Coming from Slightly Mad Studios and published by Bandai Namco, Project CARS 2 is the follow up to the successfully crowd funded original. Whilst technically very good, the original game was marred by clunky menus and poor controls if you’d gone for the gamepad as you main input, so has the pure racing simulation made the relevant changes to appeal to a wider market? Or has it doubled down on it’s hardcore audience and given them more to cheer about? Well, it’s a bit of both.
With the backing of huge numbers of fans and enthusiasts who are going to be brutally honest with their feedback, and using actual racing drivers to develop the handling model, Project CARS 2 boasts one of the most realistic racing experiences you can get in a game. It exists to offer you the chance to be a racing driver in multiple disciplines and prove to yourself that you could hack it amongst the professionals. This is not an arcade game, it’s a sim and it’s very proud of it, but that’s a tough stance to take in our world of expected commercial success. Being too real will put the filthy casuals off, being too easy going will upset those that are investing their money and time in the game. Find the right balance and you’ve got a hit on your hands. Slightly Mad Studios are unapologetic in that Project CARS 2 will be successful on how authentic a drive it gives you, and if you don’t like the sound of that then you’re in the wrong place.
Patience and practice, that’s what you need to be good at anything… though some innate skill would be quite useful. Understanding every aspect of car handling and track layout makes the most consistent and quick racing drivers, so from the off with Project CARS 2 you’re going to spend a lot of time familiarising yourself with wherever you start. The default setup for any event is a lengthy practice session, a lengthy qualifying, then the race. Chances are you’ll have driven 4 or 5 race distances before you see the green lights on the grid. It’s needed. Every class of vehicle (in theory) acts exactly as it’s real life counterpart and as these are all finely tuned racing machines you can’t just fire them up and roar down the track. Time is needed to get a feel for the grip, weight, traction, braking and turning capabilities – which will come naturally to some and require serious commitment from others. Fortunately there’s help on hand with your mechanic to help tune things to your liking, and it’s a nice touch for those without degrees in automotive engineering. Head into the area that’s causing you problems, pick from the list of questions and choose the setup change that should make you faster. Experts can skip that and dive right into the very comprehensive pit menus.
So you’ve learnt how the car handles, what about the track, that should be easy right? With the new LiveTrack 3.0 system it’s not clear cut because the road surface evolves over each session as more rubber is laid, as damaged cars spill oil, and as the weather dries things out or washes it clean. Fuel loads have to be managed, tyre wear and heat is crucial to keeping the car within the white lines, and this is all on top of knowing the fastest lines through the corners to maximise your speed and momentum. More so than other racing games, Project CARS 2 demands a lot of your attention and ability to manage multiple elements, just like the professionals. The difficulty level is high even with the massively customisable AI turned down, and as such putting all the effort in makes you feel like you’ve earned every fast lap and every calculated overtake. Finding yourself in the midst of a snow storm around Brands Hatch just keeping it on the road is hard enough; bringing it home in one piece is like winning the race. There’s a tremendous sense of achievement when it all comes together, and I don’t think there’s another game out there that can match it in those moments. Unfortunately they are few and far between.
Whilst menus aren’t the most important part of any game, it’s a sign of things to come when you boot up and it takes 20 – 30 seconds for a stuck image to load properly and allow you to pick any of the options… and there are a lot of options. Choice is great and being spoilt for it is never a bad thing, so the team have implemented voiceover information to tell you about each mode and feature giving you the best introduction to wherever you’ve moved to on the menu. If there’s no audio then there’s text to tell you what you’re looking at and what it does, so box ticked in terms of help available. The presentation is vastly improved over the last game and thought has gone into how you might want to approach each mode, such as giving shortcuts to different disciplines in quick race, or a more streamlined and open career path alongside the ability to reduce season length so they don’t feel like a grind. Practice and qualifying can also be toggled off if you want to just race. There’s a nice idea around sharing car setups too and you get a notification to tell you there’s one available… if only it then told you how to access it.
My real bugbear though is the control settings. Nearly everything is customisable and tweakable, so much so it’s easy to get lost in it and not really know what impact you’re having. The best way to manage that would be to let you change on the fly whilst in a practice session – which you can do, but it won’t apply anything until you reload. Make the change, reload and you’ll find the settings lost, so the only way to deal with it is heading back through the slow main menu and guess at what you need to alter. It’s a painful way to get the right feel in the controller or wheel and pedals, and I’ve had to spend (with no exaggeration) a couple of hours finding the right setup. Even then I still head back for tweaking depending on the type of car I’m driving. The data loss could be linked to Rest Mode on the PS4 – the first game refused to load races if you used it, Project CARS 2 seems to mess around with some of the defaults and ignores setting changes that you make until you reboot.
Get past the setup and there’s a very pretty and smooth game there, particularly on the PS4 Pro where the framerate is nearing 60 fps. With the moving time of day, the variable weather and the lush visuals it’s great looking whatever view you decide works best for you. Cockpits are modelled well, and selecting the in-helmet view uses blurring to enhance the sense of speed and does a superb job of looking at the apex for cornering. I said it about the last game and it holds true in the sequel, it has the best in car view hands down. The AI can be challenging and make you work for every metre of tarmac, and can also be dumb. In the dry they are formidable and channel the essence of Jackie Stewart, if it’s wet or icy they go to pieces. On a 6 lap ice race I managed to lap the field twice because they refused to go over 10 mph. Still, I’ll take a cheap win given how few and far between they can be. With the inclusion of loose track surfaces like rallycross there’s a broadening to the game and a slightly more frantic feel than you get with the pure circuit racing. You don’t need to be as precise or careful and it feels like letting your hair down after hours of focussed racing line following. That does remind me of another letdown, using the racing line to learn the tracks is hit and miss, it disappears in a number of corners, especially the chicanes of the old Hockenheim GP circuit.
With not exactly the fastest pace we reach the mode of Project CARS 2 that should be the lifeblood of this game, the multiplayer. It’s a mess on PS4. I can’t put it any other way. If you want to test your skills against the world then be prepared for hours of watching loading screens crash, getting dropped from lobbies, and joining a session that’s only got half a lap left for you to spectate. Sometimes there’s trepidation of going online and finding out if you stack up against other humans, don’t worry here though because you’ll probably never get into a game. The ones I did manage to get a full race weekend on were laggy at points and suffered from randomly appearing and disappearing opponents. Still, starting on the grid with real life opponents has a special thrill to it and despite the horrendous experience you do think about trying again.
With over 170 vehicles available, more race circuits than you can shake a stick at, and multiple disciplines to master, Project CARS 2 is not skimping on content. It could conceivably be the last racing game you buy on this generation because it’s the most comprehensive, if you can overlook the flaws in the parts that aren’t in a car. The other problem is you’ll need to be committed to get the best from it, that’s how it should be played and exactly what it’s designed to be. It’s not for those who don’t get a lot of time to play and just want the thrill of jumping behind the wheel of something exotic and powerful. It’s for those who are prepared to put on a fireproof suit and a racing helmet, drink warm liquid from a water bottle and not move out of their living room seat for hours on end. If that’s you then there’s probably every chance you’re a real racing driver practicing for your next event. If it’s not you then you might want to wait for GT Sport instead.
A PS4 review copy of Project CARS 2 was provided by the Bandai Namco PR team, and the game is available now on Xbox One, PC and PS4. If you want to hear more about the development, check out our interview with Rod Chong.