The racing itself was good, although I wasn't able to get very competitive in the time that I had. With the arrogance of an experienced PC racer, I refused help from the available driving aids but I did set the opponent difficulty to 'Easy' to allow myself to stay at least close enough to the back markers to cause a spectacular wreck whenever the desire hit me or events conspired against me. Both occurred with distressing frequency, just so you know. Had I turned on a few of the driving aids, I'm sure I could have been more competitive. In addition to helpers like steering assistance, anti-lock brakes, automatic shifting (which is, of course, universally used on the real F1 cars these days), Sony has included some of the newer innovations pioneered by other developers with racing lines and turn indicators, each color coded for the proper speed to safely negotiate a curve. Since I already was intimately familiar with the tracks I was driving on, I didn't personally need these aids, but I always think it is a very good design decision to include them.
An interesting thing about Formula One racing is that rather than on-track passing, the race is usually won in other places: qualifying, the standing start, or in the pits. While car setup is important in the actual race, it is even more critical in qualifying. Passing during the race is at best difficult, and at worst nearly impossible. At Monoco, for example, an on-track pass on a dry track is nearly impossible so a good qualifying session and/or exemplary pit stops can give the win to a normally under performing team. It's no surprise that for a relatively high number of drivers, Monaco is their first and only win because they qualified well and didn't botch any put stops. To varying degrees at different tracks in the season it is very difficult to win if starting further back than the first or second row, so qualifying is very important and it is in qualifying that having a good car setup is (arguably) the most critical. PC-based sims present the player with the challenge of either learning to drive the default setups very well, downloading setup files from the web, or learning how to make their own adjustments to the cars. Those choosing the latter approach will find no detail lacking in the car setup screens of most PC racing sims, and in fact may find them quite daunting.
Is that the way real F1 works? Does the driver determine spring rates, gear ratios, or any of the other thousands of details? In fact, is there any one man in the entire multi-million dollar staff that is the one that makes all of those decisions? Well, not surprisingly, no. What happens is the race driver and/or a test driver will drive sets of laps in various configurations of fuel, aerodynamic downforce, tire pressures, spring rates, etc. Hundreds of performance parameters will be recorded from sensors placed throughout the car, and the results transmitted to the pits to be analyzed by a team of specialists. In an innovation I would love to see in the PC world, Sony has used that method to achieve a competitive setup on the car. You will be instructed to drive sets of laps under various configurations, and the resulting data will be used to configure the car to best suit your driving style. Unfortunately for me, the robotic race team was unable to configure a car suitable to my personal racing style of stress testing trackside restraint devices, so I don't know how good the results are. I love the concept, though, and encourage other developers to shamelessly steal it for your next releases.
If you are good enough to win pole position, or at least a spot in at least the first three rows, you are going to have a better experience in the next critical phase of the race: the standing start. Standing starts are very rare in forms of racing other than motocross and F1, and there's a reason for that: a pile-up at the first turn is nearly inevitable. It's a lot like NASCAR at restrictor plate races in that there is a definite safety benefit in being up front. And because track position is so critically important at some tracks, the incentive to yield to a competitor in the braking zone of the first turn is at an ebb, to say the least. Suffice it to say, there start is an event that tests the nerves and reaction times of the drivers. Sad to say, Sony dropped the ball on this. Race starts are done in the standard console way, which is to say you just stand on the gas until the race starts and the sim lets you go. It's a shame they missed this detail given how easy it would have been to get it right.
If you get lousy start, many times your only hope for pulling out a win is your pit strategy. In the real world, determining pit strategy begins long before the race, and it's quite complicated. One of the simpler rules, though, is the one that states that you have to start the race with the same amount of fuel that you qualified with. If you qualify with a light fuel load, for example, you will probably get a better starting position on the grid, but you will have to pit sooner once the race starts. If you pit too soon, you might have to make more pit stops than your competitors. But that might be balanced out by your time spent racing with a lighter car than them. See, it's complicated, but it's not a factor in this sim. I can't say I miss it. I am more than satisfied with the way Sony decided to ensure that if pit strategy was not strategically important, pit stops themselves were in some way at least tactically important. They did this by making what is essentially a mini-game out of the pit stops. The challenge of performing a fast pit stop takes the form of the button matching/smashing in a particular order in a specified (and short!) time paradigm as found in many platform games, so while not conceptually difficult, a racer under a lot of pressure could find his race won or lost by how well he responds to the challenge. That's as it should be, I believe.
On the handful of occasions where I beat the odds and completed a few laps, I found the AI racers to be on a par with those I have come to respect in the PC world. They reacted to my proximity by taking positive steps to avoid contact with my careening car, they availed themselves of the many passing opportunities I involuntarily offered up to them, and they made driving mistakes now and then. There is no such thing as a perfect driver and they all slide the car around as they press the limits of adhesion, so it is a definite reality enhancer to see them oversteer or drift over a curb occasionally. It helps my self-esteem, if nothing else. Passing was, as expected, very hard to do well. Getting passed, an event that I am far more familiar with, is a little easier to do since you can trust the AI driver to give you room. In other words, they don't bulldozer you to get by you, a fact that will be much appreciated by just about everyone.
After the long drought, it was good to try out a new Formula One game. Sony should have pretty good success with this release. With the various drivers aids included in the game, it will be easy for neophytes to get started while more experienced racers can disable the aids and have a satisfyingly challenging experience. The accuracy of the cars and tracks is very good, and a devoted F1 viewer would enjoy seeing the tracks in the way that a driver does. I like to drive at least a few laps on whatever circuit the traveling F1 circus is at on any particular F1 race weekend, but that has been increasingly difficult to do as the schedule has changed since the 2002 season.
The collection of innovative features and seriously sweet eye candy in Sony's Formula One Championship Edition set a new standard in console-based racing games. If you can master the fun, new SIXAXIS control scheme, you're in for an enjoyable and challenging racing experience in Formula One, the pinnacle series in international motor sports.
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