Project CARS 3 is not a simulator. Those familiar with the series may be surprised by this, but it’s true. It doesn’t look or feel like a simulator, either on the track or away from it. There are over 200 cars with most of the big hitters on the roster, but there’s no celebration of them in the menus like you get in something like Gran Turismo Sport. We would argue there’s also no real celebration of them on the track either because most of the cars feel very similar and handling is optimised first and foremost for accessibility, with controller users in mind. Yes, there are scalable assists and difficulty options, but tyre wear, fuel usage, pit stops, practice, and qualifying are gone, and even ignoring the absence of these sim staples, the core of the game feels distinctly like an arcade game.

Let’s look at this for what it is, then.

In the pursuit of a wider audience, it would appear that developer Slight Mad Studios has looked at all the best racing games currently available on PS4 for inspiration. The single player career mode seems to be heavily inspired by DriveClub, multiplayer primarily works around scheduled events like those in Gran Turismo Sport, there are some board smashing score-based events like in DiRT 4, and we have a range of timed and daily events like the ones that dominate Dirt Rally 2.0. The blur effect and camera wobble of prior games remains, giving a visceral sense of speed, and the corner waymarking system is likewise taken from the team’s prior work on Need for Speed: Shift.

In terms of single player, career mode is where you will likely spend the majority of your time. The idea is to work your way through a series of categories, beginning with road races through GT, Formula E, and Indycar challenges. Within each of these categories are groups of events with varying requirements, such as the wheelbase, year of manufacture, or overall car score, such as the type you might have seen in Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport series. You buy new cars from the showroom using credits and you earn XP from taking part in events. XP applies to both your driver – you have to hit certain levels to enter higher events – and also your cars, like in DriveClub.

This also ties into what happens on the track. You gain additional XP for achieving certain goals during the race, be that a clean overtake, drifting a corner, drafting behind an opponent, or simply taking the racing line. For each event is a series of challenges, such as finishing on the podium, drafting behind a competitor for 10 seconds before overtaking, or something of that ilk. Complete these and they tally up, allowing you to unlock further events. From this you can probably see that the focus of a race is not a celebration of driving or the car you chose to take part in, but instead revolves around meeting objectives in order to move forward to the next event.

This form of campaign can, of course, be quite compelling, but the balance in terms of making progress needs to be right. Unfortunately, the game is quite stingy at handing out credits, which means that, while there are over 200 cars waiting in the showroom, you’re left with a choice between grinding prior events to earn enough to buy them, or simply upgrading or downgrading parts of a car you already own to hit the requirements for a given event. Since levelling up cars means upgrade discounts, we ended up doing this far more often, spending a great deal of time using the same selection cars. This isn’t all bad – there’s certainly satisfaction to be had from turning your road-ready Honda Civic Type R into a race-winning pacesetter – but for an arcade racer, it could be a little more liberal. We also think there are likely too many different forms of XP system here – it’s just a bit overwhelming.

With over 50 different locations from across the world, with varietals of each making over 120 different layouts in total, there is a huge amount of content and variety here, and that’s great. The breadth on offer is where Project CARS 3 really shines, allowing you to race laps around circuits such as the UK’s Brands Hatch, the Fuji International Speedway in Japan, and the Côte d’Azur in Monaco. It also allows you the opportunity to virtually experience the romance of driving a Ferrari LaFerrari down the California coastline, or a BMW M3 Sport through the night streets of Shanghai, or an Aston Martin Vantage GT3 through the town centres of Fife. With dynamic weather effects, it may even rain during your stint in Scotland, adding some authenticity, although we would argue that it lacks the spectacle of DriveClub’s weather effects.

As a pure arcade racer, then, there’s some fun to be had, but it’s hard to shake the lingering sense of tension between what the game wants to be: is it a simulator or an arcade racer? While bumping into opponents appears to be a perfectly legitimate tactic of making your way through the grid, hot lap events require absolute precision, punishing you for merely scraping the wall on the final corner by nullifying the entire event.

We’ve name-dropped a raft of other racing games here, and that’s because Project CARS 3 often feels closer in spirit to its influences than it does its own heritage. But does it do any of these things better or as well as its contemporaries? Possibly not.

Conclusion

Project CARS 3 marks a significant departure for the series, abandoning most of its sim heritage in favour of arcade racing. Offering a variety of different cars and tracks, there’s plenty of content on offer, making for a fun distraction, but it lacks the excitement we expect from wheel-to-wheel racing. It takes inspiration from all over the place, but it’s perhaps most closely aligned with Sony’s own DriveClub. It would seem, then, that the PS4 cycle is ending the way it began. We’re just not sure we’d pick this over what’s come before.