September 27, 2017 // 1 p.m.
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One
Version Reviewed: PC
If Project Cars was a box of Quality Street, then Project Cars 2 is one of those massive tins of Quality Street that relatives who don't know you very well buy you for Christmas. For the sequel to what is arguably my favourite track racer, Slightly Mad Studios has basically added a whole bunch more stuff. Over double the vehicles, more tracks, and racing conditions that are even more dynamic and changeable than they were before.
The trouble with more variety is that alongside all the chocolate you do like is more chocolate that you don't, like those horrible coconut eclairs or those bloody toffee pennies that single-handedly prop up British dentistry. This is one of two problems I've found with Project Cars 2: Although the developer has added more stuff, it's not necessarily better stuff. The other problem is that Slightly Mad has been tinkering with the formula for its chocolate, and I'm not sure that I like the new taste.
Let's crunch some numbers. Project Cars 2 increases the number of available cars from 74 to 180 and broadens the track roster from 30 to 46, with each track having multiple layouts amounting to 121 potential permutations. Newly added race modes include IndyCar, RallyCross, and Oval track racing. Project Cars 2 also supports resolutions up to 12K and can be played in VR. Those are some impressive statistics, especially when you consider the relative size of the developer compared to, say, the creators of Forza.
But what I like about Project Cars, and what I still like about the sequel, is not so much those numbers as it is how flexible the game is with them. There are three main ways to play Project Cars: the career mode, Custom Race, and multiplayer. As you might expect, career mode has you start in a lower tier of racing and encourages you to progress through the ranks to become an elite racer. But the mode let's you start anywhere on the ladder apart from the very top. You could start racing Karts and work your way slowly up to Formula A, or you could jump straight into a GT3 race just a couple of rungs from the top. You can even leapfrog from profession to profession, spend a season in one class of racing then hop to another if you discover it isn't to your liking.
The open nature of the career mode is balanced with subtle hints at structure. To unlock different vehicles, you must build affinity with manufacturers, while certain special events, such as historic races, need to be unlocked by winning championships. This means putting some hard time into your racing, although here too Cars is remarkably flexible. You can choose between full and short seasons, and opt to skip practice and qualifying and head straight to the starting grid.
Where the customisable potential of Project Cars 2 really shines, however, is in Custom Race mode. Here you can put together virtually any event imaginable. Want to race twenty 1972 Lotus Cosworths through the sun-dappled corners of Monza? No problem! Want to do 24 hours at Le Mans in a Mini Cooper? Go for it! Want to race McLaren F1s around Spa at dusk in a blizzard? That's very silly, but totally doable.
The Custom Race builder is a mightily impressive thing, letting you put together any combination of cars, tracks, and conditions from the moment you launch the game. You can limit your opponents to identical cars, the same race class, or let them drive whatever they fancy. My favourite feature, however, is that not only can you set the weather as you please, you can set the weather to change during the race itself.
Arguably my favourite feature of Project Cars was its dynamic weather system, and in Project Cars 2 it's back better than ever. In one race, a Sportscar Lites event at Oulton Park, the race commenced in a downpour and then gradually shifted to blue skies as the race progressed, resulting in a track that was mostly dry but dotted by patches of standing water – a nightmare scenario for outfitting your car. Weather can even be different between one end of the track and the other. I drove a race at Silverstone where it was pouring rain on one side of the track yet was dry at the other. Project Cars 2 has a remarkable ability to turn even the most processional of races into an event, and it's a power that you too can wield in Custom Race, setting multiple types of weather to change in varying ways during a race.
There is something delightfully toybox-like about Project Cars, the way you can open it up and just play with everything at once. It also lets you play at your own skill level (to a certain extent). The game sports a range of difficulty options almost as extensive as the vehicular roster, from a dynamic racing line to traction control, stability control, and braking and turning assists. What's more, AI drivers have sliders for both intelligence and aggression, so you can play against dumb roadhogs or pacifist geniuses if you so like.
If I sound like I'm being oddly positive toward a game that I'm ambivalent on, that's because I genuinely love Project Cars' open and creative nature. The problem is that when it came down to the act of racing, I found Project Cars 2 considerably less enjoyable than the first. Putting my finger on why this was took a while, but I think it comes down to handling.
The cars in Project Cars 2 generally feel slower and less responsive than they did in the first game. This is particularly the case when it comes to cornering, and even more particularly the case when it comes to cornering in a GT3 car, which is arguably the core of Project Cars. No matter what I did, it just seemed impossible to get the cars around the corners without slowing down to a crawl. I tried everything, from following the racing line, to turning on stability control, to turning off stability control. Yet no matter what I did, it always felt more like I was racing in a milk float rather than a modern, state-of-the-art sports car.
Pinning down the reason for this is difficult because of the nature of Project Cars as a simulation. But I think it's to do with the altered gamepad controls. Slightly Mad has apparently revamped the controls for the gamepad because of issues with it the first time around. But I was fine with the way they used to function, whereas now in some vehicles I can't corner to save my life. This isn't the only issue with the pad controls either; with stability control off, you go from zero to spin in approximately 0.003 seconds, with no real opportunity to correct for it.
There are a few other flaws too. The dynamic racing line is highly inconsistent. It's perfectly workable on some tracks, like Imola and Hockenheim, but on the Nürburgring there were whole sequences of corners where it wasn't to be seen. I also found that Project Cars came off unfavourably compared with some other racing games I've played lately. In Rallycross, for example, Project Cars felt cumbersome and temperamental compared to the sprightly precision of the cars in Dirt 4. And while both games mimic different surfaces well enough, Dirt 4 edges Cars for representing changes in the cars' performance, using a more subtle combination of audio and control changes to make you feel that damaged gearbox or punctured tyre.
Whether or not these problems stem from Project Cars 2 being more or less realistic than its predecessor is hard for me to tell, at least until I can find a way to drive 180 real-life supercars without a driving license. All I can tell you is that, playing Project Cars 2 on my vanilla PC setup without spending money on a VR headset, a force-feedback wheel, and a graphics card that can do backflips, I didn't enjoy it as much as the first one.
If you're a hardcore racing sim fan with all the relevant accoutrements and a cupboard full of second-hand car manuals, you might get more out of it than I did. As Joe Bloggs the games journalist, however, I can't help but feel that Project Cars 2 is a toybox designed for bigger boys than I. It's a shame because one cannot doubt the game's generosity, and it does try to cater for different tastes. But its consistency across that spectrum is sadly lacking, and unless you're willing to invest some serious time into it, you may find Project Cars 2 a struggle to enjoy.