Project Cars 2 is aimed at a very specific segment of the racing game fan base. No-nonsense, sober types who smell of petrol. People who have racing harnesses fitted in their office desk chairs and posters of Tiff Needell above their beds. People who know that a muffler bearing isn’t a real thing, and who consider games like Need for Speed: Most Wanted to be racing heresy. This is hardcore stuff, and it takes itself seriously, like all the best racing sims. It’s like being taught to drive by a rabid wolverine with a whip. It’s punishing and severe, but also so rewarding.
My first hour or so with Project Cars 2, I thought I was playing a picnic simulator. That’s how much time I spent on the grass. The slightest misstep, one moment of lapsed concentration, and you’re sprawled unceremoniously on the trackside lawn like a homeless person in a park. There’s a learning curve here that many will not bother to climb. In fact, most of my first few races followed a very repetitive process – tarmac, grass, sand, tyre wall, repeat.
It demands focus, patience, and self-forgiveness. And then it starts to make sense, at which point it’s a bit like the first time you heard Stairway to Heaven (kids, go ask your dads). Unless you’re a hardened racing simulation player, you’ll skid off into oblivion within moments of the starting grid. I really struggled at first, to the point of frustration – if I had a racing wheel, I would’ve banged on it tearfully. On the subject, while purists will say you need a wheel for a game like this, I found that Slightly Mad Studios has done an astounding job of translating the feel of manhandling a racing car to the limited functionality of a regular controller. Treat it gently, though, or you’ll be like Adele, rolling in the deep. Grass.
That sense of nuanced control is key to the soul of the game. You’re welcome to treat Project Cars 2 like Need For Speed, of course, but that’s a recipe for disaster. Here you really have to caress every corner, massage the straights, and knead the brake and accelerator like putty in your hands. Okay, that sounded better in my head, but the point is that this is a game that demands subtlety and your undivided attention. The driving model is brutal, complex and devilish, yet also beautiful.
Seeing Project Cars 2 in motion is quite striking too, although it loses some of its sheen up close. In screenshots it’s a stunner, and instant replays look the business, but during gameplay, especially from the cockpit view, things don’t feel quite as polished. There’s a flatness to some of the texturing, particularly the track surfaces and trackside elements, like grass, track lip, and so on. The track layouts are technically flawless, but they don’t look very exciting. I guess we can’t expect swooping vistas and dramatic cliff faces in the background when we’re barrelling down a straight at Brands Hatch.
From outside the car things improve, and from this view you get to appreciate the work that’s gone into the vehicle modelling. The level of detail here is astounding, clearly a labour of love by the people who created them. Project Cars 2 doesn’t quite reach Forza levels of visual fidelity, and we didn’t ever really expect it to, but it comes incredibly close in terms of the cars themselves. That Turn 10 has managed to create a library the size of Forza 7‘s and do it with such exquisite attention to detail is almost unbelievable, and Project Cars 2 can’t compete on that scale.
If you’re coming hot off of the Forza circuit, by the way, you may be surprised by the Project Cars 2 vehicle list. Unpleasantly so. Returning Project Cars players who enjoyed the original will be happy enough, but you’ve got more than three times as many fully licensed vehicles lined up in Forza 7 than you do here. On the plus side, there’s quite a number of really interesting choices here, real motorsport gems, and they span a wide variety of classes which you will play through during the lengthy, gruelling career mode.
Gruelling indeed. As with the original, Project Cars 2 asks a lot of you if you’re planning on building a successful racing career. The opening class alone is enough to make the blood boil if you’re not delicate on the throttle and dedicated to every curve. I’m man enough to admit many a ragequit. Put the hours in, climb that daunting learning curve, and there’s a deeply rewarding career to pursue here. It’s also all a lot easier to make sense of this time around compared to the first game, which I thought had some of the most convoluted menus and UI systems ever seen.
Surprisingly, the custom race option turns out to be almost as much fun as the career, especially if you want to simplify things and experience the best that the game has to offer – create combinations of tracks, vehicles, day time, and weather to build a different situation every time. Usually I would just jump into a racing game’s career mode and stay there, but I spent a lot of time dreaming up my own race scenarios and seeing how all the elements play off against one another. Oh, and that typical back-of-the-box bullet-point item, the variable weather? Amazing. With a handling model like Project Cars 2, controlling your vehicle across different weather types becomes a whole new challenge on top of everything else.
So yes, definitely one for the purists. Unrelenting, sometimes austere, Project Cars 2 is a sophisticated racer with high expectations from its customers. Take this game online, and you had better know what you’re doing – I suggest spending a lot of time offline first, or your self esteem might not survive in the multiplayer domain. It’s well rigged for the esports industry too, which just reconfirms that this is not your average arcade thrasher, but a hardcore simulator which wants to be handled with a firm yet careful grip.
If you want to put glowing neon lights under your Subaru, you need not apply. If you want drift competitions and girls in tiny little pants vying for your attention in cheesy cutscenes between races, you, too, need not apply. You are not the target market, and you are well catered for elsewhere. Project Cars 2 is a simulation in the most intense, white-knuckle sense – perhaps even the mighty Forza has more arcade leanings – and a substantial improvement over the already impressive original. This sequel might not be enough to scare Turn 10 just yet, but the Forza team should definitely be looking anxiously in the rearview mirror.