When F355 Challenge arrived in arcades last year, racing fans were ecstatic to finally have a realistic driving game not based on a PC, but fans were left wondering how the inevitable conversion to the Dreamcast could ever stack up to the original. After all, the arcade cabinet not only has three separate monitors that generate a panoramic view of each track, but it also teaches you how to drive aggressively by providing printouts of your car's telemetry and overall race results at the end of each session. Now that we've sat behind the wheel of the import version of F355 Challenge for the Dreamcast, we can say with full authority that the game not only lives up to its arcade predecessor, but it is easily the best driving game on Sega's console.
For those not familiar with the arcade version, F355 Challenge is Yu Suzuki's digital tribute to the Italian prancing horse (Suzuki himself drives a Ferrari). Unlike other driving games, this one features but a single car - the Challenge version of the Ferrari F355 F1. Ferrari's Challenge program has been around since the days of the 348, and it is designed to give Ferrari owners a chance to test their mettle against their peers on professional racecourses. To that end, there are nearly a dozen faithfully reproduced tracks available in F355 Challenge, as well as a wide range of gameplay options.
At its core, F355 Challenge is an exact conversion of the arcade game. The tracks - Motegi, Suzuka short, Suzuka, Long Beach, Sugo, and Monza - are all available in the Dreamcast version, as are the three primary ways to drive each course: training, driving, and racing. The training mode is an absolute necessity when learning the intricacies of each track, because it displays the best driving line for that course and provides visual and audio warnings before every turn. Even seasoned veterans will find themselves returning to this mode to brush up on the best angle of approach for a particularly nasty chicane. The driving mode lets you take the skills learned in training and apply them without any driving help. Yours is the only Ferrari on the track in this mode, and you're allowed to drive as many laps as you want in an attempt to continually improve your lap time. Once you've mastered driving solo on the track, you can choose to race seven other computer-controlled opponents, all of whom are driving an F355 Challenge similar to yours. Racing is no walk in the park - don't expect to launch to the front of the pack after the lights turn green. In fact, you'll rarely place first, unless you drive the track with absolute perfection, and even then, it's still a head-to-head sprint to the finish line. Interestingly enough, Sega has built minor variations into each of the F355s on the track to mimic real-world performance differences. You'll often find yourself gradually losing ground to some cars in straights, while slowly sneaking up on others.
Of course, this level of realism comes at a price. Novice drivers and players used to racing games like Ridge Racer and San Francisco Rush 2049 will be alienated by F355 Challenge's demanding physics. To accommodate more casual gamers, the game has four assist systems that can be toggled at any time while driving. These assists are a great way to keep the car's temperamental demeanor in check, and they are made up of an intelligent braking system (IBS), traction control, stability control, and antilock brakes (ABS). Real-world F355s come equipped with ABS brakes, and give their drivers the option to turn the traction and stability controls on and off. The game's IBS, however, is completely fictitious. This assist will basically do the braking for you, leaving you to only worry about steering and applying the throttle, and it is a great way to introduce drivers to new tracks. The other three options are all designed to keep wheel spin or lockup to a minimum, and they will activate automatically under heavy braking, hard cornering, and launching. As you become more familiar and comfortable with the car, you'll find yourself gradually turning these assists off, one at a time, until all buffers between you and the F355 have been removed.
Additional time spent with the game will reveal modes previously unavailable in the arcade version of F355 Challenge and others that were thought too difficult to port over to the Dreamcast. The most exciting new option is the ability to unlock five brand-new tracks. By racing and successfully placing at least third in some of the tracks, you will be able to unlock and play new courses that include Malaysia's Sepang, the Atlanta Speedway, Laguna Seca, the infamous Nurgburgring, and Ferrari's Fiorano test track. Additionally, you'll be able to save various driving data onto your VMU for later dissection of your car's telemetry during specific races. The game's network racing feature lets you pair up with other online players, and race against each other's times. While the racing happens simultaneously, you can't actually see your opponent's car on the track until you finish the race and jump into the replay, where both your cars become visible. The Internet rankings have been implemented, letting you upload your times and compare them with racers from around the world. Other options include the ability to customize the color, number, ride height, wing angle, and wheel camber of your F355.
The game's graphics are as realistic as every other aspect of F355 Challenge. Each F355 is modeled with an amazing level of detail - even the calipers and cross-drilled rotors are visible in between the five-spoke wheels of the car. During replays, the Ricarro bucket seats are easily distinguishable from outside the cockpit as well. Each of the game's ten tracks are the most faithful re-creations of their real-world counterparts that you'll find in any game on any platform.
F355 Challenge isn't without its problems, however. The game only has one camera angle - the cockpit view - and aside from the ability to choose from one of three AI drafting and passing techniques, it has no adjustable difficulty settings. For racing fans, this isn't an issue, but the wide majority of casual gamers will undoubtedly cry foul. Regardless, F355 Challenge is the best driving game currently available on any console, let alone the Dreamcast, and once you crest the game's steep learning curve, the addictive need to constantly best other players' lap times will provide weeks of replayability.