Going first is always difficult, but as the first of three major console sim racers coming out in the next month Project Cars 2 had a fantastic opportunity to grab a lot of people’s attention early, and hope that its ambitiously broad and authentic take on the world of motorsport would be enough to hold onto them. It’s a game that sounds fantastic on paper, catering to racing game fans across the spectrum, but it just doesn’t live up to its potential at launch.
Everything about the list of cars that the game features will please racing fans, as it goes beyond the first game. It now lets you indulge in IndyCar as the top tier open wheel racing format and Rallycross, alongside the returning endurance racing, tin tops and more. Similarly, there’s a great selection of tracks that will, for example, let you recreate a BTCC season better than ever before, as well as looking to the past to resurrect the classic layouts of Silverstone, Hockenheim and Monza that have been abandoned and redeveloped in real life.
All of this is made use of through the redesigned career mode, which once again lets you work your way up through the different disciplines, letting you aim for various goals of your choosing. Ditching the calendar layout of the first game, you pick your starting point from the lower tiers of the racing spectrum, working through things like Formula Rookie or GT4 as you progress through to the top, each of which can potentially include multiple mini-championships to compete in. There’s a great authenticity to this and the way that all of the rules have been recreated in the game, and this extends beyond career mode, letting you pick from presets for single player and online races. Just as importantly for those starved of time, you can pick a long or a short championship, decide if you want to take part in practice sessions and qualifying, or if you’d rather just jump into a race that’s as long or short as you’d like.
Depending on how you do, the next tier of championships will unlock, but so too will special invitational events that can be tackled whenever you like. You can carefully pick and choose your way through these and the cars you drive in the various championships to unlock Factory Drives, where you then race for one of eight specific manufacturers in their racing programmes.
One of the marquee features of the original game was its LiveTrack weather and track condition simulation, and that’s taken even further with the sequel. Simply put, LiveTrack 3 is fantastic, and while races would surely be called off in some of the conditions that you can create here, with deep, thick fog and huge puddles forming on track, the way it now affects the grass and run off areas as well as each small patch of track both visually and in terms of handling adds a further layer of realism to the game.
Whatever you choose to drive, there’s an often very steep learning curve for you to overcome. First it’s the returning curse of starting on cold tyres in practice and qualifying sessions, and then it’s the unique peculiarities of that particular car. To Project Cars 2’s credit, every car feels and handles differently, and it is rewarding to learn a particular track and work with a car to tweak its set-up to your liking, or simply live with its peculiarities. However, perhaps the most distinctive facet of Project Cars 2’s handling model is that I feel like I’m held back from being able to really push the cars.
I’m left scratching my head when I first start driving them, as to whether I can learn to drive it or tweak the set up to make it work for me. Of course, there’s the full gamut of vehicle set up tweaks, and the game does a good job of describing what each thing will do when you change it. Also there to help you is the Race Engineer option, where you can search for a symptom that it can diagnose and let it suggest a solution. Used sparingly, it can make a bit of difference, but just as when you’re fiddling with the full set-up tools, you can very easily make your car even worse.
Some will defend some of Slightly Mad’s design choices to the death, but simply put, this is a game that could have a wide reaching appeal but feels too inaccessible and narrowed in on sim racers, and even many of them will struggle. The lack of an option for warm tyres in practice and qualifying combines badly with the often torturous process of warming them up, and it’s not like the game even tries to teach you how to do so. That’s before we start talking about the gamepad settings that, while better than the first game, are still far from great by default. There’s overly sensitive braking that leads to locked brakes and an incessant tyre squeal, while steering could conversely be a little bit more sensitive and direct.
One thing I personally struggled with was the force feedback settings with a racing wheel. By default, it was far too weak for my tastes and provided little meaningful feedback through the Fanatec CSL Elite, which I know is capable of some fearsome, arm rattling force. Switching to the Immersive setting and boosting the various sliders helped with the strength of those forces, but there’s a lack of rumble from running over kerbs and crashes that was there in the first game, and I’ve simply had to get used to listening for the limit between braking and locking up on PS4 while tentatively wrestling with the cars. PC players, however, can be rescued by the community, with various config files and recommendations that go beyond the settings that are available to you in the game.
Then there are the numerous outright bugs that litter the game, which isn’t good enough regardless of who the game is aimed at. Decide you’ve had enough qualifying and want to skip to the end of the session? Most of time you’ll find that all the AI magically managed to pull around six seconds on you, sending you to the back of the grid. The collisions between vehicles feel much better, but there’s the hilarity of sending Formula Rookie cars flying up into the sky with wheel contact.
There’s also smaller bits of fit and finish where you’re emailed in career about how disappointed your engineer is in your qualifying when you’ve just won the race, have no option to move the race engineer’s voice from the DualShock 4 speaker to TV speakers, an almost amusingly broken racing line for those that turn it on, an inconsistent race director and penalties system, frame rate hitches when players join or leave a lobby online, certain visual glitches, and so many more points that I’m forgetting.
It does perform well though, with much of my time spent playing on PlayStation 4 Pro and some time spent with the PC version of the game. It hews towards a cleaner and more clinical visual style than some games, but that also looks great when the many and varied weather effects roll in. With a full grid and the most intensive weather effects, the PS4 Pro almost takes it in its stride with no real noticeable tearing and a dynamic resolution helping to keep the game close to that 60fps goal. Reportedly, the base PS4 suffers a little on that front, though improved over the original, while Xbox One ends up as the runt of the litter as you might expect.
Online is a key factor in Project Cars 2, and SMS feature esports heavily in the game. It works really well, whether you drop into a simple online lobby or join a group of friends, with the tools available to you to set up races in every kind of category, just as if you were playing offline.
Project Cars 2 is a game that doesn’t manage to capitalise on a lot of the enthusiasm that was generated for the original. Too buggy and not as accessible for newcomers as it should be, a lot of the genuine improvements are lost behind a veil of annoyance and frustration. Hopefully Slightly Mad Studios stick with it, because the wider range of racing disciplines, the refined career, and the improvements to LiveTrack and weather are all fantastic and deserve a better, more polished product to bring them to as many people as possible.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4 Pro, PC