When it comes to games, I try not to play the part of the crotchety old man who always insists that the ‘old days’ were better, particularly because, in many ways, we’re currently enjoying some of the best years gaming has ever seen. A surge of quality independent titles such as Inside and Stardew Valley, huge blockbuster releases like Destiny 2 and Overwatch, and the emergence of virtual reality as a viable, affordable platform all give players a lot to be happy about. Unfortunately these renaissance days aren’t treating every genre equally kindly. Once a mainstay of any good console’s library, racing games have suffered of late from a dearth of quality, AAA titles. The genre has been mostly relegated to niche entries for the hardcore fan, and while giants like Gran Turismo and Forza still sell well, their biggest and best days seem to be behind them. We’ll likely never again see a racing game that excites a majority of console owners the way Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec did when it first hit PlayStation 2 more than 16 years ago.
That hasn’t stopped some smaller developers from trying to push into the field, such as Kunos Simulazioni’s Assetto Corsa or Slightly Mad Studios’ Project Cars. Originally released in 2015, the first Project Cars won over some hardcore fans but remained largely inaccessible to most players with an unforgiving and, at times, flawed approach to the actual physics of driving. Project Cars 2 feels like a continuation of that, but only initially. A little patience goes a long way in this year’s follow up, with a game that slowly emerges as a potential leader of the pack.
A Bad Qualifying Lap
When first starting out in Project Cars 2, I jumped right into Career Mode, eager to see what had changed from the original. The first game didn’t offer much on this front, leaving players with little motivation to progress. This time around, you’re given more flexibility in choosing where you start out in any career path, allowing you to skip the karts and low-level junkers in favor of jumping straight into some GT4 or Formula A action if you so desire, but outside of that and picking your starting car and livery there’s not much to do but sign a contract and start working your way through the various circuits. I went with a KTM X-Bow in the GT4 circuit, loaded up my first practice lap and hit the gas.
And almost immediately, and repeatedly, spun out, crashed or rode the wall. Everything felt off. Was it the car? Was it me? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not quite ready for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but I’ve been around the virtual track enough times to know something just felt wrong, here. I started a new career with a different car and had all the same problems. The steering felt unresponsive, the throttle felt too touchy and the braking felt hyper-reactive. Toying around with the various stability assists did not resolve my issues.
I opened up the Options menu and began digging through the control and gameplay settings and instantly spotted some… curious default choices. Braking sensitivity was set almost to max, and the various dead zones (sliders that determines how much input you need to provide before the game responds to your commands at all) were all over the place. I spent the better part of two hours tweaking various settings, saving them, loading up another practice lap, and going back to tweak some more. A painstaking amount of trial and error eventually succeeded in a control scheme that felt good, responsive and realistic. If you’re going into Project Cars 2 with a controller, be prepared to spend some time fine tuning your controls before hitting the asphalt in earnest.
Back on the Track
Once you do find personalized settings that work for you, there’s a lot to like about the way Project Cars 2 goes about the simulation aspect of the game. A generous amount of options allows you to truly customize your racing experience to fit your skill level, from novice to expert. From tire wear to just how much vehicle damage actually impacts your ability to race, there really isn’t any part of the experience that cannot be tailored to how you drive. The game also does an excellent job of explaining what each setting does and what the impact of changing them will be, both in the menus and through the use of an automated assistant.
With 53 tracks, 37 manufacturers and 189 different cars to choose from, Project Cars 2 certainly provides more variety than its predecessor, at least in theory. In practice, regardless of my career path, I spent a majority of my time racing through the same 4-5 tracks. It’s nice to see classic tracks like Laguna Seca and Nurburgring appear in the game, but frustrating when you spend all your time at Silverstone, Road America and the Red Bull National. It’s not that these are bad tracks, it’s just that the constant repetition is confusing and frustrating.
The familiarity at least allowed me to quickly settle into a groove and start racking up wins, and it wasn’t long to started unlocking Manufacturer Drives. A key component of unlocking cars for use in your career, Manufacturer Drives become available once you’ve spent enough time in any one car that its manufacturer notices and invites you to prove yourself in events. Successfully doing so earns you the right to become their Factory Driver and race in select cars. This definitely breathes some fresh air into a campaign that threatened, early on, to become rote and boring.
Of course, you can always substantially lower the time investment in your career if you want to avoid the slog and unlock things faster, as a subset of the general settings specific to Career Mode allows you to skip most of the real-life work involved in actual racing. If you find things like practice sessions and qualifying more of a nuisance than anything, you can simply turn them off at will. It’s also possible to drastically lower the length of any circuit’s race sessions, as well, and to even select a truncated racing season. Most seasons run anywhere from 5-8 races, but it’s possible to reduce that number to 2 in places.
Doing any, or especially all, of these things eliminates a lot of what makes Project Cars 2 stand out, though. The game asks a lot of you, but if you put in the time in practice and qualifying, and race the full season, there’s a satisfying feeling of progression, not just in your career path but your skills on the track, as well.
Picking Up Speed
You’ll need those skills, too, if you want to tackle the tougher tiers of the Career Mode. While you can skip the early, easier sections, the final three tiers can only be unlocked by winning races, and taking the shortest path to victory can leave you ill-equipped to handle the higher speeds and more rigorous demands of the best vehicles Project Cars 2 has to offer.
It's also particularly important to the online components of the game, as your real-world counterparts won’t always be quite as forgiving as the competent, but often overly cautious, AI racers. Additionally, most vehicle assist options such as ABS, stability control and driving lines can be disabled by players organizing public matches. With online matches hosting up to 16 racers at once, you’ll need all the skill you can muster to stand out from the crowd and take the podium. With an impressive set of options and e-sports community events available, there are a lot of possibilities in the online play.
One of the best things about Project Cars 2 is the sound design, which goes a long way in selling you on the realism of the whole affair. It's also a joy to listen to the deep-throated exhaust notes of the world's foremost supercars, the tiny, authentic cockpit noises that arise when pushing them to the limit, and the panic-inducing sound of your tires screeching because you're braking too hard, too late into a turn. While the game isn't particularly noteworthy on the visual front, with only slight upgrades over the original, it is simply a feast for the ears, especially when using a good headset.
Unfortunately, there aren’t yet a whole lot of people to populate those events. While the multiplayer servers were available before the game’s release date, they were a virtual ghost town, so I waited to see how much that would change. We’re a few days out, now, and sadly the situation remains unchanged. There are generally several races to choose from at any given moment, but most are sparsely populated, with only a fraction of the players any event could support, and most events seem to be nothing more than free practice or qualifying laps for races that never materialize. I see a lot of potential here, but at this point it remains unfulfilled.
There are other hiccups in the overall experience, too, some more grating than others. The biggest, by far, is the ridiculous and inexcusable lag that occurs when simply browsing menus in the game. The new user interface in Project Cars 2 is leaps and bounds better than the original in terms of design, but scrolling through lists can often be a pain, as you’ll routinely have to wait a second or two before the game responds to your input. This is especially notable when browsing through the game’s many vehicle options. It makes an otherwise slick and impressive UI feel like a chore to work your way through.
Another curious design choice is the one that does not reset cosmetic vehicle damage for restarts or replays. As you play through the game you’ll undoubtedly pull off some impressive wins you’ll want to share with friends on social media, and so of course Project Cars 2 has a built-in replay system to allow you to capture those moments in a variety of ways. Those moments are often tainted when your car looks like it took a beating before the race even begins. It has an even bigger impact when restarting an event, which you’ll likely do often, as the game can be rather unforgiving of mistakes.
At one point, a careless AI driver slammed into me so hard that I rolled my car, causing a huge pile up that basically took half the field out of the race. Upon restarting, I realized that my cockpit view was now useless as the shattered windshield persisted, broken before the new race even started. Like many, I find it unusually difficult to drive in a racing sim from a third person perspective, and so I had no choice but to back out of the event entirely and load it back up, which can take several minutes.
A Podium Finish
Project Cars 2 is ambitious in a way that many attempts to revitalize the racing sim genre are not, and that leaves me excited about its future possibilities as a franchise. With Gran Turismo on cruise control for the past few entries, and a completely uninteresting looking prologue-type entry set to launch later this fall, it seems like Project Cars 2 got here just in time. However, the flaws in the game cannot be overlooked. A good racing wheel setup is recommended for any player looking to dive in, and is pretty much essential for anyone going for a fully immersive simulation experience, as the sometimes-finnicky controls can take a bit of work on a gamepad. And while the online component may pick up steam as more people purchase the game in the following weeks, it is currently barren for the most part.
Slightly Mad Studios seems to have aspirations towards this being the next big thing in e-sports racing, and while they’ve got the foundation to do that, key elements of the game will need to be addressed. In a genre starving for fresh blood, Project Cars 2 is a welcome addition, but also a currently incomplete one.