F1 2009: Raising Expectations

The upcoming F1 2009 for Nintendo Wii from Codemasters comes with a lot of good news, but before we get to that, let's talk about the obvious: on the Wii, F1 2009 is not a great-looking game. I don't really understand why Codies chose the Wii as the platform for its F1 debut--the game is...

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The upcoming F1 2009 for Nintendo Wii from Codemasters comes with a lot of good news, but before we get to that, let's talk about the obvious: on the Wii, F1 2009 is not a great-looking game. I don't really understand why Codies chose the Wii as the platform for its F1 debut--the game is also coming to PSP this year--because the platform just doesn't seem to have the horsepower to portray the sport in all its multicolor, hyperspeed glory. Despite a relatively solid frame rate (at least in the preview build I've played) and a great sense of speed, there's a segment of F1 fans out there that will likely be put off by the Wii version's pixilated cars and bland textures.

Too bad for them. Because F1 2009 drives like a dream.

I first played the game at TGS 2009--driving a few laps at Suzuka--and came away impressed with the default control scheme. Having driven several full-length races in F1's Career mode, I'm left with an even better impression, thanks in large part to a handling model that really conveys the power and agility of today's modern F1 machines. Using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, you accelerate by pressing the B button, brake with the Z button, and steer with the analog stick on the nunchuk. For cars equipped with the KERS boost system, you can enact eight seconds of boost per lap by holding down the C button on the nunchuk.

The driving model in F1 2009 defaults to a bunch of assists, such as brake and steering assist, which will help rookie F1 drivers around the course. If you turn those assists off, however, you've got a much more engrossing experience-- one that walks a line between challenging and thrilling. Without the assists, the game does a remarkable job of letting you feel what it's like to drive an F1 car, with its astonishing cornering, braking, and accelerating abilities. Where in most cars, you'd be jamming on the brakes before arriving at a corner, in an F1 2009 ride, you can often take those turns at full speed--or something very close to it. Once you trust your driving ability and your car, you'll chop seconds off your lap time in quick order.

Along with a great control scheme are the little things that Codemasters has modeled into the driving experience of the game. Tire choice matters in F1 2009--during a race weekend you're required to declare a pit strategy before the race begins. You'll have to choose when you come in for refueling and what type of tires you want to use in each leg of the race. These strategic decisions can have a major impact on your race success because there is such a performance gulf between "hard" and "soft" tires in the game.

Soft tires warm up quickly and offer incredible grip (transforming already nimble F1 cars into veritable cornering ninjas), but they don't last very long. Hard compound tires take a long time to warm up, but they can take you much deeper into the race. F1 rules require you to use one set of each kind of tires per race so when and where you choose to use them becomes nearly as important as how you drive on the course. Indeed, because so much care has been taken into how the tires affect your ride, you'll feel the difference between a set of hard and soft tires practically right away. On soft tires, you can take corners at breakneck speeds you wouldn't even attempt on harder compound tires. However, trying to negotiate a track on a set of worn-out tires (which happens all too quickly on the soft compound) can ruin a race completely.

You don't have to be a gearhead to get a good setup for your car; not only do cars come with preset setups for each track, but there are also two methods for alternating your car's attributes. The first option is for basic, no-frills adjustment--you move onscreen meters to adjust for such things as speed, balance, gears, and suspension. If you want to get into the nuts and bolts of tuning, you can progress to other menus where you can adjust specific aspects of the car, such as individual gear ratios, brake bias, ride height, and more.

The fun of driving in F1 2009 is tempered a bit by CPU drivers that aren't always up to F1 levels of talent. Even at the hardest difficulty setting, AI drivers seem to get confused during certain sections of tracks and become Sunday drivers when approaching slower, lapped traffic. That said, fuel and tire strategy plays such an important role that you might lose a race even if you are the fastest driver over a single lap. Call it the Jarno Trulli Effect.

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In terms of game modes, F1 2009 has a lot to offer, including Quickplay, Race Weekend (including all practice sessions and three-round qualifying), Championship, Time Trial, and Career, which will put you in the driver's seat as you try to win the World Championship. My driver's career started with offers for test drives from Torro Rosso and Williams. After getting an offer from the Torro Rosso, you'll have expectations you'll need to meet in order to keep your spot on the team (in the case of TR, my modest goal was to score 20 championship points for the season). Presumably, you'll get new offers from bigger and better teams as you go, and your team's expectations of you will change as well. There are also unlockables, such as new helmets, you can earn by completing specific objectives.

The lack of online multiplayer is another strike against F1 2009 for the Wii--you can play two-player split-screen--so here's hoping that problem is fixed in a big way once Codemasters' F1 series makes its debut on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2010 (20-car fields online, please). Judging from what I've seen of the Wii game, my expectations have been raised.

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