Project Cars 2 Hands-On Preview: The Most Authentic Racing Experience Ever?

Although VR gaming has developed rapidly over the past ten years, it can still be a bit of a rough-and-tumble experience for the player.

Awkward headset design, motion sickness, frustrating controls and lack of player agency are some notable restraints. Some even argue that certain genres of games cannot be translated into the VR experience. Driving, for example, is one. Many cite the fact that the experience is so kinetic and active that it would be incredibly difficult to translate into a VR setting. Slightly Mad Studios aim to change that with Project Cars 2. Do they manage it?

The car powers along the race track in the highest gear – the engine is able to unleash its full roar. It’s beginning to rain, slightly at first, but due to the game’s dynamic new weather system, the water will begin to build alongside each curve in the track forcing last-minute adjustments to steering and gear changes. Project Cars 2 is already a fantastic experience in simulating the feeling of controlling a high-powered vehicle along a professional racetrack. However, it’s the little details that you notice in VR that really make it excel.

With the VR headset on, feet on the pedals, it becomes instinctual to look upwards towards the rear-view mirror to gain a perspective on where your opponents are. A glance towards your right-hand side will allow you to gain a hand on what gear you are in, when you need to push the stick up or down. Windscreen wipers are a hazard for a split-second as they clear the spray from your windshield; you twist in your seat for a better view of the track ahead. Or you could look out the passenger door to see just how much paint the tailgating driver is chipping from the body of your car. It’s quite the white-knuckle experience.

Strangely enough, Andy Tudor, creative director at Slightly Mad Studious, had a bit of an on-off relationship with VR. He explains that the first game he experienced in VR was Team Fortress 2, which he concedes wasn’t the best idea for a virtual reality game. Team Fortress 2 naturally involves a lot of fast and frantic movement, with the player constantly jumping up onto ledges and down again. But Tudor believes that games have been optimised a lot more efficiently and intelligently for VR since those early days. Many driving sim teams feel that their genre is simply too difficult to port onto VR; that optimising the game for a VR experience without making the player feel queasy is something they cannot afford the time and money for. Tudor and Slightly Mad Studious are not in the same bracket.

Slightly Mad Studious state that Project Cars 2 will aim to be the “pinnacle of authenticity”. They note the game is created by gamers and fine-tuned by actual pro drivers, ensuring “class-leading visuals” and “1:1 digital craftsmanship”. Nicolas Hamilton has even been brought on board to make sure that everything is exactly as it should be. Even though Project Cars 2 isn’t necessarily aiming to be a complete, immersive sim – favouring fun gameplay over complete realism – it still really, really feels like driving. Or the closest feeling a non-professional driver is going to get by driving a car that goes from 0-6 in a shorter time than it takes to blink. This, of course, goes hand-in-hand with playing the game on a very expensive, top-of-the-line pedal and wheel system. But still, even with a controller, the game manages to maintain a feeling of being there on the track with the smell of burnt rubber and scorched tarmac in the air. The studio did mention that controller pad handling had been revamped, to ensure that playing with a controller took nothing away from the experience of the game.

Slightly Mad Studious really wanted to rule the roost with Project Cars 2. The limitation in development with the first game, due to it being crowdfunded, was gone. The studio had the creative control they needed in making a sequel. The follow-up game now boasts more licensed manufactures, car models and tracks than any other driving sim. There’s over 170 licensed cars to play with; many iconic brands take centre stage now that Slightly Mad have the ability to acquire them. The introduction of Japanese cars, for example, is something new that they are particularly excited about.

The introduction of the Livetrack 3.0 technology is also something that demonstrates Slightly Mad’s desire to excel in the genre. The game includes many different elements and surfaces to battle against: ice, tarmac, dirt, snow. They call it “racing without boundaries,” and fully acknowledge that this elemental battle is something as important to racing as anything else. Livetrack demonstrates the use of dynamic road surface technology that affects vehicle handling and grip in real-time. As each car adapts to the surface, the surface also takes a beating and will change over time. A full 24-hour atmospheric cycle also contributes to this.

Slightly Mad are also looking forward with eSports in mind. They want the intense heat of competition to be at the forefront of the game. Choosing from a diverse set of vehicle types and classes, players can engage in fierce races online across courses on tarmac and off-road. New online championships have been built with eSport functionalities in mind. The studio realises the huge potential of eSport tournaments and they clearly believe that Project Cars 2 has something to offer in global competitive racing.

There’s a desire to be the best, the most authentic, driving experience ever seen in a video game. Has Project Cars 2 fulfilled this role? Time will tell.

Project Cars 2 releases late this year on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.