Eidos Interactive's first attempt at a Formula 1 game for the PC, 1997's Power F1, was an arcade-oriented affair aimed at casual racing fans who longed for the speed and thrills of the world's fastest cars without the muss and fuss of learning how these things really work. This time around, Eidos turned to French developer Lankhor in the hopes of creating something of a hybrid, one that would satisfy hard-core simmers and action hounds alike. But serving two masters well is a difficult thing to do, and as a result, Official Formula 1 Racing achieves only moderate success either as an arcade racer or as a serious simulation.
Official Formula 1 Racing certainly has all the requisite components for an authentic simulation. All 16 circuits, 11 teams, and 22 drivers (save Jacques Villeneuve, who's listed as "Driver Williams") from the 1998 Formula 1 World Championship season are included, with teams distributed into five categories based on their real-life performances. Despite bright, almost cartoonish scenery graphics, Lankhor's modeling of the circuits is extremely accurate, and the sound effects are almost uniformly superb, from the scream of the engines to the sound of air rushing by your helmet as you reach top speed on long straightaways.
But those achievements are offset by disappointing car graphics, especially compared with the eye-popping visuals of Ubi Soft's Formula 1 Racing Simulation. Few textures and a sparse polygon count give each a car a flat appearance - even at a resolution of 800x600, the tires are so angular they look more like nuts than wheels. And some of the animated effects you'd expect in a racing sim are either crude (the sparks that fly up from the track when you bottom out are laughable strips of orange pixels) or missing entirely (there's no smoke when slamming on brakes at high speeds, and I never saw flames or smoke coming from the engine of a disabled car).
Car setup is a huge factor in the success of any Formula 1 team, but in Official Formula 1 Racing the options are few: You can adjust tire type and camber, brake ratios, wing angles, gear ratios, ride height, and the stiffness of the suspensions. This is clearly no match for the mind-boggling array of customizations available in F1 Racing Simulation and makes any of the game's claims to "ultimate realism" questionable at best. But the good news is that each adjustment does indeed have a discernible effect on performance on the track, and the small number of settings to deal with eliminates what I call "setup anxiety" - that disturbing feeling that there's some setup feature you might have forgotten that would make all the difference out on the track.
The inclusion of three difficulty settings is appreciated, but beginners might be dismayed to learn that these settings only affect a car's maximum speed rather than making it easier to stay competitive with the computer opponents. Expert PC drivers will probably scoff at anyone who can't keep up with these virtual versions of Hakkinen, Schumacher, Coulthard, Hill, Irvine, Herbert, and all the rest: A friend of mine grabbed the pole in three races by a staggering ten-second margin at each venue, then easily took the checkered flag in each race. But novices and intermediate players (I fall squarely in the second group) might become frustrated dealing with the highly aggressive - you might even say hostile - tactics of the computer players.
Sure, bump-ups and crashes are an unavoidable part of F1 racing, and in a few instances the blame for a major crash lay with my penchant for braking very hard deep into corners and turns. It also goes without saying that being aggressive is a key component of success in the world of Formula 1 Racing. But I saw these guys ram into me and one another so often that I started to wonder if Lankhor's next game would be a road-rage simulation.
With accidents occurring at a breakneck pace, you'd think Lankhor would have taken time to model accurately the effects of all the collisions, but that's not the case. Even what seem like minor impacts can break off a wing or snap a strut on a real-life Formula 1 car, but in this sim you often come away completely unscathed after brutal brushes against cars or walls. Out of curiosity, I decided to see what would happen if I smashed into a wall at 180mph - and after a flip into the air I found myself sitting on the grass with the car virtually undamaged as the pit crew informed me that I needed a new wing!
Another area in which Lankhor should have invested a little more effort is in the user interface. The game has no mouse support, which probably sounds like a minor complaint - until you slap your steering wheel where your keyboard normally sits and find yourself reaching and fumbling around to perform even the most mundane tasks. The lack of mouse support in at least a game's setup screen indicates either incompetence or laziness - or that the game originated in France, where game developers seem to be of the opinion that pointing devices aren't in common usage among PC owners.
Bit if you can deal with the lack of realism and learn how to steer clear of all the wreckage, Official Formula 1 Racing does serve up some fairly exciting moments. The game does a good job of creating the sensation of extreme acceleration and incredibly high speeds, and if you can keep things together until the field thins a bit, you can expect some highly satisfying duels (unless, as noted earlier, you're simply too good for the computer opponents). Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Official Formula 1 Racing provided some of the smoothest Mplayer action I've had in a long, long time - and because so many Formula 1 fans live in Europe, you can usually find someone to race against almost any time of the day.
Official Formula 1 Racing doesn't begin to seriously challenge Ubi Soft's hold on the F1 throne, but its relaxed realism settings, healthy doses of action, good Internet performance, reasonable system requirements, and attractive price tag ($29.99 direct from Eidos) make it a decent entree for newcomers.