Formula One Championship Edition Online Hands-On

We take to the world's biggest motorsports stage in our look at the online racing features in F1 CE.

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Formula One Championship Edition is set for its debut on the PlayStation 3 just a couple of weeks before the launch of the real 2007 F1 season. The series is coming to American shores after a lengthy absence for F1 games, and though we've had a chance to try out the game multiple times in the past, there was one aspect that we had no experience with: online play. However, that little problem was remedied today, as Sony producers held an hour-long test-drive session for F1 CE's online play, which we got to take part in.

Race online with up to 11 people, with the rest of the field filled out by AI drivers.
Race online with up to 11 people, with the rest of the field filled out by AI drivers.

A total of 11 people can race online in F1 CE, with the remaining 11 seats on the grid filled out by artificial intelligence drivers. During our online session, we raced with as many as seven racers, and for the most part, the frame rate held together nicely. We only encountered hiccups a few times, though it was nothing that caused us to miss a corner or completely screw up a lap. Still, it's nice that the first few races we ran had collisions turned off--as it takes a few minutes to acclimate yourself to the twitchy nature of F1 cars.

Most of the races we ran were three-lap affairs, with random weather effects turned on. The first race at Imola in a rainstorm was particularly tough, even with all the driving, braking, and stability assists on. After a few races, we felt more comfortable in the car, turned some of the assists off, and moved from an automatic to a manual gearbox, giving us more control over the car's cornering and acceleration, but increasing the likelihood of spinning out.

With a few sprints under our belt, we next moved to a few longer races. The first of these was at the historic Monza circuit. With collisions and pit stops turned on, this five-lap race proved to be more interesting. The game handles collisions in an interesting way. With collisions on, it seems you can only make contact with other player-controlled cars. In other words, AI-controlled cars will pass right through you. We didn't see a setting to turn on "full" collisions with all the cars on the track and assume this is the default setting. Also, even if your car is damaged severely, you will be respawned on the track after a heavy time penalty.

During the third lap, we were instructed by our team boss to come in for a scheduled pit stop (incidentally, there doesn't seem to be an option to choose when you come in before the race happens--it's chosen for you automatically). Once we turned into the pit lane, our pit-speed limiter engaged and we pulled into our pit spot automatically. From there, the pit stop proceeds as a minigame showing you various button icons on the screen; the goal is to press the associated buttons as quickly as possible. To change the four tires, for example, you press the R1, R2, L1, and L2 buttons--do it quickly, and you'll get a green check mark; slack off, and you'll get a yellow check mark. In a separate race, we had to change the nose cone of our car after damaging it. To do so, it required an extra press of a button (in this case, the triangle button). The faster you can get through the minigame, the quicker your car can get back out on the track.

We took part in other races at tracks like Suzuka, Nürburgring, and a frightful rain-drenched race in Hungary where the overwhelming speed of the F1 cars consistently struck us. Racing close in an online console game is as much a matter of trust between the two drivers as it is a competition. At those speeds, and with online performance not always a guarantee, you have to trust that both parties in a tight battle for position are going to race smart, brake at the correct point, and not make any stupid moves--like the one we made when riding too close behind a competitor at the Budapest track, braking too late, and bumping our opponent into the gravel. Oops! Sorry about that.

When joining a race, you can choose your team, but like everyone else who will want to join either Ferrari, Renault, or McLaren, you'll have to make a first, second, and third pick, thus at least guaranteeing you a seat with Super Aguri. You'll also have the option to make adjustments to the driving assists you use, though we didn't see any menu option to make actual adjustments to the car itself--such as changing tires, adjusting downforce, or changing the ride height. Between races, you can check on things like points totals for each player in the game or statistics of all players such as best lap times. In the pregame lobby, there's even a chat option, where you can type with either the onscreen keyboard or a USB keyboard hooked up to your PS3. If you aren't in a game, you can use the game's community feature to send notes to other F1 CE players or invite them to your game.

Speed isn't just measured on the track; your performance in the pits is essential to winning the race.
Speed isn't just measured on the track; your performance in the pits is essential to winning the race.

When it comes to creating your own online races, F1 CE has a lot of options for you. You'll be able to adjust settings such as weather; race distance; grid order (qualification, ranking, or random); race rules; and the ability of AI drivers, as well as the aforementioned collisions and pit rules. In all, it looks like you can create precisely the type of race you'd like for your skill level (and those of your friends).

We enjoyed our time checking out Formula One Championship Edition's online play, even if we didn't manage any wins on the track. Beyond a few performance hitches here and there, the game ran very comparable to the single-player experience, and the wealth of options looks to give the game some extra legs after its release. We'll have a full review of the game once it crosses the finish line in late February.

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