The roaring success of Project Cars was one of 2015's most heart-warming feel-good stories. You may remember it as the game that seemingly rose without trace: created by hitherto somewhat obscure UK indie studio Slightly Mad Games, it was crowdfunded to the tune of over £2.5 million, Japanese giant Bandai Namco snapped up the publishing rights, it garnered critical praise and proved to be a big hit (save for some server teething issues).
Now, Project Cars 2 has made it first public appearance, at a showcase at Bandai Namco games. We had a hands-on taste of the game ahead of release, and grabbed game director Andy Tudor for an interview to get the lowdown on what the 2017 sequel is all about.
Project Cars 2 review: Taking on the big boys
The emergence of Project Cars 2 – slated for release some time in 2017 – actually came as no surprise: the game was effectively announced when the original Project Cars came out, and Slightly Mad Studios immediately launched a crowdfunding round for its successor.
A move which proved controversial at the time, as Tudor explains: "Everyone was like: 'You're abandoning the first game.' I remember tweeting out: 'No, we're not abandoning it: we've got a whole programme, and we're not going to forget you guys.' But people need to be educated that if you want to start a new project, you need money. And therefore with crowdfunding, you need to start, because by the time you've got the money and the project is starting, it's too late."
Slightly Mad Studios soon brushed aside those criticisms by supporting Project Cars with an extensive programme of downloadable content. Tudor admits that the company's second round of crowdfunding differed from the first, but contends that it meshed perfectly with the developer's extremely ambitious plans.
With the crowdfunding for the first game, he said: "We had a super-large community, but a lot of people were just getting the game and playing it, and not giving us feedback, and that wasn't really giving us what we wanted. So this time around, it's a lot smaller, but everyone is just as vocal. With every previous game, we've been nipping at the heels of the competition, and ended up with the Game Of The Year Edition of Project Cars which was on a level playing-field with Forza and GT. So the pressure is on now, with competing titles out this year. It's a three-way battle now. We're here to win."
Fighting talk, and Tudor is keen to point out that Slightly Mad Studios sudden emergence is a misconception – the developer evolved from SimBin, which made the highly regarded sim-racer GTR. "We are a big company, and we are one that has been around for a long time, but I think in most people's views, it may feel like we've kind of come out of nowhere. But actually, we haven't: we've been doing this for 17 years."
Project Cars 2 review: New features
But what of the game itself? What will Project Cars 2 have that the original game didn't?
"It will have the largest track roster on console ever and every single one, unlike other games - which just have a subset of tracks with that - has got dynamic time of day, dynamic weather and dynamic seasons.
"Then there's the LiveTrack 3 [track evolution due to weather conditions] stuff: fluid dynamics, which will actually generate giant puddles on the track in realistic spaces. The more cars go over the same bit of wet tarmac, the more they start to dry it out. Even to the extent that, in extremely sunny conditions, the sun actually raises the temperature of the grass that is in the sun, compared to the grass that is in the shadow."
The tracks themselves will be more detailed than ever, since Slightly Mad Studios didn't just laser-scan them, but augmented the resulting info with photographic output from drones: "The drones can actually scan the tracks as well, so we can almost get a second pass on the laser-scan, which is brilliant. And now, they can stitch everything together so we get not only the mathematical data but also the visual data."
Tudor continues: "We've got the iconic manufacturers that were missing from the first game: they're now in it. We've got brand-new motorsports that are unannounced currently. But we can talk about IndyCar: we're now an officially licensed IndyCar Game.
"There's a whole new-surface racing system, so it's not just about tarmac, but also dirt, gravel, snow, ice and mud. Then there's a new tyre model, which brings physics for going over the level of grip and sliding, and getting it back again."
He adds that after the first Project Cars established itself firmly among the e-sports fraternity – Red Bull, for example, adopted it as its official e-sports racing game – Slightly Mad Studios has upped the e-sports ante in Project Cars 2: "The first thing we added is the idea of a competitive racing licence. So initially, we'll sort out the people who really shouldn't be there, versus the people who are there to have a good time. The next bit now that the right people are playing off against each other is to work out who is the best out of those. And the system communicates how long you've been playing the game for. So I can immediately look at your licence and see you've been playing the game for a long time, you're really professional and you're bloody good at the game. As opposed to this guy, who has just bought the game, is crashing into everyone and is not very good – so I'll avoid him."
Project Cars 2 review: How does it play?
We raced around three tracks in Project Cars 2, which highlighted many of the game's improvements over its predecessor.
First up was a very striking turn (it was just us on the track) around an ice-circuit, complete with the Northern Lights in the background, and snow-banks either side of the deliciously slippery track (we were at the wheel of a big AMG Mercedes).
Cute touches were in evidence – snow built up on the bonnet as we got a few laps of the rather long track under our belt. But mostly, the ice-track offered evidence that Slightly Mad Studios has addressed one of the biggest criticisms of the first game: that the controls weren't sorted out of the box and, in particular, you had to fiddle around with sensitivity settings when playing with a gamepad.
We played all three tracks on a PC via an Xbox One gamepad, and both throttle and steering sensitivity were spot-on – the former, in particular, being highlighted by the ice-track.
The other two demos took place on Fuji Speedway, with us at the wheel of an FIA GTR Mercedes. The first took place on a dry track, and the second had the LiveTrack 3 system triggering a downpour towards the end of the first lap, so for the second lap, the track was wet, and throughout the third, it was drying out.
The results are stunningly realistic: while we managed to post a win on the dry-track run, a few minor indiscretions on the wet lap of the LiveTrack 3 run put us back in the pack, but as the track dried on the final lap, we found some imaginative lines and were able to pull a few places back.
Andy Tudor is a great, passionate talker, and his masterplan to take the fight to Forza and Gran Turismo may sound fanciful, coming as it does from an upstart British studio. But our initial taste of Project Cars 2 suggested that he may well have a point.