F1 Challenge '99 - '02 Preview
We take a high-speed trip back in time with EA Sports' latest Formula 1 game for the PC.
The sport of Formula 1 has changed a bit over the course of the last few years. Drivers and teams have come and gone, rules have been altered, and some of the circuits have even undergone design changes. Electronic Arts' latest Formula 1 game--as its title suggests--features accurate information not only for the current season, but also for the three previous seasons. F1 Challenge '99 - '02 doesn't offer a four-season career mode like F1 Career Challenge for the PlayStation 2, but it does allow you to climb into the cockpit of no less than 44 different F1 cars from the stables of 14 different teams.
Before playing F1 Challenge '99 - '02 for the first time, you're required to create a player profile that'll keep track of all of your race statistics as you progress through the game. It seems a little strange that before you're presented with a game options screen, you're required to choose which season you want to race in and which driver you want to race as, but these choices determine the appearance of the subsequent menus, and switching to a new season or driver simply requires you to edit your profile. All the in-game options screens are color-coordinated according to the team you've chosen, and you'll immediately have access to a model of your chosen vehicle that can be rotated manually in real time, should you wish to inspect details such as sponsor logos, the name of the tire manufacturer, or even the plank on the underside of the vehicle, before taking it out onto the track.
You'll probably want to get your chosen car onto a circuit as quickly as possible once you've navigated the various menu screens, and thanks to Electronic Arts' numerous driving aids, you can do just that. The driving aids available in F1 Challenge '99 - '02 include steering assistance, opposite lock assistance, braking point assistance, stability assistance, spin recovery, invulnerability, auto shifting, traction control, antilock brakes, pit lane assistance, and clutch assistance. With all the aids turned on to maximum effect, the game requires you to do little more than accelerate and turn the wheel. This is a good way to start playing, and as your confidence grows, you can choose to either increase the intelligence of your opposition or make things a little more difficult for yourself by switching individual aids to a lower setting or off altogether. It's a shame that no training mode or series of license challenges have been included in the game for novice players, but the driving aids make for a mild learning curve, and they have the added bonus of allowing you to drive competitively the moment your first race gets under way.
F1 Challenge '99 - '02 can be comfortably played exclusively with the keyboard, as the visuals and audio do a good job of providing you with feedback on your car's handling, and after a few practice laps on any given circuit, you should be more than ready for the qualification and race ahead. There are quite a lot of controls for you to remember once you start ramping up the game's difficulty--such as letting your team know that you'd like to make a pit stop, and then activating your rev limiter manually when you go in--but initially you'll be able to get by with just steering, accelerating, and braking.
The opposition in the game seems quite intelligent for the most part, although we haven't really been able to study their movements closely enough to know whether or not individual driving styles have been replicated successfully. As your own racing skills improve and you turn more and more of the driving aids off, F1 Challenge '99 - '02 also affords you the opportunity to get involved with your car's setup. Like with the driving itself, the game allows you to become involved in the car setup options gradually by first presenting you with a screen that consists of nothing more than four sliding bars representing downforce priority, balance, gearing bias, and suspension stiffness. After experimenting with different setups in this way, you can eventually attempt to optimize your car's performance by tweaking everything from radiator and brake-duct sizes to tire pressures and rebound damping. It's not strictly necessary to go that deeply into the car setup options to win races, but if you're out to set record lap times or take advantage of the game's multiplayer mode against friends, there's every chance that doing so will improve your times to some degree.
As far as the visuals are concerned, F1 Challenge '99 - '02 looks very impressive. The circuits all look extremely realistic, the car models and textures are incredibly detailed, and the overall presentation of the game is of the quality that fans of EA Sports games have come to expect. Perhaps our only criticism of the game at this point would be its lack of different gameplay options--notably of the career mode being incorporated into its PS2 counterpart--but if you're after a realistic F1 racing game, it's difficult to see how you could go wrong with F1 Challenge '99 - '02. Every aspect of the four racing seasons covered by the game has been re-created in detail, including the very same weather conditions that were experienced in real life--which pretty much sums the game up at this point. F1 Challenge '99 - '02 will be released later this month.
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