Project Cars 2 reviewed: It’s good, but don’t expect it to be easy

It’s a great time to be alive for fans of serious racing simulations. Codemasters has been in fine form, giving us two very good games this year. New installments of Forza and Gran Turismo are just around the corner.

But today, I’m here to talk to you about Project CARS 2. The work of Slightly Mad Studios and a followup to the original Project CARS of 2015, it’s an expansive title that features road cars, current and historic racing cars, a massive array of tracks to race on (including dirt and even ice), and some heavily revised physics. After several days behind a steering wheel putting the game to the test, I found Project CARS 2 to be extremely rewarding to play and a massive improvement on its predecessor. But it’s still no easy arcade racer, and the hardcore nature of its simulation means it’s not going to appeal to everyone.

The format of Project CARS 2 will be familiar to anyone who has played a racing game in the past few years. There’s a career mode that lets you start off in slow, underpowered cars (or even go-karts) and work your way up to the fast stuff while competing in different championships until you reach the very fastest cars. You can also just set up quick races on the track of your choice or time trials that let you just race against the clock. There’s also online multiplayer, which is now specially tuned for the developer’s own line of pro-level racing competitions, although the servers weren’t very well populated before the release date, and the official competitions won’t begin until some time in the future.

I was bowled over by the selection of race tracks in CARS 2, which are mostly either real tracks or close replicas of real tracks with fake names. (For example, the Japanese track Suzuka is here as “Sakitto,” presumably because licensing the real thing wasn’t possible.) Slightly Mad COO Rod Chong and his team have also gone to the trouble of including race tracks from the past—historic places like the old eight-mile Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps or the long-abandoned Rouen-Les-Essarts in France. The tracks all feature dynamic weather and lighting, and the game now also models surfaces like dirt and even ice.

There’s also a fantastic selection of vehicles, both road cars and racing cars, new and old. Since the game designers also modeled historic F1, IndyCar, and sports cars from the 1960s and 1970s, that means Project CARS 2 is the closest thing you’ll find to something like the classic racing experience of the old Grand Prix Legends game of the late 1990s.

It’s not easy, but it is rewarding

Be warned: this is not a game where you just pick the very fastest cars and get straight to it. After several failed attempts doing just that with a McLaren 720S racing around the streets of Long Beach, I was wondering if somehow I’d forgotten how to drive. No, better to spend the first couple of hours beginning your career in either a kart or the Ginetta G40 Junior, a real-life racing car for young drivers that’s an early step on the real motorsports ladder. You might not be doing 200mph down the straights, but you will start learning a lot.

For example, you’ll master the art of braking. Speak to anyone who has spent time racing and they’ll tell you braking is the most critical skill a driver needs to develop and is where you often find an edge over your rivals. Since a car’s front tires only have a finite amount of grip, using more grip to slow down means less grip to turn into the corner. What this means in practical terms is that knowing when to release the brakes makes all the difference between hitting your apex and accelerating to the next corner versus plowing off the track and ruining your race.

Braking can be a tricky skill to master because our instinct when heading toward a corner too fast is to slam on the anchors. But the key is to judge that point where you’ve cut enough speed to make the turn. Even in real life, that’s not easy, and it’s an area where three-time F1 champion Sir Jackie Stewart used to have a big edge over his competition. Based on some quick back-to-back tests in similar cars at the same tracks, Project CARS 2 is much less forgiving than games like Forza or Gran Turismo when it comes to braking right.

Then there’s positioning the actual corner itself once you’re at the right speed. Again, Project CARS 2 will happily expose bad habits that other games usually mask. If you want to keep your car on track, most corners require you to turn in earlier and with more steering lock than you’d need in more arcade-style racing games. This is less of an issue if you’re playing with a controller, although with a game like CARS 2 you really aren’t getting the full experience unless you use a steering wheel.

What you’re looking at in a corner is also vitally important. Just like racing a real car, keeping your focus as far down the road as possible is critical. Focus on the apex you’re trying to hit and you may well find you’ve completely botched the turn. The end result is a feeling of intense satisfaction when you string together a good lap, and it’s certainly the closest simulation of real racing I’ve experienced on a console to date.

Back in April, we spoke with Chong about the approach he and his team took with CARS 2. At the time, Chong told us that “If you look at sim racing as a whole, there’s this misconception that it needs to be really, really difficult or it’s not a sim.” In reality, a less accurate physics simulation tends to make for a more difficult racing experience.

That could be taken as a tacit admission that the original game’s tire physics weren’t quite right; as most people who played the original Project CARS will remember, regaining control of a car once the tires started to slide was extremely difficult. Much work has been done on the physics since then—with input from professional racing drivers like Corvette Racing’s Tommy Milner—all with the aim of making CARS 2 a more accurate reflection of real life.

By and large, that effort has been very successful. Though you do still need fast reflexes and your wits about you when the rear tires start to slide, it’s more manageable this time around. For all the talk about professional racing drivers being able to keep their cars in lurid slides while testing the game in development, those of us with more average skill levels may find it’s easy to lose a race with one misjudged corner that takes you from first to last.

Visual toggles, VR supremacy

When it comes to platform choices, CARS 2‘s PC version takes the lead by scaling as dramatically as the first Project Cars. You’ll find everything you want here, including resolution ratio choices, unlocked frame rates, and every visual tickbox you can imagine. In fact, all versions of the game include a variety of visual toggles, including Sun flares, heat hazes, screen dirt, and crepuscular rays. (Slightly Mad did the same for console fans last go-round, and the options are absolutely appreciated.)

Unfortunately, Project CARS 2 expects its PC players to pick through every single setting to extract peak performance as opposed to guiding players with suggested settings or dynamic optimizations. Worse, the game requires a cold reboot every single time most settings are changed. This is made all the more difficult by the PC version, including some future-ready settings in its “ultra” level; you have to go through a real trial-and-error to see what will bring your personal system down below the sweet 60fps line.

For comparison, Forza Horizon 7‘s PC demo launched this week with a killer auto-optimization system. That game also includes fine-tuned resolution scaling to, say, run at 1800p, which CARS 2‘s PC version doesn’t allow.

Rain and weather effects wreak the most havoc in CARS 2. The game runs efficiently on all platforms (with resolution maximums of 900p on Xbox One, 1080p on PS4, and 1440p on PS4 Pro)… so long as the Sun’s out. Once rain, lightning, fog, or snow appear, the game’s combination of particle, reflection, puddle, lighting, and shadow effects choke up a bit, dropping the game below its target 60fps lock on all non-“Pro” consoles. Even without weather effects, we saw some stutters on both consoles—which didn’t ruin our enjoyment or ability to race, but they’re worth noting. (We were unable to reproduce some bugs we’d heard about on the Xbox One version of the game, by the way.)

If you have your heart set on VR sim racing, you’ll have to turn to the PC version, as PlayStation VR has been left in the cold. Why this happened is quite clear: Project CARS 2 is a demanding VR game, and, in order to guarantee a comfortable 90fps refresh, the VR mode defaults to running all visual toggles at “low” or “off.” Ars combined the game’s PC version with an HTC Vive (Oculus Rift is also supported), a steering wheel, and a 1080 Ti-equipped machine; we could get all settings up to “medium” (just shy of the medium-to-high console versions) on a rainy course and maintain a 90fps lock.

The difference between the muddy, low-poly VR default and this 1080 Ti-pushing jump in settings is dramatic and downright tantalizing. Project CARS 2 is, for the most part, the VR sim racer to end all VR sim racers. Finely rendered car interiors and smartly anchored driver cockpits do the crucial work of keeping players comfortable as they burn virtual rubber, take sharp turns, and even get whacked by occasionally moronic driver AI.

We felt almost entirely comfortable during our Project CARS 2‘s VR tests… with the exception of a newfound selection of drift-heavy rallycross tracks. Lateral VR motion is just a bugbear, and you should avoid CARS 2‘s super-sliding courses in VR at all costs. Otherwise, if you’re the kind of sim-racing freak who shells out hundreds for authentic wheels and pedals, you may as well hunt for an extra $800 or so in the couch cushions.

For serious race fans

Those who aren’t huge fans of the genre may find Project CARS 2 a little too uncompromising, even if it is much more accessible than the first time around. If you just want to pick a fast car from the get-go and dive right in, you may find the learning curve too steep. But it looks good—especially in VR on the PC—and there are some cars and tracks that you simply won’t find in any other current racing title. What’s more, it’s a significant step forward from the first Project CARS game. All told, CARS 2 should be catnip for the racing enthusiast.

The Good:

  • Much better physics than the first version.
  • Great selection of new and classic cars.
  • Even better selection of race tracks.
  • Dynamic weather and track conditions.
  • Very customizable for different difficulty levels.
  • Beautiful VR in the PC version.

The Bad:

  • Still not easy; even a small mistake can mean losing a race.
  • Probably won’t appeal to more casual gamers.
  • Hard-to-tweak visual options.

The Ugly:

  • Repeatedly failing to complete that first race in a supercar because I kept hitting the wall.

 

   
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