Project Cars 2 – Review
PC, Xbox One, Ps4
As the follow-up to the hugely bold Project Cars, which sought to open up the broad and exciting world of motorsport to a new audience, Project Cars 2 is, quite simply, nothing short of incredible. From circuit racing to rallycross, endurance racing to go-karts, you can partake in almost every kind of motorsport imaginable, in almost any kind of weather imaginable. It’s easily one of the most ambitious titles I’ve ever played, and whether you’re a casual fan or a hardcore sim-racer, you simply won’t find another racing game that offers the sort of scope and value that Project Cars 2 does. However, it’s important to note that scope comes with caveats. Like the first game, AI issues and small yet persistent bugs present themselves in frustrating ways. When it works, it’s amazing, but technical issues hold it back from sweeping the podium.
Being someone who’s scoured the depths of almost every sim racing title of the last two decades, I can’t overstate just how much variety there is in Project Cars 2. The sheer amount of content is staggering–over double the number of cars and track locations as the first game–to the point that reviewing it all within a reasonable time frame would be impossible. Despite having the game for a week at the time of writing, there are plenty of car and track combos that I have yet to try. But of the ones I have, I can’t wipe my idiotic smile off my face.
So what is it about Project Cars 2 that makes it so good? I’ll save the some of the more minute details for later, but for now, let’s focus on the big things. Mountains of content aside is the inclusion of a system called Live Track 3.0, a fancy name for their dynamic track modeling, and hoo boy is it fancy alright. Rubber from the tires are ground into the road as the car’s pound through each corner, adding grip to that part of the track. Off the racing line, rubber marbles can build form and build up, making venturing to that part of the track a dangerous idea. Also modeled is the build-up of loose dirt and dust which could blow onto the track on a windy day, or from a car who’s recovering from an excursion into the kitty litter.
PCars 2 isn’t the first title to do this, but it is by far the most comprehensive implementation of this kind of system. The details are most evident when driving in the wet. Generally, when the rain starts falling in a racing title, the track will change instantly to match what’s happening with the weather. In PCars 2, when the weather is set to real-time, the track will respond to the weather pattern in kind.
If it rains lightly, the track will slowly glaze over with water, washing off the dirt and rubber build up. If it keeps raining, puddles will start to form across the track. These puddles will both physically and visually disperse as a car drives through them, and can easily cause you to aquaplane out of control as the tires glide along the surface of the water, rather than breaking through it to grip the tarmac. All of this is dynamically generated on the fly, directly as a result of what’s happening on or around the track. It’s just magnificent.
Equally impressive is the quality of some of the track builds. SMS has gone back to the drawing board with a number of tracks, gaining access to laser scan and photogrammetry data to recreate some much more accurate renditions of some of the finest race tracks in the world. An absolute highlight for me is the Streets of Long Beach; between the bumps, the camber of some corners and the intimidating concrete walls, driving anything around that track brings me instantly to bliss. Even most of their fantasy tracks feel like they’ve gone through an overhaul.
Each of the game’s 189 cars have been modeled beautifully to their real-life counterparts, and their selection of fantasy cars are equally stunning. From the curved, spaceship-like bodies of the Le Mans prototype hybrids to the handful of modern production cars to old touring cars, each has its own unique feel to it. Some require a little bit of setup work out of the box to get the most out of, but that’s part of what you expect from a simulation.
If you’re the kind to get intimidated by the thought of having to dive under the hood, or don’t know your suspension from your gearing, no need to worry. The inclusion of a simple race engineer makes fine tuning your setup far easier than randomly clicking sliders and hoping for the best. There are four areas of tuning that you can ask about, and based on your feedback the engineer will recommend and apply changes as they see fit. If anything, I’d like to see this expanded to include more areas to tinker in, but as a tool to help deal with the intimidation of working out the subtle differences in setup changes, it’s an excellent feature.
Of course, none of this matters if the cars don’t actually feel good to drive. The great news is they do. With a wheel, the feeling of cold tires and brakes is second to none. After a few laps, the grip shows up and suddenly everything just comes alive. High downforce cars like the IndyCar or the Le Mans prototypes stick to the road beautifully at high speeds, while older cars with older-style bias ply tyres will slip and slide everywhere, demanding a high level of finesse just to get the car slowed down for a corner, let alone with other cars trying to battle you for position.
Console and gamepad players will also be delighted to hear that no longer will you need to spend hours tweaking multiple settings sliders to get a good feel; the controls really feel like they’ve been fine-tuned to a tee this time around, giving you a good feel on the road from the outset. The magnificent audio helps in this regard too, with squealing tires letting you know when you’re nearing or surpassing the limit of grip. Lockup a wheel and they’ll scream till you let off the brakes and get it spinning again. Engine tones are–with the rare exception of a few cars, like the V8 Supercar which sounds more like a broken synthesizer than a growling V8–are complex and full-toned. The race engineer, again voiced by ex-Stig Ben Collins, lets you know where cars are in front and behind, and in certain series where spotters are available, will call out when a car is on your left or right.
The comprehensive career mode lets you create a driver and guide them through up to six tiers of motorsport competition across multiple styles of racing; open wheel, GT, prototypes, rallycross and touring cars. You can select a full or shortened schedule as well set practice, qualifying and race session lengths, so you can cater to how much free time you actually have to race. You can also raise affinity for manufacturers by driving their cars, and if you prove your worth you may end up being offered to become a brand ambassador or, even better, a factory driver. Admittedly there isn’t a whole lot of motivation to push for this outside of your own love for a car brand, as everything in the game is unlocked from the outset. But regardless, it’s another goal to reach for and another layer of depth that I appreciate.
There are online modes aplenty, which, along with the new competitive licensing system designed to discourage the usual mess of wreckers and crashers, makes for an all-round stronger online experience. Also included are the new broadcast and spectator slots, built in with their esports goals in mind, which make watching a race and keeping an eye over everything far easier than before.
I could go on about all the things I like about Project Cars 2, but you should also be aware of the issues that hold it back–the biggest of which being the AI. While it’s an improvement over the super aggressive racers in the first game, they still struggle to race in close proximity to each other and the player. One-on-one isn’t a problem, it’s usually confined to the very start of a race; mostly in the opening few corners. They will cut corners and gain places without penalty, or just seemingly brake too late for turn 1 and slam into the pack. Turn 1 at the Nurburgring GP circuit is a great example of this, resulting in looking for that restart button time after time. In a game that tracks stats like restarts and number of races finished, it doesn’t take long to get very tiresome.
Another AI problem is their inconsistency between different circuits and event sessions. At one track you may be on par with the fastest of the AI and enjoy some great battles, but then at the next race, they are inexplicably 3 seconds a lap faster than you. Granted, this may be exacerbated by SMS only providing two stock setups per car–stable or loose–which can result in having to really work hard to find the pace to catch the field. But it’s frankly less time consuming, and frustrating, to change the difficulty slider on a per race basis.
In varying weather conditions, they sometimes feel like they are operating on another plane of existence. In a race that started out in stormy conditions in the IndyCars at Road America, huge puddles formed across the track which remained firmly in place after the rain had gone, which easily required sticking to wet tires to navigate safely. However, the AI pitted, put on slicks, and were able to drive through those puddles with ease. It’s easily the weakest element of the game, and it stands out like a broken nose.
Other, smaller issues like track temperatures in blizzard conditions still sitting around 25 degrees C, some odd HUD behaviour and the pit crew not changing tires to the tires you selected sometimes have also made themselves known, notably during my career play. Though I have been assured that these issues are on top of the fix list, whether that’s the case remains to be seen. AI problems seem a little more inherent, but given the sheer enjoyment of everything else the game does, I remain hopeful.
All in all, Project Cars 2 is simply excellent. Yes, it has issues, some of which are glaring, and some that most people will never notice. But when weighing up the problems versus the advantages, it’s hard to hold back my excitement. The feeling of pounding over the bumps of Long Beach in an IndyCar might be one of the finest sim-racing experiences I’ve ever felt, and that in itself speaks to the complexity and size of the game SMS have built. They may not have intentionally been aiming to reach the heights of an rFactor 2 or iRacing in terms of simulation, but my word are they getting close to it. If they can get somehow get on top of the AI problems, they’ll find themselves in a position that is unmatched–light years ahead of the nearest competition.
James Swinbanks is a Games Critic currently writing for GameSpot, although you’ll still occasionally see him popping up on Player 2, because frankly, he loves the smell of the place.