It was so easy to love Project CARS. It was a great story of this little studio, which, via crowdfunding, started a small-scale project that grew in scale, and with its first attempt, gave giants like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport a run for their money. However, we never really understood what the studio and its publisher (Bandai Namco) were thinking when, six weeks after the release of the first game, they announced the sequel. Some fans didn't like it and felt left behind when Slightly Mad Studios moved from the first game to the second with such speed.
The biggest difference in Project CARS 2 is noticeable within seconds of starting the game. We're talking about the presentation, of course, which is now much improved. The whole introduction feels more luxurious and polished, the menus are more detailed, faster, smoother. The developers have done a great job of mixing the ease with which you can navigate Forza Motorsport with the stylistically sparse design of Gran Turismo and, overall, this is superbly presented.
The career mode/progression was one of the elements that, in the first game, felt a bit flat. We loved it because, unlike the competition, it let us choose freely; we weren't forced to steer a minibus for nine hours to afford a Fiesta ST. However, we never got the feeling that we were involved in something that went beyond our own experience, that we were participating in international motorsport events. This concern remains in the sequel.
You can choose "tier" to start customising your own career. Those who want to start with a modest KZ2 tournament and race around in a go-kart can do that and then - for 20 hours - advance from the bottom to the top of that particular discipline. Those who do not can throw themselves into GT3 racing from day one and start their career as a semi-pro. The freedom of choice is something to applaud this time too, although we thought this mode felt forced and stale (Forza and Gran Turismo suffer from the same concerns). It feels old, and in the future, we'd really like to see something else when it comes to career modes in these kinds of racing experiences. Something needs to change.
We don't think it's enough that we get the chance to create our own character, who receives emails with sponsorship offers and is mentioned by name in various motorsports articles. This setup has been a curse for every sports game over the past decade, and someone needs to cook up something brand new in terms of getting the player involved with their own motorsports career. Here we'd like to be given the opportunity to tailor our career online, build teams with other amateurs, and compete against others while we all have the ability to pick up real coaches and team managers (a bit like you would in a management sim). We would have liked to have seen that personal feeling from something like Toca: Race Driver return, and we wouldn't mind experiencing a dynamic story filled with tense rivalries with other drivers, just like it works in real racing at the highest level.
After about 14 hours of playing through our career, we got fed up with this part of the game, and we moved on to setting best lap times in custom races. There are 181 cars here (twice as many as in the first game) and 46 different tracks. Plus there are several different versions of each track, which is really impressive. We've been crunching Eau Rouge at Spa in everything from typical Le Mans cars to the Nissan GT-R (R35) Nismo. We have taken on the corkscrew on Laguna Seca in the new Ford GT 2017 and pressed the McLaren P1 around the Carraciola-Karussel on Nurgburgring time after time after time. The only course we really missed is the Mugello Raceway, which we consider to be the world's best for virtual racing.
As far as the car selection goes, we're very pleased with the range of options in Project CARS 2, although there is an irregularity in how the cars perform. The difference between certain cars is a bit too pronounced; once again it's clear that the studio put a lot of effort into some cars, but it almost seems as though others have been forgotten. The pure race cars are, of course, the game's main attraction and, in addition to being more uncompromising in the torque and peak-power balance-ratio, they have much better brakes and more grip in their tires. This is, of course, in line with the fact that we are talking about specially designed, lightweight racing machines with ceramic racing brakes and slicks. It's the streetcars like the Nissan GT-R Nismo, the Porsche GT3 RS and the Lamborghini Huracan that feel like they have been toned down so as not to compete with the raw feeling of their race-ready counterparts. They just feel bland, a bit stale, and not at all as fast as they actually are in real life.
We also think that the studio hasn't really captured the performance of cars like LaFerrari, 918 Spyder, P1 or the Aston Martin Vulcan. As we do in Forza Motorsport, we shy away from 75% of the cars on offer for this specific reason, and even though we know it might come down to us being very picky when it comes to cars and performance, we wanted more of a performance-feel to supercars like the ones mentioned.
Overall, we think the braking in this sequel isn't strong enough. We know that most simulators exaggerate the feeling of acceleration and deceleration because it's impossible to simulate properly via a controller or plastic steering wheel. Still, we prefer that over what we got in Project CARS 2, where a car like the Porsche 918 Spyder feels like a Volvo XC70 when it comes to hard braking. The first three hours were actually filled with frustration because we felt like the cars simply didn't brake (this coming from iRacing, which still is the best racing simulator on the planet). Our favourite cars in Project CARS 2 are, by far, the Audi R8 LMS GT3 (2015) and the 2016 Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport MR. They have loads of balance, feel dynamic and lively, they're fast, and they brake very well. They also give great feedback in terms of grip and balance depending on where we are on the track.
When it comes to car physics, Project CARS 2 feels almost identical to the first game. There is a little more detail in the tire physics, though. Pushing rear-wheel-drive cars to the point where you drift all over the track is easy to do and super hard to maintain (which is just as it should be). This makes for a pretty interesting rallycross mode which we enjoyed even though the smaller, lighter rallycross cars feel a bit too bulky, a bit too heavy, to be fully realistic.
What we thought most lacking was the feeling of speed, and in this area we think Project CARS 2 fails. We just never get the feeling that this game is fast, no matter which car we choose. Heading for the Andretti Hairpin over the pitlane-straight on Laguna Seca in a McLaren 720S and the speedometer shows 244 km/h, but it actually feels like you're going at 100 km/h. Tops. This is a difficult consideration for developers trying to simulate real racing when you want the times with the right car on the right track to match what it looks like in real life, but here Slightly Mad Studios has to work more on the sense of speed. If you don't jump straight into the camera options when booting up the game for the first time and crank up the camera-shake and field of view, it feels even slower.
For the purposes of this review, we played Project CARS 2 using the Fanatec Clubsport Wheel Base, the Clubsport Forza Steering Wheel (including the base) and the Clubsport V3 Pedals, and we've also tested the game with the Thrustmaster T300 RS for PlayStation 4 Pro. We also raced a couple of hours on both consoles with their respective controllers, and even though we know this might be a very unpopular opinion, once you've played with a proper wheel it's close to unplayable without one. Of course, it is possible to steer around the cars on the 46 tracks in the game with a controller, but it's never satisfying and doesn't feel close to driving an actual car. Instead, you get the sluggish feeling of cars plagued by understeering. Just like in the case of Assetto Corsa, Rfactor and iRacing, this is a simulation that simply has to be experienced with a steering wheel. Depending on the console/platform, we'd suggest you purchase a steering wheel from Fanatec and a Playseat chair: this game needs it.
One area where the first game really shined was the graphics. Over two years have passed since then, and the same graphics engine has been used. While the weather effects don't leave anything to be desired, the graphics are generally behind what we've seen so far of Forza Motorsport 7. Project CARS 2 is far from ugly, but it doesn't impress as much as the first game did two and a half years ago. The tracks do feel a little bland and even though we understand why the developers don't want to add stuff that isn't there in real-life (the most obsessive fans go crazy if a developer adds a flag outside of the track), we expected a bit more when it comes to graphical fidelity. The cars look great, but the damage model is very basic.
And that's the feeling that stayed with us after putting the wheel away so we could write this review. Project CARS 2 is uneven: stressed in some parts but absolutely lovely in others. Slightly Mad Studios has tried to do a bit too much, attempted to spread its racing-wings too wide, and has neglected areas that we had hoped to see much more of. Like we've said about several of Polyphony's racing titles in the past, we would have liked a tighter, more trimmed down experience, something that focuses on what Project CARS 2 does the best, real track racing with real race cars.
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