Project CARS 2 is really the best kind of racing game sequel: one that’s improved so meaningfully it’s hard to go back to the previous instalment. The handling is utterly remarkable on a wheel or a pad, the expanded track selection is unmatched and boasts dynamic time and weather on every one, the much-improved car selection hits a whole host of fan-favourite beats, and the sound is seriously stunning. For solo players there’s an absolute ocean of content, and the multiplayer suite seems well-poised to pick up where the original Project CARS left off – while adding a pile of esports-friendly set-up options and broadcast-style flourishes to boot.

I enjoyed the first Project CARS, and I liked the way the touring and GT cars felt in particular, but not everyone agreed. A lot of that is due to the fact that the grip admittedly dropped off a cliff the second you broke traction, and it required a fair amount of finessing to hone the handling to a gamepad. Plenty of people rapidly retreated from the original Project CARS for precisely this reason.

Regardless of what camp your tent is pitched in – whether you dug it or you didn’t – my message is simple: come back.

Project CARS 2’s new handling model is a tour de force.

Project CARS 2’s new handling model is a tour de force. On a wheel it’s brilliant, from the feeling of being able to step the rear end out – and still save your car from what previously would’ve been a certain, uncontrolled slide – to the feel of the steering sharpening as your tyres come up to temperature, allowing you to really cut into corners and gobble up apexes. The sensation of grip is terrific but so is the feel of it going away, which is way, way more linear and realistic.

On a gamepad, though? It’s simply a different game to the first altogether. It’s just so much better. I haven’t even touched any settings; straight out of the box Project CARS 2 feels manageable and planted. It’s a fraction more numb on turn-in compared to the 1:1 directness you get on a wheel but the twitchiness of the first game is just gone. You don’t need a wheel to enjoy this deep, nuanced handling model; there’s a satisfying, challenging, and most of all manageable racing experience to be had here, regardless of your control method.

There are plenty of settings you can massage if you wish, though (and what they do to your controller’s response and feel is way more clearly explained than it ever was in the more obtuse series of settings available in the first Project CARS). It seems like part of a wider, more accessible philosophy everywhere, from the less frantic menu layout, to the calm and informative VO from handling consultant and former Top Gear Stig Ben Collins eloquently explaining each and every aspect of the game as you encounter it. Project CARS 2 is a tremendously deep destination for racing diehards but it doesn’t want to outright intimidate people. There’s even a built-in race engineer that will suggest tuning changes based on the feedback you give it. It doesn’t replace the ability to set your car up manually but it is handy for Cole Trickle-types who need a Harry Hogge to do their car whispering for them.

Power in Your Corner

The massive career mode is similar to the first game, with a few positive tweaks. It offers more freedom to choose the exact teams you want to race for in each motorsport series (and more of them in general) and there’s a new “Manufacturer Drives” event list, which allows us to score gigs as regular factory drivers for many of the included carmakers. You’ll be locked into any career series you sign up for but I found the Manufacturer Drives and other invitational events break things up quite nicely. While career mode still allows you to start in any discipline, skipping anything you’re not interested in, the most prestigious series are locked until you earn a seat in them, injecting a better sense of purpose to the game’s solo offering. You can’t just go straight to the GT3 Pirelli World Challenge, or directly into a rallycross supercar – you need to prove you’ve got the minerals in a lower category first.

[Project CARS 2 is] part motorsport magic lamp, part Al Gore’s personal climate change nightmare.

Of course, if you prefer you can forgo this in favour of the online mode, which now supports and tracks fully-fledged online championships and has dedicated broadcaster and director functionality built into it for budding esports types. If you’re like me, though, you may opt instead to lose whole days fooling around endlessly with custom offline single-player races. The top tier cars and event types are unlocked for custom events, even if you haven’t reached them in your solo career. It’s a powerful system, allowing you to toggle all of the various series’ rules baked into the game, save your favourite race types, and quickly switch between umbrella settings for the game’s nine represented race disciplines.

It’s easy to lose giant chunks of time in custom races because they’re instant fun. Here you’re basically a cross between the world’s richest automotive aficionado and some kind of weather genie. Ali Baba had them forty thieves, but did he ever have to race in the Dubai desert during a blizzard? This is Project CARS 2 at its wildest and wackiest – part motorsport magic lamp, part Al Gore’s personal climate change nightmare.

Rain or Shine

Jokes aside, the weather options are the cat’s pyjamas. The original has dynamic weather and time of day effects, but not like this. In Project Cars 2 puddles pool in real time as the rain hammers down and shrink when the sun comes out, dissipated by speeding tyres and dried up by high-temp race cars and the warming asphalt. Nothing about Project CARS 2’s tracks feel static; at times they feel like evolving little worlds, especially over long races. F1 2017 absolutely manages this too, but Project CARS 2 achieves it with many more types of racing.

Tackle tracks in the blazing summer sun, or with the landscape blanketed in snow.

Tracks don’t just take on new identities and dimensions based on what time of day it is, or the weather, but also what time of year it is. Tackle tracks in the blazing summer sun, or with the landscape blanketed in snow. The one-size-fits-all approach makes some minor missteps here (for instance, Bathurst shouldn’t be nearly as brown as Project CARS 2 depicts during autumn because nearly all eucalyptus trees are evergreen) but the variety the system injects into the overall atmosphere is worth a few small errors. It helps, of course, that its track roster is simply the best on the market. It’s a mix of all the typical high-profile suspects with hidden gems like Scotland’s Knockhill, or New Zealand’s Ruapuna Park (with a few long-gone classic configurations – like old-school Monza and Spa – sprinkled in for good measure). For the sake of comparison, we’re talking over three times the venues coming in GT Sport, and over four times the layouts. That’s just not a trivial disparity.

Combined with the fantastic car selection there’s just so much game here for a single transaction, especially compared to its closest peers in the PC space. Stuff like iRacing and RaceRoom Racing Experience may be equally admired and accomplished simulations, but there’s no denying the difference in delivery. Project CARS 2 comes with 180+ cars, nine motorsport disciplines, 29 motorsport series, 60 venues, and 130+ living track layouts, straight of the gate. No monthly subscription fees and no need to purchase a bunch of individually-priced, a la carte cars and tracks to get the content you want. I can’t help but see the elegance in that.

The GT3 class is phenomenal, with almost all today’s cars represented, but there’s plenty of retro love, too.

With the addition of Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Nissan, many of the car classes that were a bit too sparsely populated in the original Project CARS have been bolstered, decreasing repetition of the same models padding out large grids. The GT3 class is phenomenal, with almost all today’s cars represented, but there’s plenty of retro love, too. There are still some holes that could do with filling (there’s a distinct lack of muscle, the vintage Lotus Formula cars still lack any relevant opposition, and the fondly-recalled ’90s Group A class relies a bit too heavily on pre-order incentives and day one DLC and would benefit hugely by having the likes of Volvo, Renault, and Holden sign on) but it’s a great cross section of recognisable race cars from a wide range of eras – not just current day. There’s a sizeable smorgasbord of road cars, too, but they’re outshined by the racing models and I’ve only found myself drawn to a few key faves.

Developer Slightly Mad Studios has done pretty well with the AI for all these disparate vehicle types and you can dial both their speed and aggression up and down to find the perfect setting to suit your racing skill. I certainly found myself being unloaded from behind on occasion (but typically only if I braked a fraction too early) and some classes I tested were really struggling taking first corners cleanly on certain tracks. Still, for the most part they’re convincing opponents and will give you room if you force the issue. My biggest criticism in this instance is that Project CARS 2 is a bit heavy-handed with penalties when passing clumps of cars struggling around crowded opening corners, demanding you hand back positions for sometimes unclear reasons (although this too can be toggled off if you’d rather police yourself in these instances).

Go Loud or Go Home

Like its predecessor Project CARS 2 is still a great-looking game overall – markedly so on a hefty PC though still quite handsome on console. There have been subtle improvements across the board, including the rain (which is far more authentic this time around, slithering up your windscreen at speed like an army of tiny, transparent worms). There are some hitches, however – on console I’ve had the occasional instance where the game will hiccup and drop an isolated slab of frames, and there are a few loose ends with the VR support on PC, with the default helmet cam triggering a fever dream of barf-inducing double vision. Thankfully this doesn’t happen with the conventional cockpit view, and the VR experience is otherwise terrific (albeit sphincter-scorchingly expensive) once you switch to it.

As nice as this game looks, though, it honestly sounds even better.

It’s not just all the whines, squeals, clunks, and violence of the cabin of a real race car; it’s a ton of small, almost imperceptible details. The squeak of a wiper blade’s first few swipes across a dry windscreen, compared to when the glass becomes slick with rain. The chatter of loose debris being flung from a hot tyre after dropping a wheel off track. The thump of a loose bit of aero slapping against the car, reverberating through the cockpit over the bellowing engine.

And those exhaust notes? Just listen to that F-Type Jag above – and this is one of the road cars. You’re allowed to drive it past schools and hospitals. The sound of this thing should only be available in opaque plastic bags from under the counter because it is pornographic.

Project CARS 2 plays like a pumped-up version of the classic TOCA Race Driver 3 from 2006, redressing many of the complaints levelled at the original. The handling has been tuned to a T, the content is excellently curated, and the amount of variety and racing available in it is delightfully daunting. Even if you don’t care about the developer’s esports aspirations there’s still a mammoth solo racer here that’s always ready to roll whenever you are. Now and then I’ll encounter a display quirk or a bug that may botch a race start, and the AI desperately needs a lesson in first corners, but when I’m out on track wringing ten-tenths out of my car against just the right AI level – one eye on the car ahead and the other on the clouds above – this is about as good as real racing gets right now.