I have a bit of history with Slightly Mad Studios. A love/hate thing, you might say. When the team first appeared with Need For Speed: Shift, I liked the idea and gave the game a go. In theory, its mixture of realistic racing and handling that’s a kind of arcade/sim hybrid, should have been fantastic. Indeed, it had some good mechanics and it was fun to play for a while, before the slightly awkward handling became a bigger problem. Sure, with a few tweaks it might be more stable but it really shouldn’t need that. Regardless, when Shift 2 showed up I thought the team might have cracked its handling problem. It had, to a point, but again it just wasn’t quite right and required another round of tweaks that just took too long.
I played Shift 2 far more than I should have, really. A friend even had to talk me out of continuing because he’d heard enough of my moaning about its sketchy handling. It’s just such a shame because it had so much potential, and its line-up of cars and tracks was phenomenal. Ignoring the terrible Test Drive Ferrari game that SMS developed, its next go at the sim racer genre showed even more promise: Project CARS.
The premise was simple: everything was unlocked from the start and it had a career mode that spanned a huge variety of disciplines and car classes, all of which were available as a starting point. Its focus was on pure motor racing. Alas, that handling issue reared its ugly head yet again, only this time it was even worse, making the game almost unplayable without a wheel. It took several months to get the controller settings closer to an acceptable level, but by then it was too late and everyone but the most hardcore followers left it behind.
Now that Project CARS 2 is almost upon us, we can only hope that the developer has finally puts its demons to rest and got rid of the gremlin that has been plaguing its games for years. Luckily, I’ve been playing the PC beta, a near final build of the game, and I can tell you that…well, the gremlin is still there. He isn’t quite as determined to ruin anyone’s fun this time around though, meaning that there is a greater degree of control to be had.
Look, you’re never going to be able to jump into a full-on simulator like Project CARS 2 and be an instant master. It isn’t like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport, developed with a greater sense of accessibility in mind, it’s a pure sim like the ones the PC has had for many years. I will freely admit that even those PC sims have been more forgiving of controller input, but there’s no denying that Slightly Mad’s new game’s realism is on another level. You may find it a little overwhelming at first, thanks to the sheer number of factors that affect the handling of each and every car in the game. There’s tyre temperature; track temperature; the balance of the car’s setup; the car’s aerodynamics; whether it’s front, rear or four-wheel drive; how much the tyres wear during a race; and even how the track ‘rubbers in’ during the course of a race.
And that’s all before you’ve even tested out controller settings.
There’s no getting around it, though; the handling is still a bit fiddly. Sometimes those realistic track situations will be the reason for your loss of grip, but a lot of the time it’s because the controller settings aren’t quite right. I’m not going to pretend that SMS has nailed it, because its history does show that handling settings can be an issue and no other sim I’ve played has had the same issue to this degree. That said, I’m also not going to pretend that every spin or slide is the game’s fault; sometimes I simply got it wrong. Obviously, this being a beta there’s still time for some of the default handling settings to be improved before release, but do bear in mind that you’ll likely have to come to terms with spending a lot of time tweaking sensitivity and
deadzones for a while. Much like a real racing car, Project CARS 2 will require some test laps and tweaks before it suits your driving setup.
Right, I’ve banged on about handling for long enough, so let’s dive right into the good stuff, shall we? For starters, the track list is outstanding, featuring the likes of the Algarve and California Highway, as well Zolder, Oulton Park and more famous circuits like Spa and even Monaco’s GP layout. There is such variety there, and that’s before you include the new Rallycross tracks like Lånkebanen (or Hell, as it’s more commonly known) and the Mercedes-Benz Ice Track, which brings me to the finer point of that new addition to this young racing series: Rallycross.
You might begin to worry for my sanity at this point, given some of my issues with the handling, but fear not, because Rallycross is bloody marvellous in Project CARS 2. The cars slip and slide the way real RX cars should, and because they’re set up specifically to handle the tough conditions like dirt and gravel, or even ice and snow, it really is an incredibly fun drive. Make no mistake, you can’t tear arse around Hell the same way you can in Dirt 4, you have to be much more careful. That’s not to say you can’t go fast, but you do have to have your wits about you when you’re off-roading, especially when things get wet.
Real-time weather effects in Project CARS 2 are some of the most realistic and race-affecting I’ve ever seen in a game. Not only does rain affect basic grip levels and speed, but it will reduce track temperature (dropping tyre temperature, as a result) and visibility, especially when fog comes into play too. Let me tell you, if you’re hit by fog in a rallycross event, that’s no joke. Weather patterns will shift in real-time, so a storm might hit during a race but it might just be a flash-in-the-pan and disappear as quickly as it started, which can cause all kinds of havoc if you’re having to change tyres. If you want to really mess with things, you can choose to speed up weather movement for added difficulty.
All that weather looks great as well, with the vastly upgraded visuals. Trackside detail is far more vivid, even when played at medium-high settings at 1080p it looks much better than the previous game did on console. Trees have far more density and detail; pit crews are an actual thing this time around and are nicely animated; grass isn’t simply a flat texture; and you can even see the marbles left by tyre rubber on the track surface. The cars themselves are as intricately detailed as you would expect from a sim of this calibre, easily giving GT and Forza a run for their money.
In truth, aside from the addition of rallycross and a few new tracks, it seems like not much has changed since Slightly Mad Studios’ first bite of the Project CARS apple, at least on the surface. A good look under the bonnet reveals a different story however, with a handling model that’s more manageable and a whole host of new features buried within the tyre and track physics, all pointing toward a brighter future for this series. Who knows, maybe Project CARS 2 will swing my relationship with Slightly Mad Studios back to love again? Guess I’ll find out in a few weeks when it releases on PS4, Xbox One and PC.