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Project CARS 2: why we’re still playing this forgotten racing game seven years later

This classic racing sim is still the GOAT in some key areas

Published: 23 Feb 2024

It’s a clear, balmy morning in Lombardia as our Lamborghini Huracan LP 620-2 Super Trofeo chunters to itself on the Monza grid, surrounded by an implausible array of road cars, Le Mans prototypes and vintage Lotus F1 beasts. But the weather’s not going to hold out.

Over the next ten laps, we’ll suffer an absolute barrage of weather conditions including thunderstorms, heavy fog, and a blizzard. It’ll drop pitch black in about three laps, then we’ll race through almost another complete day-night cycle before taking the chequered flag in our battered, weather-beaten cars. This Huracan is 100 per cent losing some bodywork against the barriers by the race’s end. It’s absolute hell. We love it.

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Project CARS 2 arrived in 2017, right before the games industry really got serious about sim racing. Developer Slightly Mad Studios always had a way of pouring in far more simulation rigour than anyone would expect into its titles, right back to Need For Speed Shift in 2009. A Need For Speed game with tyre temps and telemetry data is essentially akin to Call Of Duty with thought-provoking dialogue. An unthinkable revelation. And in PC2, the studio married that forensic level of driving simulation to a real sandbox of cars, tracks, and conditions.

In the short term, it was the driving model itself that critics focused on. Weighty, responsive and convincing, it was worthy of high praise and sturdy enough to generate an esports scene. And the graphics were really something for 2017. You could even play it in that newfangled VR, if you had such futuristic hardware at the time.

But as months turned to years, the real quality of what Slightly Mad Studios had built began to reveal itself: it’s a fantasy race generator. And it’s so good at being that, we still haven’t exhausted the possibilities in the year 2024.

Even now that we’ve got the likes of Assetto Corsa Competizione turning our heads, and the new Forza Motorsport and its maniac AI adversaries. There’s a new F1 game every year, and mod-friendly sim racing platforms like Automobilista 2 continue to coax us with a come hither finger like sirens of virtual motorsport. The whole industry’s evolved so much, and since sim racing had its coming of age moment during the state-enforced indoors time of 2020, the software standard’s raised considerably.

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But we always go back to PC2.

Why? Because last night we raced a BAC Mono against a Lambo Veneno in a multiplayer point-to-point along the tight-and-twistys of the Azure Coast and found that despite being 30+mph down on top speed, the impossibly lithe single seater came up tops. Then we took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Audi A1s and had a genuinely tense duel in unfathomably heavy snow. There’s always another ‘What if we…’ to explore in this game.

That sandbox potential wouldn’t be anything like as compelling if the fundamentals weren’t in place. If the handling wasn’t as believably weighty and as varied between vehicle classes. It just wouldn’t be fun to pit one vehicle against another if they all felt like washing machines on caster wheels.

But it’s Slightly Mad Studios, so of course the handling feels good. Not just the way the car responds to your inputs, but the way it responds to worn or cold tyres, a stiff suspension setup, or an aggressively low downforce aero configuration. It’s fascinating to tinker with the setup options and feel out the new lines and possibilities that they unlock on the track, after all this time.

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The foundations are strong, then. And when you place 182 cars, 140 track layouts, variable weather conditions, day-night cycles and really granular race options including the speed of those day-night transitions, damage level, tyre wear rate, mandatory pit stops and AI competitors in online multiplayer races, it turns out you end up with a game that’s still yet to be beaten in 2024 for sheer sandbox appeal.

Why aren’t we all playing Project CARS 5? Because of the man. You know the one. The bloke in a suit who pushes big acquisitions through, like Codemasters’ acquisition of Slightly Mad Studios and EA’s subsequent $1.2bn acquisition of Codemasters. It was probably the man who dictated that the poorly received Project CARS 3 should be more like Codemasters’ GRID games.

He was wrong about that, and as a result PC3’s sales failed to set EA’s budget sheets alight. Later down the line in 2022 EA would announce it was shelving the Project CARS series altogether, with staff reassigned elsewhere and further investment or development canned. Fortunately the multiplayer servers are still live so PC2 limps on without corporate support, but it has lost some online features like downloadable setups and online hotlap functionality.

Project CARS 2

There’s a ray of light for PC2 fans, though - former Slightly Mad Studios CEO Ian Bell’s working on a new game, GTRevival. It’s one of the most ambitious racing game projects we’ve ever seen, resplendent in its Unreal Engine 5 finery and boasting, says Bell, “the most acute and reactive physics ever delivered”. That’s all, then. Just that. Just the best driving game physics ever.

If those words came from someone who didn’t have the Project CARS, GTR, GT Legends, and Test Drive series on their CV you might be inclined to take them with a liberal sprinkle of salt. But from Bell’s Straight4Studios, you pay attention.

Until GTRevival is ready to evolve sim racing some time in 2025, we’ve still got hypotheticals to explore in PC2, scores to settle, and cars to tame. There are lines around the infamous ‘roller coaster’ Portimao circuit that only a Lotus 98T can take, and we intend to find them. There are scores to settle at the next Dubai Autodrome race in blizzard conditions, extra hundredths to find in the Audi R18’s setup.

And for the foreseeable, we’ll be obsessed with all of it. Not bad for a seven-year-old game.

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