“We’re not comparing ourselves to other games, we’re comparing ourselves against realism and what is happening in real life,” says Rod Chong, COO of Slightly Mad Studios, as we sit down to chat in a converted London warehouse, rejigged to host playable demos of his studio’s upcoming Project CARS 2.
“The racing drivers we consult with are not with us just to talk to the press and speak in front of the camera, they’re with us every day and they’re working with us to make sure the cars handle properly and the feedback the game is giving you is correct.”
He says this as Nicolas Hamilton, brother of Lewis, is sitting across the room and being interviewed on how realistic Project CARS 2 really is. Clearly, the UK-based studio is pulling out all of the stops in its attempt to convince us of the sequel’s authenticity.
Initial impressions of the game in action, however, are not centred only on how realistic it might be. Certainly, cars feel weighty and react not with a ‘gamey’ sense of momentum but with one as definite and dramatic as driving at speed in the physical world. It’s the attempts made to diversify the franchise that stands out most though.
The inclusion of a full rallycross mode is perhaps the most striking attempt at expanding the Project CARS offering, with a number of systems having to be altered or added in order to accommodate the sport. Rallycross features dirt-based surfaces, jumps and, typically, the rewarding of a driving style that sees racers slid sideways into corners in a way more common to the world of drift racing. Collisions and retirements are a common occurrence.
Without question, it’s a long way from the more traditional track-based racing the first Project CARS release committed itself to portraying – and one that that invites a different way of playing.
“Rallycross came up early when we started planning what we wanted to do with the second game, so we’ve been working on it almost from the start of development,” says Chong in response to questioning regarding when he and the studio knew they wanted to include this form of motorsport.
“We know that rallycross is violent and the racing is crazy because of the loose surfaces, cars smashing into each other and the jumps, but we want to make it as realistic as possible as well as exciting.”
Much of that realism comes from making better use of some of the same technology that sits at the foundation of Project CARS 1. Chong describes the physics engine used, for example, as “advanced” and goes as far as to say that during the original game’s development the team was still “learning how to use it”.
Tyre modelling is one of the areas he points out as having been dramatically improved, with this kind of physics simulation being essential for the complex relationship rubber has with dirt in rallycross. In fact, tyre modelling is one of the areas Chong is clearly most proud of and he isn’t afraid of promoting its qualities.
“Our tyre model has evolved to the point where a racing driver can come into our game and be as fast as a highly decorated eSports champion,” claims Chong. “Previously, that just hasn’t happened, as the eSports drivers have learned the tricks required to perform especially well in the simulation environment. We’ve now got something that provides parity between those two areas.
“We work with racing teams and have them send us their telemetry data and we then compare that to what we’re getting in the game and we work to get that as close as possible as to what we’ve been sent.”
This level of desired equality between the physical and the digital does, in theory, position Project CARS 2 to take a commanding role in a motor racing eSports environment that is becoming ever more competitive. Alongside the sophisticated physics model, Slightly Mad is working on new cheat dedication systems for online play, improved matchmaking and a new broadcast camera mode for Twitch streamers and wannabe future race commentators.
Also new is the ability for players to setup and manage their own online championships from within the game. Previously, championship standings had to be collated and structured from outside of Project CARS using spreadsheets and similar inefficient ways. Slightly Mad is planning to run its own championships, with partners yet to be announced, but the option to go it alone is welcome in that you can hold private tournaments alongside friends and others that you are certain are of a similar skill level to yourself.
The option of competing in these championships across both tarmac and rallycross races is an intriguing prospect. Such diversity has the potential to prevent repetition setting in and should act as motivation for fans of a certain kind of motorsport to try their hand and get involved in another.
Alternatively, you could ignore one kind of racing in favour of concentrating wholly on your preferred discipline, but to do so seems like a shame given the technological advances made here.
With our own time with Project CARS 2 thus far, rallycross is a very different beast from track racing and very different skills are needed to engage with it. Cars are incredibly powerful, making them difficult handle on the loose surfaces and forcing you into more sophisticated use of the throttle in combination with your brakes and steering. Too much of any one of these three key components sees you off the track, into the barriers and too far behind your competition to catch up.
Rallycross might be violent and extreme, but that doesn’t mean you can forego finesse in your attempt to conquer it. This kind of finesse is mirrored in Slightly Mad’s approach to Project CARS 2’s production.
“We want to grow Project CARS and make this the best sequel possible,” Chong explains. “If we just add more cars and tracks then we’re giving players more of what we’ve already given them and that’s not good enough for us.
“We wanted to take the simulation technology and come up with some other experiences in order to make Project CARS 2 really worthwhile. That’s the challenge we set ourselves. However, at the same time, we think rallycross is an amazing event!”