My first race in Project Cars 2 was a learning experience, to say the least. After a couple of years away from the wheel of Slightly Mad Studios' simulation racing series, getting reacquainted with its uncompromising style was no easy feat. The blind turns and fluctuating elevations of Scotland's Knockhill Racing Circuit played havoc with my rusty skills, as I spun out myriad times throughout my first practice session, making the trackside gravel my undesirable home. It was not the start I had envisioned, and I could have let it get to me--thwarted, as I was, by a quick sprint around the Scottish countryside. But this is where the tinkering began.
I started tuning my Formula Rookie car to adjust to the particularities of this charming British track, softening the anti-roll bar to limit oversteering, and adjusting gear ratios to get a tad more speed down the straights. With each passing lap I gradually became more accustomed to Knockhill's tricky corners, learning how to approach each one with guile and gusto. Before long I wasn't just completing laps without incident, but setting competitive times to rival the competition, and fondly recalling similar moments throughout my time with Slightly Mad's first game in the series. It's a singular, almost assuredly niche thrill; yet it was this focus on learning and adapting to the various intricacies of both car and track that made Project Cars so appealing--and which still rings true in its sequel.
For all its strengths, however, the first Project Cars was hindered by some notable flaws. Inconsistent handling, inadequate gamepad support, dim-witted AI, and numerous, disruptive bugs regularly plagued the experience. Thankfully, these issues have been mostly addressed in Project Cars 2. For one, the physics and driving model have been much improved, with less disconnect between your actions and those of your car. There's an increased weightiness to these fuel-guzzling beasts that firmly plants them on the road, and a pliability that makes pushing them up to and over the limit a viable strategy, resulting in some incredibly tense and exciting moments.
Gamepad support is also marginally better. Where playing with a pad was once perplexingly unapproachable, it's now manageable at least--albeit significantly lagging behind the fidelity and one-to-one feedback of a dedicated racing wheel. Out of the box, the handling is quite understeer heavy, too, so you'll probably want to fiddle with the settings until it feels more comfortable. And there are some difficulties communicating exactly what the car is doing without the advantages of force feedback, particularly when the back end starts to spin out from underneath you. There's a distant, almost loose feel to the handling, and this makes playing without stability control more difficult than it would otherwise be. Racing with a gamepad is still nowhere near perfect or even close to the likes of Forza, but these adjustments do enough to make it more playable than the first game. With this in mind, I would still hesitate to recommend Project Cars 2 to anyone without a racing wheel.
Despite the improvements made behind the wheel, Project Cars 2's most eye-catching aspect might just be the sheer breadth of cars, tracks, and motorsports on offer. With 180 cars to choose from, 60 tracks, and 29 motorsports, you can easily go from kicking up dirt and gravel in a Rallycross event in Hell, to careening around Imola in Enzo Ferrari's magnificent namesake. Maybe you'll race wheel-to-wheel in white-knuckle stock cars for the full 500 miles of the Indianapolis 500, usher a Formula X car around the twisting turns of Monaco's opulent street course, or precariously rip through the historic 8.75 miles of the original Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in an Aston Martin DBR1/300. The extensive variety on-hand is sumptuous, and almost every track and car is intricately detailed, with phenomenal audio design bringing each bottled-up rocket of horsepower to life with a delectable symphony of shifting gears, screeching tires, and roaring engines.
The weather effects in Project Cars 2 are best-in-class, and the palpable effect they have on each and every race proves they're not just for show either
Meanwhile, a dynamic weather system that encompasses everything from emphatic thunderstorms and blizzards, to a hazy summer's day--plus an impressive day/night cycle--complements the action, and turns an endurance race at Le Mans into a keen test of attrition and strategy. As the sky cracks open and unleashes a torrent of rain, puddles will gradually form on the track and must be avoided lest you aquaplane into the nearest wall. Survive this brush with death and the hot asphalt will dissipate any pools of water, yet your relief won't last for long as the sun begins to disappear behind the trees. Suddenly corners aren't quite as recognisable as they once were as shadows cast blind spots over the track; and before long you're driving in nothing but pitch black darkness, with only your headlights to guide you. The weather effects in Project Cars 2 are best-in-class, and the palpable effect they have on each and every race proves they're not just for show either.
The best way to cycle through this plethora of motorsports is in the career mode, which takes you globetrotting from one racing discipline to another. You're still free to choose where you begin your driving adventure--whether it's in the lowly rungs of kart racing or maybe in the more potent brutes of GT4--but there's added structure this time around. The high-end championships are locked away until you've made at least some progress, and single-race invitationals mix up the pacing so it's less of a slog. The career mode is, however, surprisingly restrictive when it comes to competing in these various championships. If you finish outside of the top three, it's deemed a failure and you're asked to retry the entire championship again. This can be utterly demoralising when you've just completed ten races or so, and I'm not sure why leading the midfield pack comes with such a harsh punishment. It actively discouraged me from raising the AI difficulty until I knew I could consistently place in the top three, and it feels like a completely misguided decision. If you've started a championship and don't quite fancy it, it's also needlessly difficult to quit. The only way to do so is by starting each race and retiring to the pits, which is very time-consuming.
While these issues are disappointing, Project Cars 2's most glaring faults lie with the AI and the vast number of bugs that constantly crop up. The AI is slightly improved over the first game; it's less rigid, has more spatial awareness when racing wheel-to-wheel, and will make human-esque mistakes, particularly in adverse weather conditions. But for every moment of fair and balanced racing, there's another example where they'll nudge you off the road, shunt you in the backside, or cause an 18-car pileup on the first corner. I can't count the amount of times the AI has spoiled a race by mindlessly crashing into each other at the very first hint of a bend in the road. It's absurd.
The AI is also a constant nuisance in qualifying. It will set consistent lap times when you're out on the track, but as soon as you skip to the end of a session after a seemingly good job, it will inexplicably gain a good five seconds on your best lap time, even if there's not enough time left to do so. I've also encountered a few notable instances where I've qualified in first, only to get bumped into last place as soon as the race begins. The race director is inconsistent, too, dishing out penalties for no discernible reason. If you play in the rain at Monaco, the tunnel will flood with water and is almost impossible to drive on. And any cosmetic damage you sustain will remain after restarting a session, even if that includes missing wheels.
All of these issues, whether they're disruptive or comical, paint a picture of a game that wasn't quite ready to come out of the oven. Multiplayer races mitigate some of these flaws, and are arguably the best way to play, but the online servers are sparsely populated, resulting in a lot of waiting around to race maybe four or five other people, if you're lucky. I also suffered multiple crashes that only occurred during, or when trying to join, multiplayer sessions.
When it all works as intended, Project Cars 2 is a brilliant simulation racer--provided you're playing with a wheel. It's ambitious in scope and depth, and the sheer breadth of available motorsports almost guarantees there's something for everyone to sink their teeth into. It's a shame, then, that there's always this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that a bug or moment of AI madness will disrupt the whole thing--and more often than not, it will. These issues may be ironed out in the coming weeks and months, but with potentially stiff competition on the very-near horizon, Slightly Mad Studios might not have enough time to capture the hearts and minds of video game racing fans before they move on to pastures new.