Ferrari Challenge Hands-On

Check out our prime preview of the Prancing Pony's premiere on the PS3.

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In a racing video game world full of middling sims and silly arcade games, System 3's upcoming Ferrari Challenge for the PlayStation 3 is a breath of fresh air. Here's a game that takes itself serious in an unabashed way and seems to be making fine use of one of the most respected automotive brands in the world. We had a chance to spend some time with the latest build of the game during a recent visit from System 3; a visit that unfortunately had to end, otherwise, we'd still be playing the game right now.

As the name implies, the game is structured around the actual Ferrari Challenge, a series founded in 1993 and (according to the competition's Web site) dedicated to allowing "Ferrari customers a chance to enjoy their cars in a structured competitive environment." If it sounds like a bunch of snooty rich people getting together and showing off their Prancing Ponies, well then, that's probably not too far off the mark. Lucky then, that you don't need a seven-figure bank account to take part in the fun in the PS3 version of the game, which will feature more than 50 Ferrari models. This ranges from current drives like the F430 to classic models, such as the 275 LM , as well as that rarest of red beasts, the 250 GTO. There will also be more cars on the way postrelease via downloadable content. According to the System 3 reps, all of the cars in the game have been tuned in the game by Bruno Senna, a race driver currently racing in the European GP2 series and nephew of Formula One legend Ayrton Senna.

The car lineup runs the gamut of the Prancing Pony's legendary brand.
The car lineup runs the gamut of the Prancing Pony's legendary brand.

As an officially licensed Ferrari game, Ferrari Challenge is a spiritual successor to the classic Dreamcast driving game, F355 Challenge. Of course, there are important distinctions with the new game. First, there's that aforementioned expanded car roster. Then, there's a vastly larger list of tracks; in fact, for a pure circuit racing fan, this is probably one of the more exciting features in the game. Italian tracks, such as Mugello, Monza, and the Ferrari's own test track, Fiorano, will likely be favorites in the game, but the list doesn't end there. American tracks, such as Laguna Seca, Auto Club Speedway of Southern California, Homestead, Virginia, and Infineon mix with grand prix tracks, such as Redwood Park (aka Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal), Spa Francorchamps, Silverstone, and Hockenheim, Then, there are the slightly more obscure circuits, such as Misano, Mont Tremblant, Paul Ricard, and, finally, there's the crown jewel of motor sport locales: Monaco. When you add downloadable courses to this list after the game is released, you've got a truly cosmopolitan list of tracks on which to test your favorite Ferrari model.

The one thing Ferrari Challenge has in common with its old Dreamcast counterpart is a demanding driving model. Having spent some track time with the game, it took us a while to get used to the physics in the game--that difficulty being a function of the game's realistic tire modeling and the overwhelming power of some of the cars in the game. When racing in the F430 cars that make up the heart of the Ferrari Challenge mode, you must be constantly mindful of the amount of power you're putting into the game, especially when coming out of corners. If you aren't careful with the throttle, especially with traction control dialed down, you'll easily spin your car's rear end out from under you. As much of a challenge as it can be, that level of difficulty is ramped up considerably when tackling those corners in the game's rain-soaked wet races. That said, nailing that apex and smoothly accelerating out of a corner--in the wet or the dry--feels like a real accomplishment, which is how it should be in a racing sim. Multiple camera angles (including an in-car view) offer a different experience, while the in-car perspective is more realistic, driving using the third person view offers a better sense of speed.

Though Ferrari Challenge looks to revel in its challenge, there will naturally be concessions available for those who aren't the next virtual Michael Shumacher. First of all, there is an interesting tutorial on Fiorano, the Ferrari test track. Here, you'll be taken around the course with a narrator who will coach you around the track. In addition to the audio tutoring, you'll have the dynamic line assist that's become pretty standard in racing games today. Not only will the line assist show you the ideal line through the corners, it will also point out acceleration and braking points as you make your way around. At the end of the tutorial, you'll be graded on such things as braking and apex accuracy; doing particularly well will earn you "accomplishment cards" that you can collect. Eventually, you'll be able to these cards in a free PSP minigame that will play a bit like a Ferrari version of the card game Top Trumps. Finally, there will be driving assists available for newer players, including such things as brake assist, traction control, and more.

Race real liveries from actual Ferrari Challenge owners or create one all your own.
Race real liveries from actual Ferrari Challenge owners or create one all your own.

The game will have a single-player component built around the Ferrari Challenge series where you'll be able to unlock new tracks as you go and earn credits you can put toward new cars. The single-player game will keep you busy but the online component features races with up to 16 players. Hosts will be able to set up their races as they see fit, determining the number of laps that assists are allowed and so on.

Visually, Ferrari Challenge is shaping up nicely. The game will run at a maximum of 1080p resolution and all of the details in the car models seem authentic. The weather effects during the wet races are particularly impressive, with puddles forming on the track and droplets of water bouncing off your windshield as you fight the track. For those of you who want to customize your car's livery, the game will include a vinyl editor that's remarkably similar to the one found in Forza 2 (both in terms of functionality and interface) where you can combine shapes to create exactly the kind of car design you want. However, you might spend a ton of time in the game's livery creator only to have your work ruined, thanks to the game's damage modeling. Fortunately, it's only cosmetic damage--you won't be able to kill your car--but Ferrari fans will probably feel at least a slight twinge of guilt if their cars suffer too many scraped sidewalls or missing hoods.

By reveling in its sim-racing approach while making the game approachable for racing rookies, Ferrari Challenge looks like one of the more promising racing games of 2008. We'll find out whether the game is up to the tifosi's demanding standards when it reaches the checkered flag in late August.

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