The chasm between an arcade-style racing game and a racing simulator is never more clear than when playing Project Cars 2.

Forza and Gran Turismo may have paved the way for Slightly Mad Studios’ racer, but Project Cars 2 dials up the difficulty to new heights, shattering any preconceived notions about what a racing simulator is. If you’re looking for a jaunty ride through the British countryside, breezing into first or second place along the way, you won’t find it here. But if you’re hungry for a nuanced, exceptionally detailed simulator rendered in high definition, look no further than Project Cars 2.

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Project Cars 2 – Slightly Mad Studios

Project Cars 2 is a demanding experience from top to tail. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are at arcade racers, you’ll need to develop new muscles to succeed with the punishing controls and the astonishingly realistic physics. It’s difficult to jump in and play Project Cars 2 for a few minutes here and there, even if you’re only interested in a quick single (or multiplayer) race. If you’ve never played on a course before, you’ll need time to acclimate to its sectors—the sections of a track—and the timing of the turns.

At the beginning of the game, regardless of which kind of career you choose first (stock, carts, or Formula One), you’re going to be terrible. But it’s a frustrating kind of terrible that makes you want to improve your meagre skillset. Part of what makes Project Cars 2 such a great racing simulator is in its steep learning curve. There’s no margin for error in Project Cars 2, especially if you’re playing in full racing sim mode. You can turn on a few driving assists, as well as racing lines (which I heartily endorse), but it’s still far from “easy mode.”

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Project Cars 2 – Slightly Mad Studios

In Career mode, there are three portions to complete in any given race: practice, qualifying, and the race itself. You can turn off the practice and the qualifying round (or tune the time spent on either), but it’s to the detriment of the ensuing race. Project Cars 2 demands care and attention in a way I’ve never seen in a racing simulator, even if I look back to the sims I played in the 90s (with my Sidewinder steering wheel, no less). Forgoing practice and qualifying is the best way to ensure that you’ll keep a firm grasp on last place.

Victory looks a little different in Project Cars 2 than it would in an arcade racer like Need For Speed. As unintuitive as it may seem, finishing the race is a win, even if you didn’t place in the top three. Your crew chief will talk to you throughout qualifying and the race, congratulating you on your best sector (or lap) yet and telling you that it’s a good time to start pushing your lead. There’s constant feedback in the UI, as well. Indicators keep the pressure on, demanding perfection—each lap needs to be better than the last… until you’ve spun out and your lap time is erased anyway.

The consistent feedback loop is part of what makes Project Cars 2 enjoyable, despite its infuriating difficulty. Shaving off a second on a lap is as much a victory as finally getting third place in a race. Because as much time as I’ve sunk into this game, I’ve yet to get a first place ranking in a race. Nailing that tricky chicane in rainy conditions is satisfying in a way that winning a race on its own isn’t. Every single little win is fought for and a win, even a little one, feels incredible.

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Project Cars 2 – Slightly Mad Studios

It’s not to say that all feedback will be positive, however. Your manager has a tendency to lose patience with you (via in-game email, of course) if you don’t place well in qualifiers or races. Your crew chief will gently admonish you if you screw something up, especially if you don’t let your tires warm up before tearing up a cold track. And there’s that dreadful red indicator that your lap time is abysmal, even by your own (likely low) standards. It’s easy to get caught up in those lost seconds and the fight to regain some time is rewarded with mistakes that cost yet more time sacrificed.

Did I mention that Projects Cars 2 is brutally hard?

The features that made the original Project Cars such an exciting, albeit punishing, experience are still alive in the new game, including parallel careers; deep customization scattered throughout career, single player and multiplayer; and vicious, tactical gameplay that makes every race a battle to finish, let alone win. From the limited time that I spent with Project Cars, there’s been some polish on the foundation the game laid, but it isn’t a complete overhaul. Project Cars 2 is still, at its core, a Project Cars game.

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Project Cars 2 – Slightly Mad Studios

What really sets Project Cars games apart from the vast majority of racing games that I’ve played is its depth, especially in the simulator’s cars. For example, as I work through a new track, I find myself back in the pit working with the race engineer to finesse my car. I’m not much of a gear-head these days, so I needed the help to make adjustments. The race engineer asked me questions about how my car was handling and made the adjustments to fix the problems I had. I tweaked things on my own a couple of times and wasn’t effective without the race engineer’s help.

A simulator isn’t a simulator without complex, fiddly customization options. And there isn’t one single way to tune your Project Cars 2 experience. The only thing that matters is determining what’s most important to you, the driver. For example, I left my UI untouched, but I spent a good chunk of time fine-tuning my control sensitivity. Oversteering on a gamepad is far too easy without those subtle tweaks.

There are myriad options for customizing your Project Cars 2 experience, much like there were in the original game. If you find yourself in a place where you need to modify the AI, there’s a sliding scale of difficulty. There’s even a way to make any Pacific Northwest homesickness disappear in Project Cars 2—turn on the rain and remind yourself that hydroplaning is still terrifying, even in virtual space.

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Project Cars 2 – Slightly Mad Studios

Hydroplaning while driving more than 100 mph isn’t ideal, but it manages to feel real. The puddles and pools of rainwater collecting on the track are as finely detailed as the cars themselves—they shimmer and shine with cloud breaks and the reflections of my opponents as they whiz past. Droplets that beaded on my car’s hood and flew off as I went rocketing down the track reminded me of what it’s like to go speeding down the highway in the rain.

Project Cars 2 doesn’t just simulate what it’s like to race in competitions—it makes players feel like a real race car driver, complete with the challenges and rewards that go hand in hand with professional driving. In my case, it meant suffering through achy muscles from long stretches of sitting down. If you’re looking for an easy win, load up Need For Speed or Mario Kart. Project Cars 2 may set its expectations of players extremely high, but the joy of evolving from neophyte racer to competency is worth it.