It’s never easy to try to find a foothold in an established field like racing simulators. Despite entering a market already dominated by Forza and Gran Turismo, however, the original Project CARS was able to not only compete from a technical perspective in terms of the racing experience it provides, but offered up a unique enough take on how you would approach races to carve out a slice for itself amongst gearheads. Building on that initial success, Slightly Mad Studios went to work on a sequel, and after my hands-on last week at CXC Simulations here in Los Angeles, Project CARS 2 is primed to move into the pole position of this genre.

It needs to be prefaced that my time with the game will likely not be quite indicative of the final experience most people will have, since I got to try the game out via Oculus VR on a $50,000 simulation rig that CXC offers to professional racers to prepare before big races. (That was the beauty of this demo, however.) Already loaded and ready to go for us was one of the brand new tracks featured in Project CARS 2, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, just days ahead of the actual race itself was to be held. While being jostled around as if I was taking hairpin turns at breakneck speeds was definitely new, the immersion I felt from the VR was even more intense, showing off the meticulous detail Slightly Mad has given to this new track.

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I also got to run the course in two different cars—the Acura NSX GT3 and the Dallara Honda Indycar—and moving from one car to the other was a tremendous extreme. It was hard enough learning a brand new track in VR (although I was able to adapt after a few laps), but the Acura’s top speed paled in comparison to when I sat in the driver’s seat of the Indycar, as turns came up faster and I had to be far more cognizant of my shifting as I reached higher speeds more quickly. But while new tracks and cars are always expected with any racing sequel, it was the last machine I hopped in that was particularly exciting.

Projects CARS 2 unveiled Rallycross mode to us for the first time. Yes, the off-road sprint-oriented series of races will debut this go around in Project CARS 2, and that means not only even more new cars and tracks, but new paths for your career drivers to take and brand new surfaces to drive on. Gravel and dirt will combine with asphalt on these tracks just like in real life, and although Rallycross tracks are smaller that most other tracks, the shifting terrain combined with how differently the cars handle will provide entirely new challenges for players to overcome—and I can speak from some limited experience.

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If going from the Acura to the Indycar was night and day, going into a rally-fitted Honda Civic Coupe was like going from April to August. Drifting at high speeds is a must here, and as unintuitive as it may be, taking corners almost sideways can actually be beneficial (and even preferred) in order to best position yourself for the next straightaway. But knowing how to take those turns is only the beginning, as your car will handle completely differently on dirt than gravel or asphalt—and it’s extremely easy to spin out if you’re not careful or underestimate the ground beneath your wheels.

When you combine this new mode with the realistic tire degradation and fine vehicle tuning of the first game, you’re starting to get into the grittiest of details that will have you almost smelling the engine grease on your hands. Adding Rallycross on top of new tracks and cars is a huge boon for Project CARS 2, and if Slightly Mad gives this mode as much attention as they gave everything from the first Project CARS, then this racing series will have more than earned its place at the table alongside Gran Turismo and Forza—and may even be in position to get ready to overtake them.

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