Electronic Arts' venerable F1 franchise seems to get stronger with every successive release on the PlayStation 2, and certainly, that's the case with the company's latest game in this acclaimed series. F1 2002 uses the same impressive graphics and physics engine used in F1 2001, but it is based on the current season of Formula 1 racing, which gives F1 2002 the sole distinction of being the only game currently available with an up-to-date roster of drivers and teams. But F1 2002 places fans of this adrenaline-filled sport, especially those who bought last year's F1 2001, in a slight predicament. Specifically, F1 2002's improvements on last year's game are marginal at best, and for some, that won't be enough to justify its $50 price tag.
In absolute terms, F1 2002 is better than F1 2001. The game has retained all the exceptional aspects of its predecessor, while trimming a lot of the fat. Gone are the domination single-player and the last man standing multiplayer modes. As interesting as they might have been, they weren't true to Formula 1 racing, so they're out. The number of challenges has also been changed since last year. These objective-based driving exercises are modeled after Gran Turismo's license tests, and they're designed to hone your F1 driving skills to a sharp edge. They're down to 11 from F1 2001's 25, and unlike in last year's game, completing them is no longer a prerequisite to racing in F1 2002's season mode, which--like in most racing games--is this one's heart and soul.
Though the game is now leaner than F1 2001, its core has not been changed. Those who played F1 2001 know exactly what to expect. The cars' sensitive, almost twitchy, controls are still the same. Driving these 800hp machines around the tracks requires a judicious amount of restraint, as laying into the accelerator will do nothing but quickly introduce your car to a cement wall. The brakes require a delicate touch as well, since it doesn't take much to cause a lockup. Those who might not be used to these controls will probably find them frustrating at first, but it only takes a few laps to get used to them, and a few more to excel at them. The physics model of F1 2001 has also been retained, meaning that your car's handling will change throughout the course of the race as your tires grow bald and as you use up fuel, making the car lighter. The interactive pit stops are also the same, and you can easily make out your entire pit crew fussing over every aspect of your car. If you damage your car during a race, you'll even see some crewmembers replace the broken parts with brand-new ones--they don't magically appear out of thin air.
Obviously, what has been changed is the season the game's based on. As its name implies, F1 2002 is based on the current season of Formula 1 racing, and as such, it lets you race as any of the league's 22 drivers--from Barrichello and Coulthard to the brothers Schumacher--on any of the world-famous racetracks. This updated roster of teams means that you can also choose to play as either of this year's new arrivals, Renault and Toyota, as well. The game's season mode will take you through all 17 tracks in the proper order, starting with Melbourne and concluding at Suzuka, and before every race, you can practice, qualify, warm up, and dial in your car's settings to your liking. Like in real life, points are awarded for drivers and teams who place first, second, and third, and at the end of the season, the driver with the most points is crowned the champion and the winning team is awarded the constructor's cup. The ultimate goal, of course, is to have enough points to win both of these coveted prizes. For those without the patience to endure 17 individual practice sessions, qualifying runs, and races, F1 2002 lets you create your own custom season of any length and order. You can also participate in a single race weekend, or skip practice and qualifying altogether and jump straight into a race. Most of the tracks in this quick race mode are locked, however, and require you to successfully complete them in the season mode beforehand.
Another meaningful change since F1 2001 is the addition of a slipstream meter. Located on the right-hand side of the screen, this gauge "measures" the amount of draft from the car ahead of you. It takes about three seconds of drafting to fill up the meter, at which point you can slingshot by the opponent ahead of you. This addition is supposed to make passing easier, and it does, but it seems more appropriate in a NASCAR game than in a game about F1 racing, where passing and drafting are nearly nonexistent in real life. Hard-core fans of the sports will undoubtedly dislike this feature. Thankfully, F1 2002 gives you the option of turning it off altogether.
In fact, the game is clearly designed to accommodate the widest range of players possible. Before each race, you can toggle opponent AI, race length, weather, fuel use, tire wear, transmission type, and engine failures, and you can customize your the tire compound, tire pressure, wing height, ride height, spring rate, antiroll bar stiffness, brake bias, gear ratios, and a number of other settings on your car. Or not--F1 2002's default settings will keep most players competitive throughout the entire season.
The game's graphics remain largely unchanged from F1 2001, though they still hold up nicely. From the first-person perspective, you can make out a lot of detail on your car and the surrounding tracks, and nice touches like reflections off your helmet and fairing are easily distinguishable. Raindrops and rooster tails leave streaks on your visor, and once the clouds break, grandstands and other trackside objects are subtly reflected in the puddles on the track. Like its predecessor, F1 2002 has a grainy and gritty look to the environment while in motion, though this effect seems to disappear at slower speeds. The game also suffers from F1 2001's suboptimal frame rate. Given a full field of cars, the frame rate seems to drop well below 30fps, though never to a point where it becomes unplayable. The game has support for up to four players at once, though only in a split screen, and the smaller windows make the game's visuals even grainier. The sound is a mix of old and new, though it's all quite good. Most of the sound effects like engine noise, exhaust notes, and squealing tires are from F1 2001, but the techno beats that play throughout the game are new and for the most part well done.
There are two ways to look at F1 2002. On the one hand, there's no question that this is a great Formula 1 game, another one in EA Sports' long-running F1 franchise. On the other hand, it is another one in EA Sports' long-running F1 franchise, and it doesn't offer a whole lot of reasons for those who bought F1 2001 to pick this one up. This game doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it loses a lot of its appeal when compared with last year's iteration, which was released only seven months ago. Ultimately, F1 2002 is best recommended to people who skipped F1 2001 and ardent followers of the sport who don't feel quite right playing with last year's roster. It's a great game, but it's unfortunate that its enhancements weren't more substantial.