Thanks to its comprehensive VR support on PC, Project CARS 2 is another great showcase for VR sim racing, offering better performance than Project CARS (2015) in a much more compelling package. Addressing many of its predecessor’s shortcomings, the sequel is a welcome addition to the sim racing scene—but rather like the original, it needs more time to bake.
Project CARS 2 Details:
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Publisher: BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment
Available On: Steam (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive)
Reviewed On: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive
Release Date: September 21, 2017
Note: This review covers the PC version of Project CARS 2, from the perspective of a sim racing enthusiast. (There is no PSVR support on PS4.) The game was mainly tested using both VR and triple screens, using a dedicated sim rig, but gamepad control was also briefly tested. The VR-specific parts of this review are covered in the ‘Immersion’ and ‘Comfort’ sections.
At first glance, Project CARS 2 might induce a concerning feeling that not much has changed. You’re presented with similar splash screens, the same music theme (nestled among new tunes), and a UI with a sensible makeover, but still the same underlying interface. The menus still contain oddly low-resolution images of each car, Career Mode has a similar ‘multiple paths/start points’ structure as before, complete with fake emails from your team. (The ‘fake Twitter feed’ from your ‘fans’ has been removed however.)
And to the casual observer, the simulation itself might not appear to be much different either. Weather and lighting effects are impressive, but the same could be said of the original. Graphics have improved, but not to a huge extent. And many of the audio cues seem all too familiar, including the ‘Captain Obvious’ engineer calls. Many vehicles (and the same liveries) and tracks carry over, and the overall presentation feels like ‘more of the same’.
But there is much more to Project CARS 2 than meets the eye. And it boils down to physics. The improvement in this area is so dramatic, it’s almost unbelievable. Project CARS arrived on the scene with bold claims: detailed vehicle physics, a cutting-edge tyre model, and handling tuned with the help of ex-’Stig’ Ben Collins and Nic Hamilton, and several other pro drivers; track surfaces would evolve as you race, with the grip changing due to weather, time of day, the amount of rubber being laid down, and so on; dynamic weather and a 24-hour lighting system tied everything together. The sequel makes very similar claims, but this time, thanks mainly to a completely overhauled tyre model, it actually works pretty well.
Look deeper, and you’ll find many other indications that developer Slightly Mad Studios have listened to user feedback. For a start—while this has little relevance to VR—the game now has proper triple screen support, a Big Deal for the hardcore sim racer. There’s improved support for a wide variety of wheels and pedals, fully manual pit stops, more replay and broadcast options, massively improved vehicle setup pages, and even a delta bar for sector timings (finally!). Almost the entire wealth of options, including assists, control assignments, graphics and audio settings are adjustable from the pause menu. In the first game, you couldn’t even change a button assignment without quitting back to the main menu.
What’s more, every option in the menu has a written explanation. As a result, the intimidating setup screens are more approachable, and there is even a simple ‘ask the engineer’ feature for those looking for a quick recommendation.
But it’s not without problems. The vehicle setup pages should be a joy to use, but for some reason the game forces you to save (either in a new file or to overwrite an existing one) every single time you change something—rather than having an active, work-in-progress setup—which quickly becomes frustrating. You can’t even drop the fuel load on a setup without re-saving it.
Project CARS 2 is in a constant battle with itself to please its wide audience, from casual gamers to hardcore sim racers. The dilemma between realism and accessibility is highlighted perfectly in the slow-down penalty system. Surprisingly, ‘off-track’ detection is, in many places, as strict as iRacing (2008), but the slow-down penalty that follows is far too easily cleared, resulting in some questionable lines. However, if you gain a position while triggering a slow-down, you’re also forced to let your opponent by, which is a great touch.
A roster of 180 cars should be enough to please most petrolheads, with famous marques such as Ferrari and Porsche making their debut in the series. Unlike the original game, careful consideration has been made to ensure most cars have appropriate opponents, to recreate races from classic eras. There are some outstanding new models, but all cars carried over from the original have been given a new lease of life on the improved tyre model—an incredible transformation in many cases.
Track count has been boosted to 60 (over 130 layouts), delivering much greater variety, from brutal Rallycross circuits to the serene beauty of the Mercedes-Benz Ice Track. The new circuits are built to a high standard, particularly COTA, Long Beach, and the brilliant Algarve Circuit (Portimao). However, the tracks carried over from the original appear to have received largely cosmetic upgrades, meaning that there is unresolved track surface inconsistency compared to the most accurate examples in the genre. Some were already great (e.g. Oulton Park), but Bathurst still doesn’t look right, with strange cambers and track widths, and Monza remains the same, with very odd cambers through both Lesmos and the Parabolica, and kerb profiles are all over the place.
Claiming to represent 29 motorsport series across 9 racing disciplines sounds great on paper, but the developers have probably bitten off more than they can chew here. Various forms of sports/touring car racing, including magnificent historic eras, are well-represented, but modern open-wheel is largely limited to unlicenced interpretations and oval racing feels unfinished. The lack of accurate oval flag/caution rules, along with some questionable pit lane decisions (i.e. speed limit lines in strange positions, every limit set to 37 mph) makes for a frustrating oval experience that simply isn’t worth doing at this point. IndyCar is the most problematic, as wings fly off the car with the slightest touch, which would trigger a full-course caution for debris in reality, but here, you carry on regardless. And if you hit that debris, it’s game over.
On the one hand, the developers should be given credit for actually delivering a sim that has debris damage, but in this case the balance is wrong. Wings on open-wheelers in reality are very sensitive, but without a fully-realised caution system (there are no safety cars for example), it doesn’t make sense. Wing damage appears to carry across all the open-wheel series, with debris causing issues in almost every race. The Formula C, for example, will become undriveable (due to understeer) from the slightest touch to the front wing. And ‘slightest touch’ is not hyperbole—at Oulton Park in the rain, it always gave me 22% damage simply from launching off the line. (I could play the game with damage disabled, but where’s the fun in that?)
One new discipline fares very well in particular: Rallycross. Simulating these four-wheel drive beasts was no small feat; the team needed to rework chassis, tyre and surface models to deal with the long suspension travel, massive slip angles and loose terrain. The result is cars that feel immediately more intuitive than DiRT Rally’s interpretation of Rallycross, a remarkable achievement.
If Only They Could Improve the AI…
Much like the first game, Career Mode is more interesting than the majority of racing simulators. You can start from the very bottom in karting, or pick something more grown-up if you’re feeling brave. Whichever route you choose, there is a satisfying feeling of progression, awarding accolades and ‘affinity’ to certain manufacturers, which unlock special ‘invitational events’ along the way. Quick Play has the entire car and track list unlocked from the beginning, but the near-limitless possibilities (due to season, time and weather options) can be overwhelming. This is where those invitational events come in, essentially a curated list of great combos that you could reproduce in Quick Play – and the best way to experience the full force of Project CARS 2’s content.
This sim desperately needs competent AI. It’s unlikely to make a huge impact on PC sim racing in the multiplayer space, with the likes of iRacing and Assetto Corsa (2014) already filling that role, so offline needs to be fun and challenging. Unfortunately, the AI is often frustrating in its current form. Wheel-to-wheel behaviour has improved, resulting in regular nuggets of side-by-side magic, and the outrageous dive-bombing tendencies have been reduced, but as a whole it is disappointingly inconsistent. There are times where I’ve been able to pass a field of 16 cars in the space of three corners (on 100% strength) due to their painfully tentative starts. Once spread out, they’ll become competitive, but I could never find a comfortable setting; they’re challenging in one session, and seconds off the pace in another. If you start as tentatively as the AI do, you’ll be in for a better race, but this shouldn’t be necessary. It feels like I’m cheating every time I make a ‘normal’ start.
The Turn 1 carnage seen in some early footage hasn’t been completely resolved either. Fancy doing Le Mans in a field of 31 GTE cars? Not an unreasonable request. Well, currently, this causes a massive accident at the Dunlop chicane, every time. It can be partially resolved by doing a rolling start (which admittedly, is what they do at Le Mans in reality), but the rolling starts don’t feel correct either, with cars spreading out too far and driving single-file.
No doubt AI start logic is incredibly complex to code, particularly in a simulation that has so many variables. But there’s little excuse for some of the lines that the AI take in the middle of a race. For example, Britten’s Chicane at Oulton Park is no longer a mess, but instead they are too hesitant now, despite having driven at unbelievable pace around Island Bend. The AI takes a dangerously tentative line through the kink at Laguna Seca (Turn 6), manages to summon ‘alien’ pace at the highly technical Rainey Curve, followed by a disastrous rookie struggle on the simple, final left-hander.
As for Monaco, the pileups from earlier builds seem to have been solved, but it’s still a disaster zone. After a mere 10-lap race in the Formula C, practically the entire field had lost either its front or rear wing, or both!
It’s too early to assess multiplayer at this stage; a number of teething problems made it difficult to test. In the brief period where I was able to connect, it was a clear improvement over the first game, with better filters, more admin controls, broadcast options, and so on. Netcode was poor over peer-to-peer, with limited input data being transmitted, resulting in inaccurate representations of steering and track position of your opponents (and the standard wreck-fest), but the dedicated server experience should be better. Most importantly, there is a ‘Competitive Racing Licence’, which enables a form of ‘safety rating’ and ‘skill rating’ that should, in theory, provide better matchmaking and cleaner racing—promising, but only time will tell.
The Tiresome Struggle…
My benchmark for road car simulation is Assetto Corsa. Project CARS 2’s impressive new tyre model seems to have the potential to match it, but there are too many inconsistencies. The Porsche GT3 RS is superb, the McLaren 720S is a blast, and the mad hybrid hypercars of LaFerrari, 918, and P1 behave similarly to Assetto Corsa’s interpretations, but many of the front-engine, rear-drive road cars lack the inherent balance you’d expect. The Toyota GT86 and BMW 1M are the pick of the bunch, ‘chuckable’ into every corner. But the DB11, widely regarded as a brilliant chassis, is incredibly difficult to drift, particularly at low speeds. The F-Type is similarly awkward. The C63 monster is better, with its realistic ability to eat its rear tyres in a couple of laps, but again, there are problems over the limit. Most of the road cars (with all assists off) exhibit a low speed, high slip angle problem, making tight drift transitions almost impossible.
Race tyres are more impressive, if slightly too forgiving at times in the dry. The sensation of ‘being outside the operating window’ due to low temperatures is the best I have felt in any sim, as is the feeling of downforce building grip as speeds increase. There is some serious potential here, as the sim can, at its best, hold its own against iRacing, rFactor 2 (2013), Automobilista (2016), and Assetto Corsa.
But things start to become unrealistic when it’s wet. I’ve never driven a Lotus 49, but it seems fairly obvious that you shouldn’t be able to floor a 400hp car with zero downforce out of corners in the dry, let alone the wet, but you can do exactly that. I would suggest that the current state of the Lotus 49 grip in the ‘Rain’ condition is roughly how it should be behaving in the dry (and even then it’s nearly too forgiving!). The same applies across all cars. It seems there is, at least until the track is totally flooded, generally far too much grip in the wet; you can drive on slicks in wet conditions for far too long. Lap times tumble, so you’re forced to pit anyway, but slicks should quickly become undriveable, and that’s not the case here. The Formula A slick, for example, delivers wet grip levels that would embarrass an ‘intermediate’ tyre in reality. Incidentally, ‘intermediates’ are sadly absent, perhaps because there’s really no need for them when slicks have this much grip in the rain.
Criticism aside, I appreciate the technology on offer here. No other sim offers this level of environmental customisation, with good reason: it’s very difficult to pull off in a realistic manner, and is largely unnecessary. The most extreme weather conditions are almost entirely pointless for racing the vast majority of cars in the game. But the clinical nature of sim racing could do with some light-hearted fun, and it should be celebrated that you can drive the Nordschleife using an ‘F1’ spec car in the snow!
And so we come to force feedback (FFB), which is a massive improvement, as it links directly to the new tyres. I thought the original game’s FFB was pretty decent, if let down by a poor tyre model. But the ludicrous number of settings were almost impossible to understand. Project CARS 2 has a much more sensible FFB options menu, offering just a handful of sliders (their effects are still fairly difficult to understand despite the descriptions).
Three preset modes are really all you need to worry about: ‘Immersive’, ‘Informative’, and ‘Raw’. VR is all about immersion, but the ‘Immersive’ FFB setting is truly horrendous, avoid! ‘Raw’ and ‘Informative’ do a much better job. I found that using ‘Raw’ and only playing with the ‘Gain’ slider worked well enough. The game would benefit from a ‘per car’ setting, because the difference in output between vehicles covers such a wide torque range.
Project CARS was heavily criticised for its gamepad support. Playing them back-to-back using an Xbox One controller, it’s clear that the sequel has more refined default settings, but they’re still problematic. The fact is, driving with small analogue inputs with simulation physics is very difficult. You either have to deal with some numbing, heavy-handed filters (or assists), or turn them down for more direct, but extremely sensitive control. There are a number of sliders to tweak the response; most people will need to fiddle with the steering damping and speed sensitivity to find something that works for them. Ultimately, a gamepad is the wrong controller for this type of game. It works, and it can be fun, but for VR in particular, only a steering wheel and pedal set can complete the picture.
Project CARS 2 arrives with an impressive set of considerations for VR. Its predecessor received several VR updates over the course of its life, adding helpful features like world scaling, recenter on boot/race start options, near clip plane adjustment, a gaze-activated cursor, and seat adjustments in the pause menu – all of which carry over to the new game. The sequel adds further refinement, beginning with the UI.
As before, the gaze-operated cursor fades out if you override the control with a mouse or other controller, but it is now easily disabled, or switched to a dedicated select button (rather than auto-hover always being active). However, the ‘select’ button isn’t obvious from the control assignment menus, and you can’t control every menu easily with just head look (scrolling down through long settings menu lists requires a separate input), but it’s useful for dealing with the typical race-to-race inputs.
Performance has largely improved. Using the Performance HUD on the Oculus Debug Tool, I revisited the notoriously demanding original Project CARS using an i7 4790K, 16GB RAM, GTX 1080 system, and found that a 16 car GT3 grid at most tracks in heavy rain triggers the half-refresh rate effects of Asynchronous Space Warp at several points (if not continuously) around the circuit—on the absolute lowest graphics settings. The game simply can’t hold 90fps, and when it does (during dry weather with cars well-spaced apart), there is barely any performance headroom.
Project CARS 2 on the other hand, holds 90 fps in any weather on the same circuit/car combinations, even with 1.1 supersampling and ‘medium’ MSAA applied. But this still with everything else on lowest settings, and it was only just holding 90 at times, so you’ll need some serious horsepower if you want to turn up the settings.
That said, many Rifters will be comfortable with (or not notice) ASW absorbing all the drops, at which point a 45 fps Project CARS 2 experience can be run at much higher settings. That can’t really be said for the HTC Vive however, as SteamVR’s reprojection techniques simply don’t manage sub-90 fps performance as well as the Rift, so it’s even more important to have plenty of headroom when using that headset.
The troublesome VR image quality of the first title has also been addressed, with proper MSAA available in combination with supersampling. Even setting the original game to 1.2 supersampling and the mixed AA mode of ‘DS2M’ looks muddy compared to Project CARS 2 running at 1.1 with medium MSAA. Not only is wet weather performance far more manageable, but the jarring low-resolution alpha effects of water spray have been eliminated. Supersampling is now directly available in the graphics menu, and the pause menu adds mirror angle adjustments. The mirrors now operate as they do in iRacing and react to positional head movement. Sadly, like iRacing, they aren’t stereoscopic (Live For Speed is still champion there), which a subtle—but not insignificant—hit to immersion.
In addition to an improved mix, audio is now positional, meaning that a rear-engined car genuinely sounds like the revs are happening behind your head, and it’s easier to gauge where opponents are in close proximity based on their engine sounds, making the audio far more engaging than before. The quality of certain sounds can be one-dimensional at times; the gear shift ‘clunk’ for H-pattern cars and impact sounds are particularly harsh. Most importantly, tyre audio is now much more informative (a key handling cue in simulators), clearly benefiting from associating with the new tyre model.
And as for my pet peeve—hand animations—these have also been significantly improved, along with a realistic, well-proportioned driver model. The ‘canned’ high-speed shake of the wheel has been eliminated, and the hands stay mostly fixed to the wheel beyond the first 90 degrees of rotation each way. In most cars in the first game, the driver would inexplicably remove his left hand grip from the wheel when turning to about 70 or 80 degrees to the left, as it began to initiate an elaborate over-arm steering animation, and as a result, many basic left turns involved a ridiculous, distracting ‘hand wave’ from your avatar. Thankfully this is no longer the case, making for much more convincing 1-to-1 representation of your hands in VR.
Project CARS 2 has the ability to deliver one of the most immersive experiences in VR right now, assuming you can run the game at reasonable settings and you have suitable equipment for sim racing.
As with the majority of VR racing simulators, the experience should be reasonably comfortable for most people. Being surrounded by a cockpit in a seated position is widely recognised as one of the more comfortable ways to move around a virtual environment at pace, but as ever, there are exceptions, and a small number of people may feel nauseous. After all, driving a real car at speed can cause people to lose their lunch, and this game can deliver a pretty convincing representation of reality, albeit without the g-forces (which can itself be disconcerting to the newcomer).
Note that the vast selection of content available in Project CARS 2 means that motion sensations can vary wildly between the different racing disciplines: pristine, modern F1-spec circuits are a far cry from the harsh jumps and bumps of Rallycross.
Default seating positions are well-judged across the cars, and the quick-access adjustments for seat, mirrors and world scale are very useful. Again, the mirrors sadly aren’t stereoscopic, so glancing at them is unnatural compared to reality, as you have to adjust your focal depth.
As with its predecessor, the optional ‘sense of speed’ effects like depth of field, FOV warping and camera shake are all disabled in VR. ‘World movement’ and ‘g-force’ settings allow you to determine how freely the car moves relative to your head position, often described as a ‘horizon lock’ in other titles.
The only slight discomfort I found in Project CARS 2 is the HUD, which floats on a layer within the cockpit, and will sometimes clip through geometry, which results in mismatched focus distances. This is a problem with most VR sims, and there isn’t really a solution other than allowing for specific HUD layouts per car, so that different elements can be moved to positions where they won’t clip. This game seems to be very limited (and buggy) with its HUD customisation, and would benefit from an update.
We partnered with AVA Direct to create the Exemplar 2 Ultimate, our high-end VR hardware reference point against which we perform our tests and reviews. Exemplar 2 is designed to push virtual reality experiences above and beyond what’s possible with systems built to lesser recommended VR specifications.