It’s a great time to be alive if you love racing games.

As blockbusters Forza Motorsport 7 and Gran Turismo Sport prepare to burst into the world, Project CARS 2 provides a different kind of ride; this game offers up an authentic and immersive sandbox experience that Microsoft and Sony’s offerings simply can’t achieve with their crowd-pleasing remits.

How? Well for starters it allows you to race all of your dream cars in any situation without hours of leveling up. But while you can thrash around for five laps with all the aids on if them’s yer kicks, the real juice is in the immersion. You can, if you’re a certain way inclined for example, recreate from start to finish the entire Indianapolis 500 that Fernando Alonso nearly won, with every greasy pit stop in-between.

You see, PCARS2 is aimed squarely at racing nerds, reaching deep into its expanded tree of petrol-forged disciplines to create a dedicated but surprisingly accessible game that borders on sim, but all the while injecting fun into your synapses. The original Project CARS had similar ambitions, but was flawed by psychotic AI, a moody tyre model and more glitches than a Southern Trains schedule. So we donned the race suit to find out if Slightly Mad Studios have nailed it on the second lap.

Options and modes: Bigger is better

The first thing you notice about PCARS2 is its sheer size. SMS has definitely addressed one of the biggest criticisms about the original and gone to town on licensing, adding Ferrari, Porsche, Honda, Nissan and Jaguar to the list of 180+ cars. While this may still be way shy of the 700-plus vehicles you get in Forza Motorsport 7, this selection feels handpicked, offering period treasures such as the stunning Porsche 935 Le Mans challenger and modern monsters like Mad Mike Whiddett’s Mazda MX-5 Rad Bull drifter car.

The same is true of the track roster: there are more than 60 venues spanning some 130 layouts; you won’t find this kind of choice anywhere else in console-land. All the classics are there, and with a lovely twist you can now experience the daunting original Spa-Francorchamps or the extremely fast Silverstone track that Keke Rosberg lapped at an average speed of 160mph in 1985, right in front of yours’ truly. It’s like getting in a time machine and living through moments you dreamed about as a kid.

SMS has also expanded the range of disciplines; ice racing, rallycross and drifting join the improved multiclass endurance, single-seater and point-to-point styles from the original.

Like a massive DVD collection, there’s sometimes too much choice and you don’t know what to play first. But an improved and cleaner interface helps simplify things, and there’s also a nice touch in the ‘pre-sets’ menu that allows you to choose your style of genre - say tin-tops or IndyCar - then just get straight on with the kind of racing you love.

Computer AI: Artfully Intelligent

The racing is considerably more rewarding, too. Where the AI in the first game was positively Mad Maxian, it can now be managed in two ways: by performance and aggression. This is a stroke of genius and we found it much easier to play nicely with the other cars as a result.

And there's more. The NPCs will now go out of their way not to damage their cars and they also fatigue as a race matures. This adds another element to the racing, and makes it unlike any other racer we’ve played.

PCARS 2 is not perfect though. As with the first game you do sometimes see glitches with the AI, with cars driving into each other at Turn 1 for instance. That'd never happen in a real race. Well unless you're racing Sebastian Vettel.

Qualifying sessions, while essential, are also a bit of a pain to complete. There's no option to accelerate time once you've recorded a time, just a ‘skip to the end’ button - which means you can put in a really fast lap which leaves you comfortably ahead of the pack, only to end the session and find that the entire field has now goes 3 seconds faster and dumped you to the back of the grid. Until this is fixed, then, you’ll have to hang around to the end or set an arbitrary starting position…

Still, when the game is singing along, you feel like you’re really racing these guys, and all the realism really adds weight to the scaled-up career. This takes you through every discipline on offer: there are six tiers to climb, and you have to earn access to the last three levels of each. Inside these tiers awaits manufacturer contracts where you’re rewarded with demo cars, historic races and other goodies – what’s not to like about that?

Handling: Gripping stuff

And now on to the really important stuff: the handling is exceptional, at least with a steering wheel (I used a Logitech 920 on the Xbox One and PC preview builds). The messaging and steering tension really allow you to place the car just so on the track, and with three different levels of feel from Informative to Raw.

The track imperfections are really well done, too - for instance the bump on the entry to the first corner at Knockhill will really throw the car off-centre, making you think about your approach; all very real.

Again, though, it’s not without flaws. We found we had to work hard to find an XBox d-pad setting that worked well and though it’s better than the original game, the cars still don’t feel connected to the road as we’re used to with other games.

That being said, SMS’ new Livetrack 3.0 system really turns the experience up to 11 with its evolving track system. Having previously mastered dynamic weather and daylight, PCARS2 also boasts dynamic track conditions and all four seasons.

Yes you can drive a Lamborghini around Long Beach in the snow if you want to, but for real kicks try searching out a dry line on a damp-but-warming track and marvel at the detail as the puddles shrink lap after lap until eventually there’s enough adhesion to switch to slicks.

Like all aspects of PCARS 2, it really makes you think about your racing.

Stuff says... 

Project CARS 2 review

If you can live with its lack of polish and occasional bugs, PCARS2 is as good a racing game as you'll ever play
Good Stuff 
Incredibly immersive, especially in VR
Quality of car and track lists
The amazing ‘always-on’ track evolution system
Bad Stuff 
A bit glitchy to be going up against Forza and GT Sport
Controller handling still a little loose
Daunting for non-petrolheads

Where to buy Project CARS 2: