Last year, Psygnosis' Formula 1 set the standard for racing realism on the PlayStation, selling a whopping 1.7 million copies. The sequel, Formula 1 Championship Edition, has easily overtaken the former benchmark for simulation depth. The variety of car setup options, their depth of gameplay impact, the subtleties of handling, and a new AI keep Psygnosis and developers Bizarre Creations lapping the competition.
Like last year's version, Formula 1 CE features an arcade mode for those of us who just want to open the box and drive without having to deal with oversteering, brake locking, and struggling to control the car on the grass, let alone keep it on the track in the first place. This year's version is even more forgiving than last year's model. Forget about physics. You can cut the competition off at the pass by just off-roading and completely ignoring the chicanes and hairpins. A standard-issue, arcade-style time limit with extensions keeps the action exciting.
Grand Prix mode brings realistic physics back into the picture in spades. This is where F1 CE really triumphs. Dozens of car setup options are available, all of which impact gameplay noticeably. Alter brake bias, front and rear downforce, even the hardness of the alloy that makes up the car's body, all of which dovetail nicely with racing options, like weather and the actual track layout. For instance, it's very important to have sufficient downforce if you're on the extremely curvy Barcelona track and it's raining, lest you smack into the barrier or other cars at every turn. In addition, vehicle handling itself is most unforgiving. Plan on a couple of hours to get a grip on steering around corners without slowing to 30mph. Frustrating? Yes, but the rewards are great, as Formula 1 CE is so much more than a racing game. It is a world-class simulation that offers such depth of gameplay, you'll think most other racing games are just Pole Position with a better graphics engine.
Oddly, the collisions are beautiful, but not too realistic. They seem to occur in slow motion, with the cars gliding gracefully up into the air with the more severe impacts. Sound strange? It is. Stranger still is the fact that it's possible to survive multiple head-on collisions at over 150mph before your car will become completely disabled. For a racing sim as realistic as this one, Bizarre Creations has been a little generous with the constitution of these Formula 1s. After a few good hits, though, the chassis will begin to sag to one side, and eventually whole pieces or a wheel will fall off.
The AI has been rewritten for the new version. Cars do more than just stay on the track. More importantly, each behaves differently. Some will move from side to side to keep you from passing, others are more amicable. Some will pass only when their speed greatly surpasses yours, others will pass you very slowly and pose a greater risk of collision. The best thing about the AI is that it keeps the 21 opposing drivers' behavior from becoming predictable, which in turn means you must keep your eyes open and carefully observe the other cars' behavior instead of just learning one strategy. For instance, not all the cars react to your attempts at passing the same way, so passing never really becomes second nature. If all the cars drifted left each time you made an attempt, pretty soon you'd just pass a little farther to the left and circumvent the problem.
This year's high-resolution graphics look a lot better than last year's. Most important, there is no noticeable slowdown when lots of action is onscreen. This is due to the game's dynamic draw engine that relegates resources to the most important things onscreen - the cars - and favors objects that are close over those in the distance. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of pop-up on the horizon, but this is a small price to pay to keep things running fast in a racing game.
Formula 1 CE sounds great. The roar of the engines is completely exciting. Collision effects are frightening, if not entirely realistic. Voice-overs by F1 vets Murray Walker and Martin Brundle are great, but quickly become tiresome - I never want to hear the phrase "contact with the barrier" uttered in an English accent again; of course, they can be shut off. The pit crew communicates via radio rather than an onscreen warning, which is a really cool touch, and the distortion used to produce radio effect sounds that are alarmingly like a CB radio.
Rounding out the features are flags that when enabled disqualify you from the race for making too much contact with the other vehicles; a practice mode that sends you out alone on the track with a great voice-over track that helps you memorize any given track's turns and straightaways; variable weather; and a two-player split-screen mode. With its incredible realism and sheer volume of features, Formula 1 Championship Edition has sent PlayStation racing into a new era.