If it seems like it has been just a few months since EA Sports last released a Formula 1 racing game, that's because it has. Just half a year after F1 2001's release comes F1 2002, the fourth edition in the series since its inception a scant 26 months ago and the third game in the series to come out since the last edition of PC racing's other top-tier open-wheeled simulation series, Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix. The good news is that this version of F1 is not just the best F1 to date, but it is also the finest computerized representation of Formula 1 racing from any source. Not quite a monumental leap forward, the game nevertheless builds on the strong framework of last year's model and introduces just enough graphical and practical tweaks to really make a difference. With Crammond's Grand Prix 4 purportedly just around the corner, EA had to come up with a strong showing this time around. And with F1 2002, it has done just that.
Once again developed by Britain's Image Space Incorporated, the same blokes responsible for all prior F1 installments and 1999's wonderful Sports Car GT, F1 2002 is the first Formula 1 game to depict the 2002 season. As such, it features all the current driver allegiances, team stables, and sponsorships (without tobacco and liquor, of course). It also lets you race on each of this year's 17 circuits, including the freshly revamped Hockenheim layout. The latter is a particular treat, being much curvier, substantially bouncier, and far more interesting than it was previously.
In fact, F1 2002 does a superb job of translating pavement roughness on all its tracks. And that's just one of the many ways Image Space has instilled a new sense of speed into a series that has seemed deceptively slow in the past. Now, when you flash down the front straight at Hockenheim or through the high-banked final curve and onward to the finish line at Indianapolis, the racing surface ripples by you in high-speed waves. Completely textured and packed with pronounced undulations, the tracks of F1 2002 are the most realistic and gritty thoroughfares you'll find in any racing sim. The same is true of the trackside grass and sand and surrounding greenery, which varies substantially from section to section and moment to moment, as it does in real life. That the game also features excellent motion-blur effects only accentuates the feeling that you are indeed traveling inordinately fast.
Yet in both a graphical and a practical sense, one of the most intriguing new aspects of the latest installment in the series is the randomness and unpredictability of the game's dynamic weather patterns. Now when you begin an event with the "Changeable Weather" option selected, you'll never really know what to expect. You may begin under gloriously clear skies, only to encounter looming clouds a few laps later, a torrential downpour not long after, and a return to sunshine still later. You may begin on a wet track, only to have it slowly dry and then once again fall victim to pounding rain. Alternately, the black clouds above may dissipate without ever delivering their payload. In any case, your tires and handling always accurately reflect the effects of the current environmental conditions, so you should always be prepared to head for the pits and swap that rubber.
Unfortunately, Image Space's implementation of dynamic weather leaves something to be desired. Unlike Grand Prix 3, which somehow nailed the concept perfectly in 2000, F1 2002 fails in two important aspects. Most critically, the frame rate takes a huge hit when the skies begin to darken, particularly if you've chosen an abbreviated race distance, as the weather will change in a similarly abbreviated fashion. Furthermore, even the most substantial rainstorm won't cause puddles to form on the racing surface. One would hope to see these issues addressed in an upcoming patch.
Otherwise, F1 2002 puts on a stunning graphics exhibition, particularly if your computer far exceeds the recommended system requirements and is capable of handling its higher resolutions and optional 2x, 3x, and 4x antialiasing. If you're running anything less than the recommended setup, you won't be able to go beyond midlevel resolutions and midlevel detail without incurring prohibitive frame rate troubles or complete lockups. Apart from the magnificent visuals described above, F1 2002 also introduces us to such perks as authentic cockpits and voluptuous grid girls. Vehicular damage seems only slightly more varied than in the past, with tires and wings flying willy-nilly but no grand destruction, no fire, and no massive plumes of blackened smoke.
F1 2002's ontrack audio is another story. Although the game capably translates all the sounds you need to hear to be a better driver and goes out of its way to intricately duplicate minor events such as gear shifts, it doesn't sound as dramatic as Papyrus' best. In particular, engine notes are digital and incremental rather than gutsy and flowing. Even tire squeals seem hidden in the mix.
As has been typical for the series, F1 2002 is once again built to satisfy any level of computer racer. Although it could never be considered a pure arcade game, it can certainly be tweaked to be as simple and approachable as just about any racing game out there. The list of fully adjustable driver's aids includes steering and braking assistance, traction control, automatic shifting and spin recovery, variable damage, independent AI driver strength and aggression modifications, and much more. Even mechanical failure rates can be scaled to correspond to the duration of an event. Image Space has also ensured the game will handle virtually any style of controller by incorporating a variety of dead-zone, sensitivity, and digital rate adjustments.
Furthermore, F1 2002 is the first game in the F1 series to support force feedback devices. Now, drivers will feel the vibration of their engine, the shake of a rumble strip, and, unlike in the majority of driving games, the effects of car-to-car collisions. Sadly, though the game delivers a comparatively satisfying and full force feedback experience, it does so in the same erratic manner as most competing titles. Collisions and G-force sensations in particular are hit and miss.
What hasn't changed for this latest game is the F1 series' fantastically ponderous load times. Even with a blazingly fast computer, you'll experience a half-minute delay just waiting for the game to load and another half minute or more when it takes you to the track. Fortunately for those who like to race without all the preparation, F1 2002 features several time-savers, including an ontrack instant race restart function and a global "race session" interface that lets you eliminate all sessions apart from the ones you'd like to enter.
Yet the game is at its best with a skilled pilot at the wheel and all those driver's aids either diminished or switched completely off. It is in this situation where you'll see just how much work Image Space has put into its physics model. In the past, the F1 series has delivered a challenging and compelling ride that has been undeniably lessened by its twitchiness and lack of attention to realistic wheelspin and powerslides. In previous games, your car has been either attached to the track and completely within your control or adrift atop the pavement and ready to spin. Now, you can do what drivers of the NASCAR Racing series have been able to do for quite some time--control your slides and drifts.
As such, a talented racer is now able to tame a car that was once untamable. If you dive too deeply into a hard corner, you may just be able to save it with judicious use of your throttle, brakes, and steering wheel. If you lose contact with the racing surface in the midst of a high-speed turn, you can manage the slide and work your way through it. Monaco is no longer an accident waiting to happen--now it is a wonderful exercise in car control. This is a magnificent development for the series, and one that makes it seem infinitely more real.
Helping you along the way to a successful ride are some of the finest, most spatially aware AI competitors ever to grace a racing game. Aggressive and ready to pounce on a timid driver, they'll nevertheless back off and move immediately to avoid danger if and when those circumstances arise. Even if you slow dramatically and totally unexpectedly in the middle of a straightaway, they'll get the heck out of the way and rarely bop you from the rear. Of course, by enacting a sudden defensive maneuver they may end up in the grass themselves, but that's that way it is in the real world too. Moreover, the offtrack zones of F1 2002 are not the deadly skating rinks that populate so many other racing games, and they can in most instances be successfully negotiated.
The F1 garage continues to be one of the most daunting and complex in the racing sim genre. Although very basic adjustments may be implemented via the opening garage interface, you'll need to analyze the lengthy "Vehicle Setup" chapter of the manual and experiment again and again if you seek even moderate setup success in the facility's advanced sections. For even more in-depth information and a real feel for specific setup requirements, you'll also want to access F1's new telemetry module. By clicking on the telemetry button in the garage interface, you'll be transported to a companion application that graphically displays every piece of information pertaining to the last 60-plus laps on a given track. If you've lost or gained time on a certain section or in a particular corner, you may come to understand the possible reasons and potential solutions. Far more than just an intriguing sideshow, the intricate F1 telemetry component is packed with graphs and charts (and even an Internet link to the fastest posted laps in the world), and it can be an exceedingly profound learning tool for those who want to take the time to fully understand it.
Despite several minor issues, F1 2002 is clearly superior to F1 2001 in several important categories, and it's a superb single-player driving game for those who appreciate real-world driving intricacies and generally authentic visuals. Crammond's next Grand Prix had best be a good one, or EA will be wearing the F1 crown for some time.