Disclaimer: I work for Slightly Mad Studios. If that triggers you, go here.
Imagine for a moment, that we’ve all entered some sort of bizarre science fiction vortex, and landed in a parallel universe in which Image Space Incorporated were miraculously able to become a multi-million dollar entity, using their status to acquire every last meaningful vehicle & track license, along with hiring a massive staff to actually push out a title that can be deemed “feature complete” – and not the dreaded eternal science project.
While straight out of left field, this analogy accurately describes both the highs and lows of what you can expect to discover during your time behind the wheel in Project CARS 2; this is a simulator that’s almost exactly what PC sim racers have been dreaming of in terms of content, licenses, and features, but also comes with the identical blemishes exhibited by the titles which inspired it. Absolutely loaded with genuinely captivating content that eclipses what other sims offer – and then some – Project CARS 2 is easily the best smorgasbord simulator presently on the market, yet also demonstrates that maybe the current crop of developers are chasing a false lead by cramming as much as possible into one package.
The original Project CARS was an impressive mess, in that the successful crowdfunding campaign and guerilla marketing tactics were offset by an end product known more for its’ technical ineptitude and inability to match expectations than for what it got right. This was a game touted by financial backers as the hardcore answer to Gran Turismo and Forza, only for us normies on the outside to discover the force feedback configuration menu was a university level engineering course at the very least, and cars had a tendency to explode into the air at the most inopportune of times.
To their credit, Slightly Mad Studios listened to a lot of customer feedback, even the stuff laced with heavy profane vocabulary, and there’s a tangible change in atmosphere from the moment you start Project CARS 2. Menus are easy to navigate, exhibiting a very EA Sports-like feel that should be right at home for those who indulge in Madden or NHL like myself, the force feedback menu has been simplified to just four sliders, and button mapping is no longer an ugly list of options all presented at once, but again streamlined into four distinct categories as you expect from something like rFactor 2. The level of polish given to the user interface extends to the in-game setup menu as well; this is the best car setup screen in any simulator – a hybrid of rFactor 2 and Assetto Corsa – and the heads up display now resembles more of a professional television broadcast than floating semi-transparent black squares. And yes, unlike the first game, you now have the ability to save multiple setups per car, as well as name them, load them, and manage them across multiple tracks as you would in a traditional simulator.
Pit strategies can be configured while in the garage area, and again the process is a lot more streamlined, and there’s now an in-car management functionality similar to the Codemasters’ F1 games, where you can use the D-Pad to alter your race strategy, prepare for an unscheduled pit stop, or play with the car’s engine mapping. It’s essentially a black box as you’d see in other sims, just presented in a much more aesthetically pleasing manner. There’s also the ability to save what are called Motorsports Presets, allowing you to eschew the session configuration process every time you want to jump in for a race weekend, and just get right to the track with as little fiddling as possible – a nice touch.
I’ve been personally impressed with the game’s attention to detail in some areas that were previously overlooked; we’ve now got animated pit crews, the game is pretty stringent about your pit entrance & exit procedures, and manual rolling starts are pretty flexible in regards to what you can do, and when.
The game also goes the extra mile to provide you with a virtual crew chief companion in the event you’re lost when it comes to car setups. The whole thing plays out like a very basic text adventure, and obviously there’s no substitute for actually knowing what each option in the garage area does, but this is the first simulator that actually tries to meet uninformed players halfway and walk them through basic adjustments to ensure their race car handles just the way they want it to. It certainly makes the dark art of race car setups much more approachable for the average user, and ideally this’ll lead to more people racing competitively and actually doing more than just driving in isolation – as so many sim racers tend to do – because they’re not whining about getting destroyed by a dude with an elite setup. It’s certainly not a be-all, end-all magic fix for sitting down during a lunch break at work and reading about race car setups on Google, but it’ll get a lot of the gentleman drivers among us much further than they were previously.
Unfortunately, genuine improvements to the overall package – the most notable of the bunch being the substantial optimization tweaks – come with an equally diverse list of setbacks. And while they aren’t as crippling or mind-blowing as some of the stuff we saw with the first game, they will indeed ruffle the feathers of those who were hoping Project CARS 2 would blow the doors off the competition and invalidate the need for a lot of other games they’ve got currently installed.
There are some hiccups with loading and saving setups, as I’ve noticed in the game’s online Time Trial mode, the game will load the preset default setup for the car instead of your most recent setup upon restarting the session for another shot at the track. No, it’s not game-breaking, you just need to always re-load your setup before climbing into the vehicle, but it’s something that really shouldn’t be an issue for a game of this magnitude. Suspension of disbelief issues aren’t game-breaking either, but they’re certainly noticeable. Though Slightly Mad Studios have acquired the rights to several major motorsports championships, such as the Verizon IndyCar Series, the AI drivers are still given the names of random WMD members – so even if you’re chasing Scott Dixon’s car at Indianapolis, the leaderboard will actually refer to him as Tiago Fortuna. Again, not game-breaking, but extremely goofy given the fanfare of signing such a high profile license.
The quality of tracks also differ significantly between new and old. Brand new additions like Portimao and Circuit of the Americas are absurdly good; the same cannot be said about historic Spa, which was originally created for the first game many years ago, and as a result it just looks really out of place. You can physically see the LOD on models in the distance change, which quite a jarring effect considering it happens when you’re fairly close to them. Watkins Glen has been given the same facelift it received in real life, and it’s probably the best rendition of the track in any video game to date, yet Sonoma Raceway is still just as inaccurate as it was two years ago. That’s not to say the textures are poor or the model itself is of a substandard quality, their lack of accuracy is just that much more noticeable when you head to something immaculate like Fuji Speedway immediately afterwards.
But now, we dive into the heavier stuff. For a couple of months, we’ve heard how Project CARS 2 would ship with full online league integration internally within the software – invalidating the need to monitor scores from each event on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and manage the championship externally on a private forum – with the game taking car of everything from scheduling to scoring to stat tracking. This is completely absent from the launch-day version of the game, and I’m extremely disappointed. I had a ton of friends really excited to put this functionality to the test with their own endeavors because it gives league owners a much needed break from the management side of things – and hell, I personally was hoping to make use of it – and it’s just flat-out non-existent at launch. I wish I could use my internal connections to reveal when we can expect this to show up as a post-release addition, but I haven’t been privy to that information. So as a sim racer I’m pretty choked on this front.
The single player AI are also a point of significant concern, though while a lot of other websites claim the AI competence is “random”, there’s actually a pretty distinct method to the madness. When driving any modern car that makes use of proper racing slicks, the AI are on par with the current crop of simulators, and this year there are both skill & aggression sliders to ensure that if you’re a talented sim racer, you’ll have a decent field of bots to battle with. I took a fleet of GT3 cars to the Nordschleife, jacked up the skill slider beyond 100% – which is new for this game – cranked up the aggression as well, and received an on-track product that was a night and day difference compared to the first iteration of Project CARS. No, it’s absolutely not a replacement for human competition and shouldn’t be treated as such unless you’re stupid, but it’s in-line with what you’ll experience from other simulators, and for a lot of people, that will be absolutely fine.
Oval racing, another new addition that was left out of the last game, is also quite good. I hate using footage from an older build to prove my point, but this is more or less what you can expect from slugging around the IndyCars – they’re respectful of your space, and put up a good fight.
Where the AI falters, is when you take away mechanical grip. If you’re talented enough to wheel any historical car, such as the ever-popular Lotus 49, you will outright murder the AI on 120% skill / 100% aggression. The AI just cannot cope with such a drastic reduction in traction, to the point where in a short race at Oulton Park in which I started on pole, I couldn’t see the cars behind me after a single lap. At the Nordschleife, I was coasting behind the pack, the AI bots so concerned with giving each other room and adhering to the track limits, they ended up scrubbing off copious amounts of speed. Unfortunately, this is a by-product of creating a smorgasbord simulator with cars of all shapes and sizes – the AI have clearly been optimized for one general type of car, and the outlier vehicles suffer the consequences in pretty drastic ways. Again, all this really does is make me advocate for simulators that focus on a very core group of vehicles, as stuffing a product full of cars that drive fundamentally different from each other and hoping it all works clearly isn’t the right way to go about things.
So what’s going to happen is that some sim racers who race only modern endurance content will more or less come away from Project CARS 2 quite pleased with the AI improvements, whereas fans of historic content or cars that don’t use full-on modern racing slicks will be absolutely furious that they’re stomping the field – or experiencing situations like the video above. It’s very rFactor-like in that you’re going to have to figure out manually what works, where, and what difficulty settings should be used. I’m not a big fan of this, but I certainly look forward to the rFactor fanboys slamming Project CARS 2 for this very reason, only to retreat to a game that exhibits the exact same problems.
Also drawing parallels to rFactor, simulating to the end of a qualifying session prematurely generates lap times for the AI cars that are downright impossible for them to achieve under normal qualifying conditions, so there’s essentially a button in Project CARS 2 that under no circumstances should you ever touch. The workaround here is to just schedule a qualifying session that lasts around ten minutes or so – as once you’ve logged a few laps, you’ll have a minute or two for a piss break and then the event can proceed – but for longer tracks like the Nordschleife you basically have to skip qualifying altogether and just pre-select your spot on the grid.
Yet for all of the babbling about features and functionalities that are either improvements, reductions, or omissions, obviously at some point we need to discuss how Project CARS 2 feels behind the wheel.
Over the summer a lot of personalities got their hands on the game and started throwing around words like “planted” and “simcade”, and it kind of generated a meme proclaiming Project CARS 2 to merely be Need for Speed: Shift 4. I don’t wanna slag off people specifically in what’s supposed to be an informative review, but there are two easy ways to dispel this unjustified reputation: First, some of these online personalities were upwards of seven seconds off pace at the tracks they demonstrated for their YouTube audience – so of course the car will feel planted at 65% attack – and second, the PC version of Project CARS 2 has actually shipped with Pro default setups that cut into the corners like crazy and rotate extremely well through the center, essentially tailoring the PC version specifically for the hardcore sim racing crowd who don’t need an understeering car out of the box, as they’re not playing on a gamepad.
Not only is it a great gesture on the part of Slightly Mad Studios to bundle the game with setups that are pretty decent out of the box, it certainly helps to display the competence of the underlying physics engine and tire model in a more profound way. I think a lot of people will enjoy how much they have to wheel these cars, because it’s certainly not what sim racers are expecting from a game so many labelled as simcade before they’ve even turned a lap themselves. Setup adjustments also generate a tangible difference in vehicle behavior when out on the circuit – compared to the previous game, which felt like a total crapshoot in the garage area – and exploit setups have been more or less erased. There’s no zero camber bullshit or zero aero stuff here; the stuff I’ve been running for testing purposes both in WMD and on my own externally for the review, it’s all stuff rooted in real world techniques.
What’s even more surprising, is that the hit-to-miss ratio among cars in the game features significantly more hits than misses. There are a lot of vehicles where you can turn laps in time trial, hit up the respective series’ official results page, and actually be bang-on with the real drivers’ qualifying times. This doesn’t apply to every car across every track, but it was certainly cool to absolutely blast through Long Beach and be half a tenth off Helio Castroneves’ track record set earlier this year, then take the Ford Fusion stock car to Texas, get Dustin’s help with the car setup, and land eighth on the real world practice charts. I also matched Kobayashi’s Le Mans record this year with one of our prototypes, and in doing a side-by-side of his on-board video it was impeccable how close we were for the entire three and a half minute lap. Not every vehicle in Project CARS 2 is like this – again, a symptom of developing a smorgasbord simulator – but the ones that are, really serve to undermine the detractors.
And this is why, despite some of the AI issues that hamper the single player experience, the prospect of racing Project CARS 2 in a competitive online league – whether it be managed through the yet-to-be released in-game functionality, or a third party site – is so enticing; definitely a selling point. The default setups and physics engine refinements generate handling characteristics much more in line with what you’d expect from a traditional sim, the enormous list of marquee cars rivals – in some cases surpasses – one’s custom rFactor install of all the best mods, there are tons of tracks to ensure you can go at least two or three seasons without treading over familiar territory, and from a user interface standpoint, the whole in-game experience of going to the track, building setups, and monitoring the session’s progress is much more streamlined and representative of titles like rFactor 2 or Automobilista than its own separate thing you need to learn all over again. This is what a lot of sim racers have wanted from a modern simulator, and that’s what they’ll get in Project CARS 2 – a good league platform with a ton of content and no fiddling or extensive third party mod collecting required.
In my time testing Project CARS 2, especially the most recent event prior to launch, online events more or less mirrored what you’d expect from a solid isiMotor league race – the netcode was fine, the menu layout gave a sense of familiarity, and it didn’t feel like a drastic change of pace after several seasons in Stock Car Extreme. So I think adopters of Project CARS 2, who are coming over from other sims, may be surprised to find that online events no longer feel foreign or confusing because the layout of the session screen is just so abstract – Slightly Mad Studios have paid close attention to what works in this environment, so there won’t be any stumbling around or learning curve to joining an online event.
The same could not be said about the first game.
And while we aren’t privy to the built-in league functionality at launch, the game does track your ELO rank, though it remains to be seen how this will play out. Currently, the online scene for the original Project CARS features a lot of chaotic six lap sprint races, and entering these will be suicide for your ranking in Project CARS 2 if that casual-oriented mentality continues, so those who actually care about their online rank should avoid public lobbies altogether. On the plus side, it’s nice to see Slightly Mad Studios bring back ELO from the days of Xbox Live on Microsoft’s first console, but I actually predict a drop in online activity as people become paranoid about their online skill rating and refuse to race unless it’s in a structured league with proven clean drivers. The ability to lock people out of a lobby who are under a certain skill rating will also play a role in this as well.
A lot of people aren’t fans of rallycross for several reasons, but the inclusion of many RedBull Global Rallycross vehicles and locations – as well as some historic content for good measure – have actually shown off that Slightly Mad Studios can create objectively fantastic loose surface physics. The rallycross vehicles are honestly some of the best race cars in the game, exhibiting more convincing dynamics than what you can find in DiRT 4, but from a content standpoint it just feels like they’re a bit out of place in what is a primarily tarmac-based racing simulator, and maybe it’s time for Slightly Mad to extend into off-road racing as well to give these cars the spotlight.
On a positive note, every car in the game can be equipped with either dirt or ice tires to try and extend some extra life out of the off-road tracks, and experimenting with the right cars can lead to some awesome combinations. Slap dirt tires on Mark Donohue’s Trans-Am Camaro from the late 60’s, and you’ve essentially got a Duke’s of Hazzard simulator. It’s great fun, and I’m thankful that Slightly Mad Studios did not pull a Codemasters by restricting what content you can drive and where – as was the case in ToCA Race Driver 3.
And as you’ve probably learned about via the promotional material, Slightly Mad Studios have not just gone out and created their own dynamic track technology, they’ve also replicated a full twelve-month weather cycle. And while it works, for the most part, I can’t help but think this would have been put to better use in a different game. As cool as it is to drive the Nordschleife in the snow as a throwback to Project Gotham Racing 4, or host a one-off winter championship with the rallycross cars on purpose built circuits, I’m unsure about the staying power this may have on the userbase. I feel it would be great to implement in an off-road game, but I’m just not sure why there’s a need to drive Monaco or Daytona in the snow. Yes, it extends the life of the rallycross cars and sort of justifies their placement in the game, but save for that one class and the meme-worthy YouTube videos it will generate, when are people honestly going to use this feature on a regular basis?
Thankfully, the dynamic driving line and standing water physics mostly hold up their end of the bargain, but in my experience I found the rubber to accumulate in an extremely slow fashion, with it taking almost thirty minutes for the dynamic driving line to become as prominent as the default racing line texture. So I actually expect a lot of people reporting that it outright doesn’t work, because you’ll be turning a pretty extensive number of laps in a full field of cars before you become aware of its existence. A patch or two could easily fix this, and it’s certainly not game-breaking, but I was definitely hoping this feature would be a bit more prominent after all of the publicity surrounding it. The dynamic water physics fare much better, with wet-weather driving being visually stunning while giving off a believable experience behind the wheel.
It’s a great league platform, a sort of alternate-reality rFactor 2 in which the physics are still firmly on the hardcore simulation side of things (aided by great default setups), yet the obscure car and track list of rFactor 2 that actively works against the title – marred by fake tracks and irrelevant vehicles – have been replaced by what’s basically an all-star cast of locations and race cars featuring appearances from all of the major players, and then some. Basically, if you’re a sim racer who patiently awaits for updates from Studio 397 in the hopes that the next lone piece of content they announce is even the least bit captivating, or for general UI improvements, or… well… anything that isn’t a blog post, Project CARS 2 offers a permanent solution to those willing to cross over.
However, it also comes with some of the problems found in rFactor 2, and on a wider scale, problems that appear in basically every other racing simulator on the market today. The offline racing experience varies wildly depending on your vehicle of choice, and like rFactor, there are hiccups with the underlying AI simulation engine when you try to accelerate through a session. But at the same time, the phenomenon of cars in rFactor 2 being wildly out of sync with each other in terms of quality, doesn’t exist here – there are exponentially more hits compared to misses, and it’s definitely an upgrade compared to the other sims available.
Regardless of whether you plan on entering a league right away, or will be holding off until the built-in functionality is up and running, Project CARS 2 is the simulator a lot of people wanted – great handling, lots of marquee cars, lots of world-renowned tracks, and online lobbies that naturally lend themselves to league play – but at the same time it also demonstrates why the smorgasbord approach is getting a bit long in the tooth. When Project CARS 2 is firing on all cylinders, it’s objectively a great racing simulator, warranting the positive reviews received from the more mainstream outlets while making genuine improvements in several key areas that sim racers would be hard pressed to dismiss. When it stutters – figuratively, not literally – you understand it’s because the dev team just couldn’t possibly refine every last car on every last track, and maybe it’s time to collectively rethink where the genre is going.