Racing games are not inherently complicated. You pick car, enter a race, drive your car forward. Usually with the intent of getting somewhere before somebody else. There are only so many ways to play with that formula. Racing games are like that; they’re unfortunately limited by nature of being racing games. Usually the differences come from changes to style, be that arcade, simulation, or some amalgamation.
Project CARS 2 (and the series at large) doesn’t try to drastically break new ground on the “car-goes-forward” genre – instead going for a change in structure the racing is framed around.
As any who’ve played the first game will know, practically everything is open to you upon boot-up. Project CARS doesn’t adhere to the mantra of progression, experience bars, and quasi-RPG elements. Virtually every championship and every car is available for your driving.
One might then reasonably ask where any sense of satisfaction comes from. Advancement in Project CARS 2 is essentially self-guided. The game is whatever you need it to be, depending on the player’s skill. You can turn on every assist for an uncomplicated joy ride, or you can brave the many locomotive tweakings if you know what any of them do.
I tried all kinds of settings to get a feel for the options. The difference was quite drastic. Both ends of the extreme either yielded an arcade experience or a hyper-realistic struggle between your F1 and the devastating puddle you just drove over.
The stations were setups with every variety of peripheral; tri-screen 4K with VR, racing wheel and force-feedback; racing wheel with force-feedback and no VR; VR with racing wheel but no feedback; or for the adventurous, a humble gamepad.
I found the game (and consequently the racing genre at large) innately suited for VR. Developers often place something sedentary on the screen, like a HUD to give the eyes some form of motion-grounding, and hence preventing motion sickness. Assuming you’re playing from a front-seat view, Slightly Mad Studios don’t need to add anything additional - the dashboard’s already there.
Simulating the realism of a race is already half the point of Project CARS – so VR is a natural addition. This works well when your race is going well, but when you inevitably screw the pooch the brain does not appreciate the violent change in motion. Crashing was a vividly unpleasant experience, even for someone like me who’s not exactly new to VR.
Driving with a wheel is evidently how Project CARS 2 is intended to be played. The same could be said for many racing games, though like VR, this game has the intended purpose of simulation, and nothing helps a racing simulator like a steering wheel.
The setups I used had force feedback and steering resistance to make driving something between realistically enjoyable and occasionally uncomfortable. Bearing in mind however some of these rigs were $40,000. I imagine most of us will be relegated to the less luxurious joystick, an experience which felt rather quaint against the fully-body involvement of wrestling with the wheel as my Lamborghini reached top speed.
Ultimately the luxury of a racing wheel was only auxiliary to the main point Project CARS 2 is trying to make. This game is whatever it needs to be for whoever’s playing. I might never touch the esoteric calibrations, but would I gradually turn off the assists to make the driving more difficult and satisfying as I got better? Absolutely.
Most of what I played were from custom races, with a small dabbling in career mode. The original game was already wide open with its new approach to progression, so the sequel seems somewhat contained in how it can enlarge the base experience. Rally is now included, and there are more cars and tracks. For a game which already provided so much of what was wanted, simply adding more is the logical conclusion.
I didn’t get to play any, but the multiplayer will have an esports focus. The first game was already in the esports scene, the difference this time being it’s made with that in mind, including competitive racing licenses, on-track behavioural monitoring, and built-in streaming.
A lot of games aspire to esports, and a prerequisite for such is depth and mastery. Project CARS has the benefit of already having that.
The word which comes to mind in describing my impression of Project CARS 2 (when I want to limit my thoughts to a single word), is malleable. It’s not Mario Kart, but this game is approachable enough to not be daunting at the base level, yet more than demanding at the larger one. Not everyone may have the discipline for its self-imposed progression, but for people like me who’ve been looking for something different in the racing genre, it’s an alluring structure to learn more about racing.
Ben flew to Sydney to preview Project CARS 2, courtesy of Bandai Namco and Slightly Mad Studios.