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Posted via by Luke Reilly.

Ben Collins likes to drive fast. After graduating from university he spent four years in the British Army where he served as a Special Forces driving instructor. He’s raced professionally in a wide variety of series and events all over the world, including Formula 3, GT3, BTCC, Indy Lights, Le Mans, and V8 Supercars, amongst others. He’s carved up the silver screen as a stunt driver in James Bond’s DBS and Batman’s Tumbler, and many more films. Most famously, however, he spent a hefty eight year stint as The Stig on Top Gear before his identity leaked back in 2010.

What Collins doesn’t like is racing games. Or, at least, he never used to.

Back in Collins’ Formula 3 days many of his peers were moving into Formula 1, so in their spare time they would challenge each other on Microprose’s classic Grand Prix 2. Designed by sim specialist Geoff Crammond, Grand Prix 2 is remembered today as one of the definitive racing simulations of its era.

“It was extremely basic,” explains Collins. “But that was the level that I’d gotten used to. And then games seemed to become very gamey; they weren’t very realistic and I found them pretty hateful to play on.”

According to Collins, they were simply unrealistically difficult.

“In the sim world we’re used to cars that are very, very difficult,” he says. “If you went over the limit, you spun... And I’d be dead 50 times over if that was the case in the real world.”

“I famously said this and [Slightly Mad Studios’] Ian Bell, the CEO, read it and thought, ‘This is interesting; let’s talk to this cynic and try and convert him.’”

Collins explains Bell spelt out the vision for the original Project CARS and how they wanted his help to build a racing game that felt like it should feel, rather than be obscenely tricky just for the sake of it. Along with fellow UK racing driver Nicolas Hamilton, Collins worked with Slightly Mad Studios on the handling for the original Project CARS.

“This process took some getting used to but after two or three years that polished version of Project CARS 1 was really fantastic,” says Collins.

There was, however, still plenty of room for improvement. This is where Project CARS 2 comes in.

“The one area of Project CARS 1 that we knew when we released it that we were going to get criticism of – because we were not happy with it, but at some point you just have to push it out there – was what happens to the car when you get over the edge with the slip,” says Project CARS 2 game director Stephen Viljoen. “When your tyres start going beyond where you would normally be driving.”

“It never felt quite right, and right from the beginning of Project CARS 2 that was a massive goal for us to try to fix. We’re at a point now where it feels completely natural when a car goes over the edge and you can just keep it in a natural slide.”

Collins explains the real breakthrough happened just three months ago.

“They absolutely cracked it,” he says. “Whatever it was, they identified the secret ingredient that really makes the cars come to life.”

“You can push them to the limit, and you can go over the limit. You won’t set the fastest time but you won’t spin off, and it’s intuitive to drive, it’s totally immersive, and when I put the [VR] goggles on I’m lost in that world.”

Viljoen concedes that getting away from the standard, arbitrarily brutal approach to handling has been a long process.

“We grew up with this mentality in sim racing that if it’s not difficult then it’s not authentic,” he says. “GTR1 was such a learning curve for us back in that day because even there we got criticism from real-world race drivers who said, ‘This is too hard; it’s not this hard in the real-world.’ Just driving, and driving fast even, is much easier than what’s it’s been in simulations.”

The quest to improve it began with GTR2, yet the game received criticism at the time from within the sim racing community for being too easy – despite the fact the team was acting on feedback from actual racing drivers. Slightly Mad Studios is working with more professional drivers than ever for Project CARS 2, including Collins and Hamilton again, plus German GT driver René Rast, Formula Drift champ Vaughn Gittin, Jr., GM factory driver and Le Mans winner Tommy Milner, iRacing champ Mitchell deJong, and RX Lites champ Oliver Eriksson.

“Authentic doesn’t mean it’s necessarily difficult,” insists Viljoen. “It means it drives like the real thing. The more we work with people like Ben and Nick and the other guys, this exact same message kept coming through: it’s too hard; it shouldn’t be that hard. These cars are built to drive well; they’re not built to kill you.”

Collins, Viljoen, and Hamilton are all in agreement that Project CARS 2’s new tyre model is the most exciting difference between this upcoming sequel and the original.

“For me it’s got to be the tyre model, and just the general balance of the cars is so much more realistic; so much more planted,” says Hamilton, who explains he still does a lot of back-to-back testing between Project CARS 2 and the original.

“You can now really grab the car by the scruff of the neck and chuck it around, say, Bathurst,” adds Collins. “You brake too late, you’re gonna have a problem – as with most tracks – because there’s not a lot of room.”

“But you can hustle the tail of the car around and you can squirm it out of hairpins. It’s so difficult to get that right, and I’ve spent lots of time in the Formula One simulators that do not have that level of intuitive transition from gripping to slipping, and we have it. So it’s absolutely fantastic to have done that.”

Viljoen is so pleased with the results he actually finds it difficult to play Project CARS 1 these days.

“There’s very little that we didn’t improve on or completely revamp,” he says. “[T]he mechanical underpinnings of the vehicles. How we now model the chassis; the chassis flex... it’s not just a solid model like we had previously. Also the drivetrain is now a completely new simulation of how the differential works. All of that feeds into what the tyres do, and the tyre model is just a dramatic update on what we did before, especially when you go over the limit.”

I rather enjoyed the original Project CARS and found the handling of most cars convincing with a wheel and manageable with a controller (after a little massaging of the settings), but Project CARS 2 does indeed feel better. Considerably so. My hands-on time with a small smattering of events specifically curated for the game’s reveal was limited, but with a high-end wheel I found I was able to wrestle cars back from the cusp of catastrophe and with a controller the whole experience was far less twitchy, more weighty, and considerably more rooted to the road. It’s a truly noticeable improvement, especially with a gamepad (where it more or less feels like a different game altogether).

“We are… aware of critique of the first game that the gamepad handling took some getting used to or required some tuning to get it to how you want,” says Slightly Mad Studios’ creative director Andy Tudor, confirming there’s been a big push to hone the gamepad handling “to make sure it’s amazing out of the box, without any need to go in and [use the sliders].”

For mine, the improved feel of Project CARS 2 is certainly the most exciting and crucial new development here but it’s important to note that Project CARS 2 is seeing overhauls across the board, both in terms of content, audio, and online functionality.

The success of the original Project CARS (over a million copies moved within the first month, and now at “well over” two million copies sold) has given the Slightly Mad team a helpful signal boost, putting previously unattainable yet desirable licenses within their grasp.

“We have really good people working in our license department; very capable people,” says Viljoen. “But even so, for them to go up to a licensor of a very key license and introduce themselves [is tough].”

“Now, being able to have that extra muscle, if you will, we’ve been able to secure licenses that we just couldn’t get in Project CARS 1 which, at the end of the day, is critical for our fans.”

The result is an even wider track roster (including Fuji and Long Beach) and the inclusion of “most key manufacturers from Italy, from Germany, and from Japan, so our fleet of vehicles will be far more complete than what it was in Project CARS 1,” says Viljoen. The Slightly Mad team stopped short of specifically confirming the exact manufacturers but rumblings prior to last week’s reveal have already namechecked Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche (all of which were absent in the original).

“There’s another, more behind the scenes, benefit that we’re getting from having a reputation now that we know what we’re doing,” says Viljoen. “And that, in addition to being able to get the licenses, is what comes with those licenses.”

“For example, previously it was pretty much unheard of for any game developer to require, as part of the license agreement, access to the factory drivers... Because we don’t only use these real-world race drivers; as far as possible we also use factory drivers that the various manufacturers have that race their cars.

“So we made that part of the contract agreement... We want them to iterate with us on the physics and we want them to be happy that the cars drive the way that they should. Some of them took a little push to get them to the point of agreeing with it but we got there, and now they understand.”

We can also expect a wider variety of cars within classes, which is good news considering some of the classes in the original were a little sparse.

“Our GT3 field, for example, has been dramatically expanded,” says Viljoen. “We pushed really hard in multi-class races, and in single-class races, to flesh out the field.”

“It’s important to us that whatever new content we bring into the game that there is context for it; we don’t want to have this amazing car in the game if all you can ever do with it is race by itself, because there is nothing in its field or in its class or type that makes sense. That was very much one of our key targets here.”

“More variety; more authenticity,” adds Tudor.

Project CARS 2 will feature more than 170 licensed cars and over 60 tracks. It’s a huge stack of tracks – the largest on console – but with the game’s dynamic weather and time-of-day effects, plus the new seasonal changes, even the same track will take on a different flavour depending on what time of year you tackle it.

Project CARS 2 is already exceptionally good looking but its bark seems even greater than its visual bite; no small feat considering the original game’s nuanced sound design was already a cut above most others.

“One of the major advances that we’ve done for Project CARS 2 in audio is that we have positional audio for every single little thing,” says Viljoen. “Not just the engine; everything on the car itself.”

“If you’re losing grip on the front left tyre you’ll hear it’s that tyre that’s slipping. If you damage the left rear suspension, you’ll hear it. You’ll get an audio cue. It’s authentic; a real driver may feel something is odd with the car and can hear a noise coming from the left rear.”

One small touch I found particularly clever during my hands-on was an extremely subtle squeaky wiper effect; a series of small chirps as the rubber from the wiper blades struggled against the glass before it became slick with rain.

“Not only that,” grins Viljoen, “it’ll also squeak differently depending on what sort of material is building up on the windshield. Whether it’s icy, or whether it’s rain.”

“It’s a disgusting amount of attention to detail,” chuckles Tudor.

“Unfortunately, when you do something really well often people miss it,” explains Viljoen. “It’s only when something is wrong that people pick it up, but when it’s right they just take it for granted.”

While most of the Slightly Mad Studios team were eager to speak at length about the big tweaks to the Project CARS 2’s handling dynamics as their feature du jour, Tudor is most keen on Project CARS 2’s radically revamped online elements.

The big news here is that Project CARS 2 will support fully-fledged online championships. There’s no need for reams of spreadsheets and hours of busywork collating results and herding drivers between races, managing your own private racing series; Project CARS 2 will handle all that under the hood. All you’ll need to do is create or join a championship – the game will string the races together and track everyone’s progress for you. You’ll also be able to save the replays to build a highlight reel or review race incidents.

“These other people may be your friends,” begins Tudor. “They may be esports events. They may be big brands who might put on their own championships. By putting the power of being able to make your own league, your own tournaments, your own esports events, we’re putting the power of esports into everyone’s hands.”

Tudor confirms that Project CARS 2’s online championships “are going to be the backbone of all our esports events in future,” noting Project CARS has been the number one racing esport for over two years.

Slightly Mad is also baking in dedicated broadcaster and director functionality into Project CARS 2.

“Whether you’re on console or PC, you will be able to assign a director and a broadcaster in any online game and any online championship,” says Tudor. The director will be able to control the on-screen cameras, overlays, and presentation for viewers.

“When I talk about bring car esports to everyone, this is a key part of that,” says Tudor.

Tudor also explained Project CARS 2’s new ‘competitive racing licence’, which is his favourite element of the game.

The competitive racing licence will track how you race in Project CARS 2 and is made up of three elements: your racecraft (basically how professional you are, and it will be impacted when you’re involved in accidents, cut the track, and ignore rules or flags), your ranking (an Elo rating determined by your performances against other players), and finally an indicator of your seniority based on how long you’ve been playing.

“On a very basic surface level it removes toxic behaviour from the game, which is extremely important,” says Tudor. “It means that when you go into a game you’re not going to be playing with people who are not of the same competitiveness to you, and are not being griefers.”

“On the secondary level, it also adds progression to online. Now with this licence I’m always trying to climb. I’m trying to go from bronze to diamond. I’m trying to keep my racecraft at a high level. I’m trying to prove myself to teams out there that may want to hire me. I feel like I’m constantly progressing. And that makes the game stickier; it gives longevity to the online stuff now.”

If any one thing is clear, it’s obvious neither Ben Collins nor Nicolas Hamilton are simply here to pose in a Project CARS 2 jacket and smile.

“I’d had a few conversations, prior to getting involved with Slightly Mad, with other games companies,” says Collins. “It was kind of just a bit of cherry-on-the-cake stuff; talk about the game but you don’t really make any contribution, but it sounds like you’ve had more input than you have.”

“Because basically they’re gonna make the game they want to make and it’s probably a bit arcade, and it ticks a load of marketing boxes, and then they’re fine; off they go.

“This is completely not the approach with these guys. When they say they want our feedback, that’s really our only reason for being here. And not just our feedback; there are seven drivers who are giving feedback and thousands of people in the Project CARS community that are doing the same thing… It’s not just lip service; it’s the real deal. We’re trying to make the physics and handling work well.”

“I find Slightly Mad a very special company,” adds Hamilton. “Everybody works from home; we have a small head office near Tower Bridge, London – there are not many people there. Everybody else is based around the world.”

“To have a company that works purely from forums, over the internet, at home, requires a lot of passion and dedication, because you can get side-tracked at home quite easily. Slightly Mad put a lot of trust in you, so if they put trust in you you’ve got to put trust in them. That’s why I enjoy working with them so much.

“You don’t meet everybody, but everybody’s so nice and so easy to work with, and you can just see the passion coming out of their ears. For me that’s the most important thing about creating something, because if you’re not passionate about it you might as well not even do it in the first place.”

Passion has got Slightly Mad Studios a long way; the rest is in the execution, which Tudor seems very confident about.

“You put it in the hands of a manufacturer and go, ‘Look at our game; look at how awesome it is,’” says Tudor while discussing partnering with new carmakers for Project CARS 2. “And they get hands-on and they go, ‘Yeah, it is.’”

“‘Oh, and by the way the racing drivers that are helping us think it’s the most authentic one as well. Oh, and by the way, we’re going to use it in a big event that’s happening.’ It’s justification for everything we’ve done.

“Just to rewind back in time, the reason we started crowdfunding Project CARS 1 is because we went to big massive publishers and said, ‘We’ve got an idea for a racing game; it’s gonna take on Forza and Gran Turismo’ and they looked at us, like, ‘Who? What? You’re kidding me. Those guys are entrenched and everyone knows them; they’re household names. You have no chance.’

“So we made it on our own, and we did a good job, and now look what’s happened. Now Namco are behind us – massive history in the racing genre with Ridge Racer – and we’ve got a solid foundation to go from here. We’re here to win on this.”

- Luke is Games Editor at IGN's Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter @MrLukeReilly.

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