Project Cars 2 Takes Racing Simulation to Profound and Unforgiving Heights [E3 2017 Preview]

If you haven’t heard Slightly Mad Studios Stephen Viljoen speak about Project CARS 2, then you’re probably not aware of just how obsessed him and his team are with simulation racing. While it’s true the original game took the genre and scene as a whole by storm back in 2015, CARS didn’t exactly have an established name for itself. This of course meant a lack of big-name vehicles, a lack of hotshot flashy press, and a need to impress solely by out-detailing the competition. All things considered, that mission was successful.

Now several years later a lot has changed; Project CARS is a legitimate eSport in certain circles, and its upcoming sequel is already sporting a number of high-end simulation firsts, at least amongst the big three of Forza, Gran Turismo, and now Project CARS. Viljoen’s explanation for where the team at Slightly Mad is headed was simple. “If you took a car in real life, tore out the steering wheel, and bolted on an Xbox controller, you should be able to drive.” It’s a lofty goal, and while I’m no professional driver, it’s clear they’re on the right track.

Like most of the games at Bandai Namco’s event, Projects CARS 2’s presence consisted of a hands-off info session followed by a hands-on demo shortly thereafter. Unlike the other presenters who were simply representatives explaining pre-rehearsed lines, Viljoen himself was live on the scene to spit as much Project CARS 2 information as humanly possible within the span of 15 minutes.

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The biggest change to CARS 2 is something Slightly Mad is calling dynamic everything; in other words, every single element you can think of regarding tracks, weather, environments, and nature itself is continuously adjusted in real time, at least in theory. Everything from moisture of road surfaces and their temperature to the way in which puddles or pooling water are or aren’t drained from certain tracks (even then depending on the style of sewage system that’s installed) is included – you name it, and Slightly Mad has probably thought of it. This expands even to the absorption rates of each included driving surface, which to me simply meant that the game itself is going to present more challenges than I could ever hope to possibly understand. I then realized I might want to consider redirecting said man-hours toward actually becoming a professional driver, but I’d be bluffing if I said I wasn’t impressed nonetheless.

While CARS isn’t first to all of these mechanics, its primary goal is to once again leapfrog Forza and Gran Turismo on most of them, and Viljoen emphasized this. It’s true that those games sport the latest and greatest cars on the market (an ironic fact that makes you wonder if Project CARS ought to be called Project DRIVING instead), but in its place CARS strives for the utmost realism it can muster, casually humblebragging its ability to render across three-monitor 21:9 at 12K resolution along the way. Still, thanks to a brand that has slowly established itself as reputable, you will be able to drive plenty of Porsches, Ferraris, and other mortgage-destroyers this time around – you just won’t be able to get behind the wheel of, say, Forza 7’s new GT2 RS. The theory behind CARS is that the absurd accuracy of the simulation will make you forget this entirely, and while I’m not fully convinced myself, I do appreciate the sentiment.

My hands-on portion was short, harrowing, but ultimately fun, as an early drift race had me slamming against walls struggling to delete Mario Kart muscle memory from my brain as quickly as humanly possible. Once I finally adjusted, I found Project CARS 2 to be shockingly responsive; the courses on display were highly dynamic as expected, and something as simple as a shift to nighttime during later laps actually impacted my car’s handling ever-so-slightly thanks to changes in humidity and the beating sun’s effect on the road. I managed to narrowly dodge placing dead-last, cancelling the need to awkwardly avoid eye contact with the rep supervising my demo. Another humiliation averted.

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Another big feature coming to Project CARS 2 is the accuracy of its real-life terrain scanning, quite literally employing drones this time and focusing heavily on terrain outside of racing boundaries as well as within them. The reason for this, I was told, is twofold: not only is it more authentic, but it helps better duplicate the experience of real drivers by allowing players to use the very same landmarks used in real life. In short, the more of a true racing fanatic you are in real life, the more mind-boggled my Project CARS 2 you’re very likely going to feel in the best possible way. This of course has the side effect of inflicting the opposite on more casual players, but as with most games there are input setting that can be tweaked to make things less wholly devastating.

Detailing every new addition here isn’t going to be possible, but what remains are primarily adjustment to the game’s modes and systems. Motor sports, indie cars, rally cars, and more have all joined the fray when it comes to varied racing styles, while the eSports-driven Online Championship framework is now completely baked into the game rather than managed by competitions outside of it. This means any player can create a tourney at will, with an arguable best-feature appearing in the game’s ability to punish jokers seeking only to obstruct and troll by pairing them exclusively with other players who do the same.

My hands-on concluded with a lengthy, scenic road race, and I was happy to discover that while Project CARS may in spirit be Project DRIVING, I was still able to enjoy the scenery, feel the thrill of speeding down an open countryside, and generally experience what most folks never will outside of video games when it comes to fast cars. This was short-lived before I violently spun out and fell into last-place, but I’m willing to accept that it’s simply a matter of practice.