Project CARS 2 is going head-to-head with a new Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport this autumn, and boasting a more refined racing experience and new classes, it's in a solid position to eclipse the racing Goliaths. All it has to do is make sure there's enough polish.
The first Project CARS from 2015 is perhaps the most interesting and controversial driving simulator in recent memory. It was an extremely ambitious project compared to its initially low budget, and it was developed using a new crowd-funding platform, which put backers in the QA seat and it paid dividends when the game was finally released. As a game, it managed to create a great track day experience, with rules and changing weather conditions, but not everyone was happy, as there were some issues with console gameplay and persistent bugs. In addition, small slices of the promised content weren't delivered, one of which were oval tracks, which were present in development builds but not in the final game.
Project CARS 2 is, of course, not a completely new experience, but it seems to be a fairly significant improvement over its predecessor. Everything is more sophisticated and grandiose, with clear emphasis on a more lively experience, which is reflected as soon as you hit the menus. The bold and confident style resembles that of EA's big budget sports games rather than a grassroots indie title, and the number of tracks has risen by about 20, to more than 60 in total, with the car selection also doubling to over 180. It's not just about bringing you more of the same, as there's a whole new twist to the series with the introduction of rallycross, making Project CARS 2 a more direct alternative to Dirt 4. Oh, and what about those ovals? You've got a few of them, too.
Slightly Mad Studios has also continued to work on the actual driving mechanics too. While not a groundbreaking difference, the subtle richness that has been added to both tire physics and force feedback effects are clearly noticeable, making the cars more lively and fun to drive. This is evident particularly in cornering, as there's a new sense of grip and tire flex that's better articulated with force feedback, and with weight transfer destabilising the vehicle, you're encouraged to be more involved in steering if you want to keep pushing cars to their limits. In comparison, the feel of the original game is just a little mushy and stale.
Moreover, the force feedback is easier to customise this time around as well. Instead of the technical adjustment menu, we now get three preset styles - Immersive (the strongest), Informative (the most articulated), and Raw (unfiltered) - all of which you can then fine-tune to your taste with few easy-to-understand sliders. This can even be done mid-session, so you no longer have to cancel the game and return to the main menu to make small alterations.
While you shouldn't expect major novelties to the career mode, the reworked presentation does give the impression of a more interesting and coherent mode. Seasons, points, and achievements are now clearly displayed, along with the individual conditions for getting into invitational competitions. The theme is what remains - start from lower classes and rise up to the glory of the biggest and best - but luckily career path can become just as varied as you want as the game doesn't force you to follow any particular steps to progress. What series to sign up for and their duration is left for you to decide.
We first jumped into Formula Rookie with the Xbox 360 Controller (on PC). Console controls were one of the initial concerns with the original game, and developers have promised improvements. With this platform and control combination at least, the driving felt relatively smooth and easy to handle even with the little open-wheelers lacking downforce. You still need to be a bit more careful with inputs, compared to gamepad-oriented games such as Forza, but the console gameplay here doesn't seem to present a problem from what we've played.
The race at Ruapuna Park, New Zealand, was particularly memorable, as the race took place in blistering cold and misty clouds, blown around by strong winds, making it difficult to see what's ahead. It was noticeably more difficult to keep the tires at operating temperature than on the warmer tracks like Algarve, Portugal, and we almost spun out braking into the first corner on the last lap. That's one example of the improved weather conditions and their tangible effects on racing.
Next, we went to the Clio Cup to get the feel of Renault's one-make racing series and switched the gamepad for Fanatec's new CSL Elite PS4 force feedback wheel. We were pleasantly surprised by how engaging the driving felt and ended up playing the complete 30-minute practice session at Oulton Park. The session was also another showcase for the weather system as, starting in rain, it was a fight to find enough grip, but before long the sky cleared and the track began to dry up, at first only along the driving line and slopes from where water drifted away. Eventually, however, we saw puddles only on little ravines and grass planes, and we could really feel the track getting faster. While track dynamics aren't entirely new to this series, it seems the modeling is more fine-grained in Project CARS 2, promising interesting tactical twists for longer races.
We also briefly tried out rallycross in Norway, ice racing in Sweden, and an oval race in the USA, and what we felt striking was how greatly the feel of these races differed from each other. Drifting a softly sprung rally car is a completely different experience than licking the rough Daytona tarmac with an indycar, for example. It's evident that a great deal of work has gone into giving new cars and classes a distinct personality, which ultimately results in a sense of diversity the first game failed to achieve.
We still have concerns over the level of polish, however. For example, we suffered from AI acting up in the pit lane, unexpected resetting of some settings, and joker laps in rallycross not getting registered. Of course, the game is very much in development and a lot can happen during these couple of months, and maybe these bugs have been fixed already. But on the other hand, the game is vast, again pushing the boundaries on what independent studios can do, and in the worst case scenario, everything might not finished in time. Given the strong foundations, stumbling on the final stretch would be a real shame.
Assuming they nail the finishing touches, Project CARS 2 stands a fair chance of becoming even the racing game of the year. Its technology and content is up there with racing Goliaths, and the game seems to have found an attractive balance between approachable presentation, various race types and deep driving experience, so we hope the polish is there come September.