Over a century ago, mankind invented a form of transportation that would come to change the world forever; the automobile. And with the construction of these extraordinary contraptions, so came the inevitable need to prove that one’s vehicle was faster than thy neighbours’. Fast-forward to the 21st century and that desire remains, albeit with purpose-built machines that would scare the living daylights out of the founding figures of car manufacture.
While the history of motor racing may seem inconsequential to a modern video game, Project Cars 2 is very much the embodiment of the concepts that encompass this extreme sport. Built by a development team whose passion extends beyond the cars themselves, the game focuses on what makes motorsport a pastime beloved to so many, and it succeeds at capturing both the highs and the lows well.
Straight off the bat, it needs to be said that this is not a clone of the Gran Turismo or Forza formula, with a car count so large you’ll get RSI scrolling through them all. You are not going to be able to drive every possible version of the Nissan Skyline, and in fact, the total number of road legal cars in the game is rather slim. Slightly Mad Studios has instead picked from an eclectic assortment of racing cars that span from zippy go-karts all the way to the 250mph flame-spitting monsters that howl down the straights of Circuit de la Sarthe for 24 hours.
With a car list coming in at fewer than 200, many will be disappointed that their personal favourite(s) are absent, and it’s true that some classes are sparsely populated (why only Ford in the V8 Supercars?). However Project Cars 2 is first and foremost a sim, with every car painstakingly modelled to look and drive like it’s real-life counterpart. It is very much a case of quality over quantity, and with each car being a unique beast in it’s own right, there’s bound to be something for everyone to enjoy.
The handling model is by far one of the best I’ve experienced, with a real sense of weight and inertia applied to the cars. The body roll and tire physics are just superb, and force the player to consider weight transfer when entering and exiting a corner. Also much like in the real sport, car setup can make or break a race, as can the pit strategy. Simply driving fast might be enough to win some events, but more often than not it will be the total package of consistency and strategy that will have you standing on the top step of the podium come day's end.
While it’s certainly possible to jump straight into some of the vehicles and be competitive, many will require hours of practice to understand their individual quirks. Driving techniques that work perfectly fine in one car will have you spinning out under braking in another, and the process of mastering a new vehicle can be a truly daunting challenge in of itself. The difficulty curve is actually more of a sheer cliff, sometimes seemingly insurmountable. But when everything finally does click and you figure out that perfect rhythm for a car and track, it makes it all seem worthwhile – provided you have the patience to stick with it long enough.
The number of racing circuits present is astounding, with the developer claiming it to be the largest number in a console driving game to date. Some of the tracks I hadn’t driven in years, and a few were completely new to me, such as New Zealand’s own Ruapuna Park circuit located just outside of Christchurch. The level of detail and texture for each track is also fantastic, with all the bumps and gnarly curbs looking to catch an unwary driver out.
Adding to the immersion out on track is an overhauled day/night cycle and weather system. Not only can you pick the time of day, but now you can choose which day of the year you’ll be racing, with the winter months having less daylight hours for endurance races. And the new weather system has to be seen to be believed, as falling rain will eventually cause water to pool and run across the track, with the consequence that the car will either aquaplane across the surface, or pull sharply to the side when a wheel catches a deep puddle.
It’s also a little bit silly, as you can set the weather for thunderstorms in Dubai, or plough through an arctic blizzard in the Mojave desert. They haven’t limited vehicles to particular tracks either, with the exception of the kart circuits. So if you’ve always dreamed of driving an Indycar on the gravel like a rally car, then I’m here to tell you that SMS has granted your wish. It does detract from the game’s simulation focus somewhat, but you have to give them kudos for leaving the options in there.
Unfortunately while they have absolutely nailed the player-controlled aspect out on track, the same cannot be said for the AI cars. The level of competency seems to be fairly decent when it comes to giving the player room and overtaking, but the difficulty setting has some serious flaws. Leaving it at a constant setting should provide a consistent level of challenge, but this proves to be false as the AI cars yo-yo between being racing gods to woefully hopeless – sometimes within the same series of races.
It’s by far the most disappointing aspect of the game, as the times I managed to get a good race were overshadowed by the next one being far too easy where I was in danger of lapping cars. Whether the player is after an easier experience or something that pushes them to the limit, the lack of consistency spoils the fun far too often. I also encountered a fair number of bugs in my time playing, and though none were game-breaking, it feels like the release should have been pushed back a couple more months to iron out the issues.
Then there’s the matter of controller support still not being quite up to scratch, though in fairness this is more likely a side effect of the realistic handling. While some cars are certainly driveable with a gamepad, many are difficult to be competitive with no matter how much time you invest into practicing with them. Turning the assists on can help, but only sometimes, and good luck trying to drift Mad Mike’s MX5 with all the electronic aids stopping the car breaking traction.
The truth is that this game is still very much aimed at those with a wheel and pedals setup, despite the claims from the dev regarding better gamepad optimisation. It’s also fair to say that it’s not for the casual fan wanting to jump into a quick race and win straight away (bar reducing the difficulty down to zero). If that’s what you’re after, then waiting for the new Forza and Gran Turismo titles might be a safer bet.
Project Cars 2 captures the glory, the frustrations, and perhaps most importantly, the patience and discipline required to succeed in the world of motorsport. It won’t be for everyone, and in fact it’s arguable that many will simply find it too difficult, but those with the fortitude and the passion to stick with it will be rewarded. It’s certainly not perfect with it’s AI woes and gremlins running around in the code, but for the races when everything comes together, it shines as one the best racing experiences out there.