Racing games have become almost life-like in their execution in recent years. Along with the original Project CARS, the Forza Motorsport franchise, Gran Turismo series and hardcore racing sims like Assetto Corsa are turning up the heat in terms of visuals, sound quality and driving feel.
And that is regardless of whether you’re a pro gamer with an expensive wheel-and-racing-seat combo or simply use a controller to get your racing fix.
The original Project CARS game was generally well-received, but my personal experience of it wasn’t entirely brilliant. I played it on Xbox One with a regular controller and found the handling system a little too twitchy to modulate properly, the menu system baffling and the AI sometimes bounced from robotic to neurotic.
It was satisfying when you won a race, or even came in the top three, but the stress leading up to that didn’t always balance it out. Many players really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but wish for a bit of fine-tuning.
What has changed in Project CARS 2?
More tracks, more cars and more flexibility.
There are 60 different locations (compared to 35 in PC1), including everything from the Nurburgring, Spa and the Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans to city circuits like Long Beach plus karting tracks, wafty road routes and mudbath rallycross loops. There are 130 different courses within these locations – 30 more than in the first game.
Around 180 cars populate PC2’s virtual garage and you’re well catered for no matter what your motorsport poison is. During our time with the game, we wafted along a Californian highway in a Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe, thrashed a Vulcan around the Silverstone GP circuit and blatted around the Lånkebanen Hell rallycross circuit in a Honda Civic RX. There are even historical versions of certain tracks, so we could race on the original Spa circuit in a 1972 Lotus Cosworth F1 car, for example.
The menu system is thankfully a little simpler to navigate than before, but game director Stephen Viljoen stressed that the development team didn’t want to make all of the settings too simplified where they would essentially be obscuring features from players.
Project CARS 2: hands-on preview
Our preview was at Brands Hatch, during a round of the British GT championship. While there was actual racing going on outside, we were immersing ourselves in an almost-ready version of the game.
We tested the game on PC with a controller, which comes with its own caveats; the graphics presets displayed won’t be as crisp on a console and the use of a controller won’t exactly be representative of everyone’s experience – many players prefer to use a wheel and pedals. We were able to make custom races in the free play section offline, so our playtest will ignore the career mode or any online functionality.
We started relatively slowly with a Mercedes-AMG GT R at Brands Hatch (because why not?) and took full advantage of the active weather system. Depending on how long you’re racing for, the weather can act in real time, can be sped up or can be synchronised to exactly how long you’re in the race for. There’s a weather mixer that allows you to pick and choose what you’ll experience if you want to make your life more or less difficult, too.
The first drive out was a cautious one; humming around in the middle of the pack getting a feel for everything. On our gamepad, the steering still felt on the twitchy side but was a little more pliant on the default sensitivity settings. We still caught the AI dawdling in the first couple of corners as they tried not to hit each other, but as the pack fanned out they relaxed and became more competitive. Feeling more confident after our sighting race, we had a spin in a Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport at Hockenheim and took a 911 GT3 RS around the Nordschleife without incident.
We tested out the multi-class option in the race settings during a trip to the Circuit de la Sarthe. We drove Ford’s GT Le Mans car and fought it out against the rest of the GT pack while LMP1 and LMP2 cars were blasting by. You have to be aware of blue flags telling you to give way and be aware of your blindspots in case a prototype is trying to creep past, though, but that only adds to the sensation of WEC-style racing.
The surprise of the playtest was the Rallycross racing. Our Civic rallycross car popped and banged and the sounds of rubber cutting through slushing mud, gravelly edges and stones caught in wheelarches filled our headphones as the RX car flowed from corner to corner. It’s not as precisely-controlled as sliding around a rally stage in Dirt 4, for example, but it comes very close.
We did experience a couple of bugs in the odd race, however. After crossing the finishing line in two of our races, the car appeared to apply full steering lock to the left, bunging it into a barrier. On two other separate occurences, our car seemed to jump over invisible speed bumps. Plus, there were times that even our high-end PC’s frame rate dropped as the game struggled to render bits of scenery during fast track sections.
What did we think?
On the whole, PC2 has gone to racing game finishing school and our preview shows that it has learned a lot from its predecessor. The handling is still precise but has been honed to within an inch of its life with the help of real racing drivers, so it’s not as liable to spinning off uncontrollably. It’s more accessible to more gamers than before and it’s easier to navigate the menu system, but it hasn’t lost its simulator edge; this is a game that you have to concentrate to get the best out of.
Our high-end PC graphics looked pin sharp for the most part, but a few niggling bugs will still need to be ironed out to make Project CARS 2 the full-on racing experience it wants to be.