The original Project Cars from Slightly Mad Studios didn't exactly set the world on fire, but provided Forza with some fair competition in the simulation racing market. Now Project Cars 2 is back with improved graphics and handling, robust weather effects, double the cars, and more tracks than any other racing game. But can it stack up to the Forza series in actual quality?
When starting Project Cars 2, you'll name a driver and take him through an impressively robust career mode. The game lacks a true tutorial, which is a shame since sim racers like this tend to have a learning curve. You do get some tutorial text for menus at least, but it's ridiculously tiny and unreadable from couch distance.
Still, the career structure impresses. It's broken up into six tiers, each with multiple selectable motorsport series, for a total of 29 series. With nine total disciplines (karts, open wheels, GT, touring cars, rallycross, prototypes, and more), you get a lot of different kinds of races to choose from. Since you can jump around between tiers, you're not locked into a linear structure like most racing games.
After choosing a series, you'll engage in multiple events before the final event and a shot at a trophy. Players have the choice of short or long versions of most series, with the short option cutting the number of races in half. A few races even allow the player to set the number of laps. That's good because many races have way too many laps for my taste. But you can't turn the laps down on everything, so you're still going to run into some endurance races.
Rally races are the worst offenders. In a rally event, you'll have to race a suffocating six times on a single track. I don't mean six laps, I mean six multi-lap races on the same track. I'm sure that's realistic, but it's dreadfully boring and players should have the option to turn down the number of races in a rally event.
As you progress in the career, you'll unlock two additional types of races: manufacturer drives and invitational events. The former are manufacturer-specific races, and the latter are Project Cars 2's equivalent to the Showcase events in the Forza Motorsport series. They showcase specific cars and track conditions (some historical). You can jump between manufacturer, invitational, and regular career races at any time.
The original Project Cars was widely criticized for its poor gamepad controls, even on consoles. Project Cars 2 features much-improved controls. They're still a bit finickier than the Forza games, even with assists turned on. But after a couple of hours of playing, I've pretty much got a handle on them.
Even with improved controls, a lot of players will want to turn the AI difficulty way down. Project Cars 2 is a tough and uncompromising game. One little slip up can cost you a race. Whereas the Forza games offer a rewind option to help novice players like me keep up, you'll get no such assistance here. It just takes practice (or a lot of retries) to make it through tougher events.
Graphics and sound
The first test of any AAA racing game is exactly how far it will knock your eyes out of their sockets – this genre tends to showcase incredibly lifelike visuals. Project Cars 2 won't disappoint in that area, though it will likely be bested by Microsoft's Forza Motorsport 7 later this year.
As you'd expect from a game with cars in the name, the cars all look terrific in Project Cars 2. Everything is modeled down to the slightest detail, including multiple realistic cockpit views with hands on the steering wheels.
Several camera angles feature a rear-view mirror as well (which can be turned off in settings). The mirror's visual quality is lower, with decreased draw distance. But it still proves extremely useful for keeping up with trailing opponents.
All drivers appear as helmeted males – Project Cars 2 is behind the latest few Forza games that allowed for female racers. But the driver models do look fantastic during kart races, a returning feature that Project Cars has over Forza.
The actual tracks generally look just as sharp, with high-resolution textures helping to maintain immersion. Project Cars 2 features numerous graphical effects too, such as post-processing filters, lens flares, bloom, heat haze, and more. Like the cockpit mirrors, these can all be turned off – an unusual but welcome feature on consoles.
You might be tempted to toggle some of those visual effects because the frame rate sometimes dips noticeably on more complex tracks when playing on Xbox One. It's a shame the developers didn't opt to use dynamic resolution to maintain a rock-solid frame rate. Slightly Mad Studios has promised Xbox One X support, though, which should improve on the frame rate while bumping up the resolution and visual effects. We shall see!
Project Cars 2's sound doesn't match up to its visuals, unfortunately. The sound effects are fine, of course. Music is the problem. The menus play a small rotating selection of stirring tracks, but there is no music during actual races. Given that racing sims tend to be very sterile experiences, some quality music would have helped keep things lively. As it stands, you might be tempted to listen to something else while playing.
Time and weather
Further adding to Project Cars 2's visual and gameplay realism are time and weather effects. The game features a day-night cycle, seasonal weather for all four seasons, and dynamic weather. That means the time of day will change as you race (you can even set the time when creating custom races), and rain and snow might break out as well.
The rain looks very good for the most part, but the puddles and splashing effects are noticeably inferior to those of Forza 6. Still, these roads get absolutely soaked – the water impacted my ability to drive noticeably more than in Forza. All told, Project Cars 2 appears to have the most comprehensive day-night and weather effects of any AAA racing sim on the market right now.
Cars, livery, and tracks
Project Cars 2 launches with 189 cars, more than double the original's 76-car lineup. While the garage here can't hold a candle to Forza 7's whopping 700-car lineup, 189 vehicles is still way more than most players will ever get around to driving. Nearly all of the major manufacturers are accounted for, though Hyundai and Subaru are disappointingly absent. Still, you get 11 Porches, which are probably more exciting than a few Asian cars.
One slight disappointment is the lack of visual customization options for cars. Unlike the Forza series, Project Car 2 has no livery editor. Not only that, the livery selections available are fairly limited. Forget about mixing and matching car colors and decals. Cars typically have about 20 livery options, and that's it.
Tracks are where Project Cars 2 really shines. It features an amazing 63 track locations, far more than any other racing sim on the market. With multiple track layouts per location factored in, you get a total of 146 tracks to race on. That's just so many places and tracks to visit, which should help keep the game fresh for quite a while. Factor in the day-night and weather cycles and you get a lot more visual variety than anywhere else, which should make up somewhat for the anemic livery options.
Project Cars 2 has 16-player online races on consoles. Rather than matchmaking, you join games via a PC-style server browser. I always like a good server browser because it lets you know just what you're getting into before joining a lobby, as well as get an idea of how many people are playing online. You can use filters to customize which games show up, too.
Hosts have a ton of options too, making it possible to create extremely specific multiplayer races and series. You can select from all 146 tracks and every car (no buying cars here), fully customize the weather, number of laps, realism and difficulty settings for all players, and much more.
Behavior can be an issue in online racing games, and developer Slightly Mad Studios has even taken that into account. In addition to rating players' overall skill level, each player has a reputation rating based on how aggressively they race. Thus lobbies can restrict anyone who likes to play bumper cars from entering, hopefully making for a more peaceful experience.
Although the first Project Cars didn't quite capture the hearts of mainstream gamers, the sequel has a much better shot thanks to its polished career mode, wealth of motorsport types, and unparalleled track selection. The difficulty is still on the unapproachable side, but racing sim fans will likely stick it out anyway. I'll be surprised if Forza 7 doesn't top this one overall, but it's still great to have options – especially one that appears on both Xbox and PlayStation.
- A beautiful racing game that will look even better on Xbox One X.
- The career mode offers plenty of player choice and motorsport disciplines.
- An amazing 63 locations and 146 total track layouts will keep races fresh for a long time.
- Day-night cycle and seasonal and dynamic effects add realism and challenge to races.
- The lack of music during races creates a sterile atmosphere.
- The difficulty is probably too high for casual audiences, even when turned all the way down.
- Tiny tutorial text is difficult to see even when sitting up close.
- Cars have limited visual customization options.
Project Cars 2 arrives on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam on Thursday, September 21. It costs $59.99. Preorder to get the Japanese Cars Bonus Pack (which contains four cars) for free.
Xbox One review copy provided by the publisher.
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