As a primarily PC-based racing sim fan, I have not had a new championship season made available to me since the 2002 season modeled in EA Sport's final version before Sony acquired an exclusive license with Formula One. I won't bore you all with my feelings regarding the consumer unfriendly practice of exclusively licensing entire professional sports leagues, but I do find it somewhat ironic, in a Karmic sort of way, that it is EA Sports that got excluded. As they say, live by the sword, die by the sword.
I found it quite easy, though, to set aside my distaste this industry-wide affront to free market competition when offered the opportunity to spend a few days with a loaner PS3 and a copy of Sony's Formula One Championship Edition. This was a chance to see how well the state-of-the-art console racing sim compared with what have traditionally been the far more robust PC versions. My expectations going in were that I would be impressed with the graphics and sound, but not so much with the car physics, AI behavior, and controllability. I also expected at least a rudimentary car setup "garage," but nothing as extensive as those found on the PC.
I won't try to enhance your suspense by holding my judgment close to the vest: I was right about the graphics and sound, not really right yet not really wrong about the physics, completely wrong about the AI drivers, and partially wrong about controllability. If you're a bottom-line kind of buyer, all you need to know is that it is a very good, and in some ways truly innovative, Formula One sim for the PS3 that is definitely worth having, but it does not yet meet the standards of a PC-based ride.
Ok, now that the folks with short attention spans are gone, we can get down to the nitty-gritty. Everyone likes to know about the graphics first, and in this case I'm happy to oblige. Viewed on a 56" HD through an HDMI cable, they are superb. My first in-car view, looking through the simmering exhaust gases rising from the line of cars sitting in front of me on the starting grid, was breathtaking. When I later set up a race on a rainy day, the rain drops on my racing helmet's visor and the blindingly thick rooster tails of water trailing the speeding cars in front of me were nearly panic inducing. I was also impressed to note that my tires had been changed from the grooved dry weather tires to heavy rain tires by my attentive crew and that the difference in tire type was easily visible. The wide screen of the big TV gave me a panoramic view that added to the sense of actually sitting in a car. The liveries of the opposing teams' cars were crisp and detailed, which of course offered the benefit of my never having to doubt exactly who it was that I had just rear ended or cut off. Of course, in the PC world there is always a piper to pay when it comes to stellar graphics, and I was curious as to how well the PS3 would hold up under the harshest test that I could think of: a full field of highly detailed cars at the extremely polygon-voracious Monaco Grand Prix. The short answer: with remarkable aplomb. Not a single stutter. Wow.
As I mentioned above, the great graphics were beneficial in letting me know who I had crashed into. This segues nicely into a discussion of the damage model. For those who like it short and sweet, it is way cool. If I were trendy enough, I'd even go so far as to say it's the sickest (no, you old fogies, I did not intend to say 'slickest' - trust me, they really say 'sick' when they mean 'keen', 'nifty', or 'neat-o.' Go figure.) damage model I've ever seen. In my various accidents, ranging from calamitous multi-car kerfuffles to solo impalements on solid, inanimate objects, I saw wings shattered and flying through the air, wheels knocked off but restrained by the steel cable wheel tethers mandated in Formula One, and wheels knocked off with such force that no law made by the all-powerful rules committee of Formula One management was strong enough to overrule the laws of physics. It would be embarrassing to admit that I spent quite a bit of time deliberately causing wrecks because I was so enamored with watching the pieces/parts flying everywhere, so I won't. But I wouldn't exactly be offended if you were to accuse me of it, if you know what I mean.
One trap Sony avoided (and it's one of my pet peeves, truth be told) was the lure of trying to cattle-chute everyone into the same playing rigid experience like many other console based games do. Instead of presuming to know how my gaming time should be spent better than I do, Sony followed the lead of the majority PC racing sims in offering a choice between single race, practice, or a championship season. You don't have to earn anything to unlock cars or tracks, you aren't forced into ridiculously short races that encourage a Bonzai passing mentality, and you don't have to work your way up through the ranks of perennial backmarker teams before you get the world class hardware. If you are pressed for time and just feel like jumping into a Ferrari and trying your luck at Sliverstone, have at it. No need to find cheats or pay a neighbor kid to spend a few hours unlocking content that you already paid for. Ah, what a relief to see a console developer that gets it. I hope other developers see the appeal of this approach and begin to emulate it.
Being a poster child for Curmudgeonly Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, I spent the vast majority of my play time running single races. I've always been more of an a la carte racer since there are some tracks that I absolutely adore and others that I simply despise. And isn't the beauty of not being a real Formula One driver that I don't have to race at the places I don't want to? Sure it is! The tracks I find most suitable to my racing style are Silverstone, Indianapolis, Monza, Imola, and Spa-Francorchamps. Unfortunately, the Belgian track was dropped from the 2006 schedule while it underwent facility upgrades, so I was not able to test my skill on a flat out run through one of the most famous turns in racing, the Eau Rouge. Asa result, the lion's share of my attention went to the first four in my list. I found all four to be exactly as I expected, and my years of sim racing experience on these tracks enabled me to really hit the ground running. Every turn was where expected, the braking zones seemed very similar to my past experiences, and the details of the surrounding track objects seemed genuine.
Ok, now that the aesthetics are out of the way, it's time to discuss the meat (sorry, vegans, but it's an entrenched figure of speech) of any racing sim: the controllability, physics, and AI quality. With any console-based racer, my first concern is controllability. The control sticks on the standard controllers have ludicrously limited throw for use as steering controls, a trait that nearly always results in a twitchy and difficult to control car. In this regard, Sony would share the same weakness if it wasn't for the innovative use of the SIXAXIS feature of the PS3 controller. My first attempts at driving were done using the thumb sticks, and did not endear me at all to that approach. Fortunately, Sony came up with using the position sensing ability of the controller to act as a steering wheel. By holding the controller out in front of myself like 5 year old pretending to drive a car with a paper plate, I was able to get a far more precise steering control. I eventually had to do something to brace my elbows, and I looked like a complete idiot in front of my judgmental canine companion, but it worked.
While superior to the thumb sticks, the SIXAXIS control still fell well short of the high fidelity control available to the PC community in the form of mid-range force feedback wheels like the Logitech Momo and G25. As luck would have it, while I was poking around in the controller settings to configure the hand controller for SIXAXIS mode, I saw a configuration screen for the Logitech G25. By dint of recent events somewhat akin to divine provenance, I just happened to have one of those handy to try it out. As it turns out, the G25 was by far the best racing controller I have ever used on a console, but I was somewhat disappointed that the force feedback was not supported. That's an area that I am frankly surprised has not been addressed by console developers. Even without the force feedback, though, the high quality control wheel made it much easier to maintain good control of the high-strung, thoroughbred racing machines of Formula One and gave me enough control to actually complete a lap now and then, and even challenge a few other cars for their position. The cost of not having force feedback is that the driving experience will never be of high enough fidelity for subtle details like car setup or turbulence from other cars to be a factor. This is a shame, because there is a very cool and (again with this word!!) innovative setup routine that I'll tell you about a little later.
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