When I first popped F12004 into my PS2, I didn’t really know quite what to expect. After playing countless other bland driving games, I’ve become quite cynical in my old age.
F12004 has all the hallmarks of a formulaic driving game. I knew how trite this latest offering could be. But I still had hope. I had hope for a title that captured the thrill and ecstasy of F1 racing: hurtling down the streets of the Monaco grand prix, breaking very late into the corners; trying to shave a few precious tenths off of my lap time. I longed for a game that captured this feeling. But whether I would ever get this dream game was another matter entirely.
The game is orientated towards a simulation feel ? whilst there are separate arcade and simulation modes, the bulk of the game; the career mode, leans heavily towards the simulation side of things. This means taking each corner at the correct speed, on the correct racing line, no cheating via shortcuts, no punting drivers off the road, realistic car damage etc. It tries to re-create F1 racing as realistically as possibly, which means a complex, in-depth and difficult driving experience that requires inch-perfect driving, pin-point breaking and perfect car set-ups.
The handling of the cars is very good indeed: each car has it’s own unique handling, and will respond accordingly to different situations and car set-ups. For example, if you give your car the right set up, the car might handle beautifully through the corners, and extremely quick on the straights: never seeming that you would ever lose control. But if you choose the wrong set up, then your car will handle poorly: the back end of the car sliding around all over the place, and the car will not be quick at all. Likewise, in different weather conditions the car will handle differently. If it’s sunny, then the car will stick to the track well, and be quite quick. But if it’s raining, then the car will not stick to the track so well, and will slide quite easily: which corresponds accordingly to real life. The cars are also quite destructible: unlike in Gran Turismo, if you smash into a barrier at 200mph, your car will disintegrate into little pieces. Besides the exterior damage that can occur, interior damage can ruin a race weekend also. Engine failures, gearbox failures and other mechanical problems can occur which can ruin all the work put in during a race weekend. This keeps you constantly wary: whilst you want to push your car to the limit, trying to get the best lap times possible; you don’t want to overload the engine, or pile the car into an Armco barrier. You have to achieve a fine balance between achieving your aims at the race, and not destroying your car.
Besides this, you have to make sure you don’t break the FIA’s[Formula 1’s regulatory body] rules. So, you have to get acquainted to different rules; such as no overtaking during yellow flags, let the leader car pass during blue flags etc. Failure to correspond with the rules might result in a penalty, such as a stop and go penalty or expulsion from the race.
Whilst this all may seem quite daunting at first, after a few hours of play, I started to get used to it. Sure it was still frustrating trying to get the right set-up for my car, and I still didn’t know where the racing line was on some tracks; but it just added to the realism of the game; and completely drew me into the complex world of F1 racing.
Almost a mandatory mode in modern day sports titles; the career mode pits the player as an up and coming F1 driver. Starting off with no drive, you have to attend a few test sessions, wowing the prospective employees there with your break neck speeds. Depending on your success on the track, you might get a job as either a test driver, a driver on the main team, or maybe if you’re really that bad, you won’t get an offer at all; starting the cycle of looking for a drive again.
The initial teams who’ll offer you a job are not the Ferraris or the McLarens of the world; but the teams at the bottom of the pecking order. Initially Minardi, Jordan or Toyota will offer you a job as either a test driver or one of their main drivers on the track. Test drivers don’t feature in the races at all; just test sessions, which are basically just time trial sessions. Beat a set time, on a specific track within a certain amount of laps, and you’ll have completed the task. Consistently successful test drives might be rewarded with a promotion to one of the main drivers for the team; consistent failure will be punished by expulsion from the team, forcing you to find another drive.
If you receive a drive as one of the main drivers, the pressure will really be on. You’ll be in the public eye, and be seen by other prospective employees. If you succeed on the track, you might be offered another job, at a better team. However, poor results on the track might be punished by getting the sack: the game constantly rewards you for your successes, and punishes you for your mistakes; which keeps you on your toes throughout your career, making you continually strive for success.
But success will be extremely hard to come by in your first season. Whether you get a drive at Jordan, Minardi or Toyota, you can count on one thing: that your car will be formula one’s equivalent to a car made out of a cardboard box[ok, maybe going a bit over the top, but you get my point]. The handling will be atrocious and your straight-line speed will pale in comparison to the top runners. To even get a points finish, you will have to give your car the perfect set up, and push the car right to the limit.
Making matter worse is if you have never even seen a track before, and have no clue what the speeds for each corners are, or what set up to have. Luckily, the game helps you a fair bit in this department. On each track at every corner, at the top of the screen, a little box will appear, with an arrow in a certain colour. The arrow points to the direction of the corner, the colour pertains to the speed you need to enter the corner at: this will reflect your current speed. If the colour of the arrow is red you are going way to fast to enter the corner, and you drastically need to reduce speed. If the arrow is yellow or orange, then your speed is too high still, and you need to reduce speed by a fair bit. If the arrow colour is green, then your current speed is perfect to enter the corner. This provides an extremely helpful aid, especially when you don’t know the track in question at all. Unfortunately, the game gives no help whatsoever in setting up the car in accordance with the dynamics of each track. Drat.
The career mode, whilst becoming a clich? of the modern day gaming world, is still a great addition to this title. It’s in-depth, and will last you absolutely ages: it took me over one day to set up my car perfectly, get to know the track, and then proceed to do extremely well in one grand prix. A season would take well over a month. The main problem with the career mode[and it’s quite a big problem] is that when you start off with a lower range car, it sometimes seems impossible to do well, and results in a lot of trial and error gameplay, until you get that perfect set up, and that perfect lap. It can be extremely frustrating, and can be quite off putting.
At the beginning of the article, I stated my hopes for this title. I wanted a game that truly captured the essence of F1 racing, and in that sense, this title is quite a success. I truly felt the need to push my car to the limit, trying to get that perfect lap. I felt scarred as I braked extremely late into a corner: knowing I could either shave a few tenths off of my lap time, or just mess it up completely and pile the car into a barrier.
Whilst the trial and error gameplay in the career mode can be infuriating, this should not detract from what is a great title. The handling of the cars, the realistic body damage and the depth of the career mode all add up to one of the most complete F1 racers to date. Besides this, the career mode offers the perfect kind of escapism – making you truly feel like an F1 driver: which isn’t too bad a feeling.