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.
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.