Assassin's Creed Unity-esque flaws – but the little things do add up. A core pillar of the experience, for example, sees you competing in developer curated events in order to set the best times. However, after several hours achieving reasonable – if unspectacular – laps, we're still yet to see our best times register in the game's online scoreboard. Downloading ghosts for Time Trials, meanwhile, seems to require an engineering degree to understand – after many minutes head scratching, we couldn't download any of the runs that we wanted to race against.

Multiplayer is more streamlined, but to its disadvantage. The curious lack of curation here is a real oversight, essentially allowing you to set up any kind of race weekend that you like, and allow others to join. The problem is that you can never be entirely sure of what you're going to get: a two-lap sprint against a group of hot-headed teens or a four-hour leisurely drive with a couple of studious 40-somethings. The netcode's rock solid once you find a race that works for you, but it's all a bit free-form.

Conclusion

But then that's Project CARS in a nutshell: it's unfocused from the offset, and it's up to you to locate the parts that you find appealing. Think of this as a motoring playset – a production line of components that you need to order and assemble for yourself. Once you get the controls where you want them, your car exactly how you like it, and your race day tactics tightened up, it delivers an exhilarating ride, but few will have the patience – or, indeed, the willpower – to reach that point, and thus it's hard to imagine this outing achieving the mainstream success of other competing motoring series.