Formula for Success
In the U.S., NASCAR’s king. But, in the rest of the world, Formula One is the ultimate automotive research and development racing series. Codemasters and Sumo Digital have been hard at work translating the speed and technical driving found in Formula One to the PSP. While the PSP as a platform is notorious for its poor driving controls, F1 2009 somehow manages to bring an excellent simulation of the sport to bear. From the deep career to the ad-hoc multiplayer, virtual racing fans in search of an accurate and fun representation of Grand Prix will be pleasantly surprised with what’s on offer here.
For those unfamiliar with Formula One, it’s a racing championship where teams and individuals compete across 17 tracks throughout the world. Teams such as Ferrari, Renault, McLaren Mercedes, Honda/Brawn, Toro Rosso, and BMW are all represented by a stable of drivers of varying skill (and fame – politics are a huge part of F1 racing). Also, a massive crew of mechanics, designers, and engineers build and tweak the cars to fit the varied track types (no banked ovals here) and inconsistent weather conditions. The final position in each race gives individual drivers and their teams points that accumulate over the course of the season. At the end, the top point-getting driver and the top team are awarded with the F1 Championship. Winning the championship as a driver or as a team means you’ve been able to consistently manage the lengthy season and its myriad challenges, as vehicles (and egos) will exceed speeds of 200 MPH on straight-aways just to slow down to nearly a crawl in order to negotiate the multitude of sharp banks and even hairpin turns – it takes a lot of people and a whole lot of skill to perform as a champion.
In F1 2009, you’ll be able to participate in this most demanding of championships through an in-depth Career, in a more manageable Grand Prix Weekend, or even with friends in ad-hoc one-off and season competitions. Bringing the speed, tuning, and sim-style racing to the PSP was always going to be a steep challenge for developer Sumo Digital. Remarkably, they largely pulled it off.
For starters, the dev team did a great job of tailoring the three difficulty settings to suit any player’s skill level without making the game feel like an arcade racer (even with all the assists in place). Additionally, the structure of playing through an event weekend, complete with practice runs, vehicle tuning, qualifying, and the actual race, is extremely deep and satisfying, remaining utterly true to the sport. Furthermore, driving feels spot-on. There’s a great sense of speed, and pushing your vehicle to the limit on the demanding tracks is accurately conveyed. In other words, taking on the challenges of F1 2009 requires super-technical driving, but nothing ever feels cheap or unrealistic.
Naturally, players can hop into quick start for some swift doctor’s office/bus stop action, but the game also lets you play in a selection of other single-player modes. The most engrossing feature is that of the Career mode. Spanning just three seasons, you’ll attempt to take your driver from unknown rookie to proven champion – a challenging prospect indeed. Career is more than just racing, as the game gives it a bit more detail due to team expectations. Career is the best way to get the full F1 experience, but it may be too involved and plodding for some. I, on the other hand, had a different reaction – I wanted more. Three seasons is far too short to establish yourself on higher difficulty levels, and I was dismayed not to be able to become the greatest of all time by winning five to ten championships in a row.
Of course, not everyone is going to want to invest so much into the Career. If this sounds like you, F1 2009 also offers more manageable, bite-sized modes without sacrificing the quality or fell of Formula One racing. Grand Prix Weekend allows you to select your favorite track and driver/team and compete for some silverware. Though you won’t have to worry about what your team and sponsor think of you, getting in multiple practice runs, making the qualifying cut, and garnering a high pole position are still part and parcel of the mode. All of this preliminary action really helps to create that F1 feel, investing players into the experience, and making Sundays more than just a basic video game race. If you’re up for more, you can also try your skill at Championship mode. Like Grand Prix Weekend, Championship also lets you choose your driver and team, but rather than focusing on just one track, you’ll participate in an entire season across all venues.
While Grand Prix Weekend and Championship are more accessible than Career, Sumo Digital also included Challenge and Time Trial modes. Challenge is a great way to hone your skill and garner in-game accolades. Starting with just eight, players will be tested to perform in various ways on the track. For example, one challenge will have you practicing your over-taking skills by passing as many cars as you can in a time limit, while another challenge will have you working on your qualifying ability by getting through as many checkpoint gates as possible before time runs out. Time Trials mode tracks you progress in different difficulty settings as you try to post lap times under bronze, silver, and gold target times. There are hours upon hours of quality single-player racing to be found for an array of racing enthusiasts.
On the multiplayer side of things, you can challenge up to four friends in a standard race or one other player in a custom Championship via local ad-hoc connectivity. I was utterly surprised multiplayer was included. In fact, multiplayer wasn’t needed to make the game worthwhile. Still, it’s nice to have the functionality, and it works almost perfectly. Unfortunately, it’s likely you’re not going to have anyone to play with, especially if you’re an American, as you’ll probably be the only one with a copy of the game in your circle of friends. Because of this, I would have liked to have seen online action through infrastructure mode. Having the ability to join in with other racers around the world and post times and Championship points to a leaderboard would have been great.
The game is well-crafted in general; of course, certain system limitations due hamper the final product. First and foremost, the analog nub is practically unusable. Thankfully, the D-pad does an admirable job of letting you feather the steering. Also, the remarkably in-depth car handling tuning system on offer doesn’t really translate into a distinct driving experience – I could sort of tell things changed when taking a specific slider from one extreme to the other, but subtle adjustments simply weren’t reflected. Additionally, the inclusion of KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) by the FIA in 2009 threw a bit of a grease-monkey into the wrench for Sumo Digital. In case you don’t know, KERS is essentially a reserve of usable energy that is captured whilst braking (rather than simply dissipating as heat in a standard dynamic braking system). This essentially provides racers with an extra boost for passing. While KERS is an integral part of the game, you’ll be able to overtake cars and set P1 lap times without it. I’ll be interested to see how this functionality evolves next year.
Graphically, the game looks very good whilst on the track, delivering speed and atmosphere. However, panoramic views of the horizon are decidedly bland. Also, details and textures, especially tire marks, grass, and sand are only vaguely apparent. Likewise, sounds whilst on the track are good – the high-pitched whine of the suped-up V8 engines reverberate nicely, but the crowd noise and pit crew communications are amateurish, nearly place-holder.
F1 2009 is a very competent translation of Formula One racing. Considering it’s a handheld title makes it that much more impressive. If you are a fan or even just an admirer of Formula One racing, you’ll be very happy with the technical racing on offer here. On the other hand, if you are into arcade racing or simply aren’t patient, the methodical approach and team-centric racing mechanics will likely bore you. Still, the inclusion of Challenge and Time Trial modes are accessible enough for even the most casual racers.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.6 Graphics
The tracks are well rendered and there’s a good sense of speed. Track textures and panorama views leave a lot to be desired. 3.8 Control
The analog nub is useless, but you already knew that. The D-pad and accelerator transmission buttons are surprisingly precise. KERS implementation could have been better. 3.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is very generic. The radio chatter and crowd noises are poor. The whining of car engines and the transitions between surfaces are spot-on. 4.9 Play Value
The single-player is jam-packed with varied game modes. The simulation of Formula One racing is very accurate. As a bonus, playing with friends through ad-hoc support is a nice touch. 4.1 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.