F1 2009 is a fun, accessible take on Formula One racing, but its arcade style, poor audio, and unrealistic physics mean it's something of a false start for the new series. It has all the drivers, cars, and tracks of the FIA Formula One World Championship, but the whole experience is closer to go-karting than it is to what is arguably the most demanding motor-racing championship in the world.
F1 2009 is very easy to pick up and play. You can race as any of this year's initial crop of drivers in any of the 2009 grand prix races individually or as part of the entire season. With each grand prix, you have the option of diving right into the race or participating in other parts of the race weekend beforehand, including practice and qualifying sessions. There's also a Career mode, in which you can race through three seasons' worth of races in this year's cars as a custom-made character, starting out with one of the weaker teams before rising through the ranks to one of this year's top teams. At the initial difficulty levels it doesn't pose much of a challenge, but it is fun to zoom around the tracks new and old that made up this year's world championship, and despite the game's flaws there are good times to be had further down the line too.
When you're playing F1 2009 as an arcade racer with a Formula 1 twist, it can be very good fun. The cars have a good sense of speed, and there are enjoyable challenges to be had learning the ropes and working your way through a world championship. Unfortunately, while F1 2009 has definite sim pretensions--you can tweak everything on your car from roll-bar stiffness and ride height to gear ratios and downforce--the engine at its core just isn't up to that job. If you have damage turned on, then the lack of impact on your car is staggering. For example, when you crash at full speed into a concrete wall all that happens is your nose cone flies off in one entire segment and one of your wheels looks a little wonky. If this happens during qualifying, you can simply opt to start a fresh lap or limp round to the pits, and you'll be back racing in no time.
The physics are also not up to scratch. Your car will bounce off walls and other vehicles with little regard for what would happen in the real world. Even with full damage on, cars bounce off each other like go-karts and take fairly minor damage even when flying headlong into walls. The presence of weather highlights the game's physics and realism deficiencies. Other than needing to brake slightly earlier for corners and having visibility issues when overtaking, the difference between driving in the wet and the dry really isn't that great, and the wealth of issues that F1 drivers face in the wet from downforce issues to aquaplaning and low tire temperatures simply don't enter into it. None of these problems really come up at lower difficulty settings, however, as both damage and weather are turned off on all but the highest levels. The physics issues persist, but feel much less out of place when the game is set up effectively in arcade mode.
On any difficulty, the best way of enjoying the game is to plug in a classic controller--the thumbsticks and triggers are much better suited to nuanced high-speed racing than the Wii remote and nunchuck. Attempting to steer at high speeds using the Wii Remote by itself is an exercise in futility, while the lack of analogue accelerator input options means you lack real throttle control. Plugging the nunchuk in and discarding the wheel does make controlling your car easier, but it's still a long way from ideal.
The disappointments continue in other areas too. The sound is uniformly poor, the engine whines don't really convince, the race engineer on your radio is annoying, and the sound your car makes when you activate KERS (the battery-based boost system that plagued many an F1 engineer this season) would be more at home in a street racing game. The race engineer is poor in other ways too, offering generic sound bites when he could have provided information on your sector times, rival positions, or hints on improving your lap record.
Onscreen information has its issues as well. In all the qualifying sessions, the only times that are displayed are from the two drivers directly above you, as well as the slowest driver currently qualifying for the next session. While this is fine for the first two qualifying sessions, it clearly falls down in the final session, where what matters more than anything else is the fastest lap time posted during the session. Qualifying also has realism and interface issues. With damage turned to full, you can still have a crash that should almost total your car but continue even on the top difficulty and damage settings. During the race itself you could do with a little more information more helpfully presented as well; sector times would have been very helpful, as well as clearer indications away from the screen's edges when you gain and lose time.
Off-track presentation in F1 2009 isn't much better. The menus are bland and hard to navigate, there is little to no fanfare when you win a race save for a poorly rendered trophy, and the potted team history information is pitiful. The differences between the cars themselves are noticeable on track, however; it's significantly harder (though still possible) to win driving in a Williams or Force India car than it is in Brawn's world championship winner.
One interesting feature is the Challenge mode where you're presented with more than 70 challenges relating to lap times of individual circuits, overtaking a set number of vehicles and winning one-off races, among others. These do provide longevity, and it's good to see a variety of modes on offer rather than simply grand prix races in various formats. Other nice touches are the options for race lengths; you can, if you want, go through the full three-season Career mode racing in anything from three-lap races to full-length grand prix races. Once you combine these various modes with the variety presented over the 20 courses of the current world championship, there is enough content here to keep you going for a very long time indeed.
There are plenty of split-screen two-player options, which in addition to competitive modes include team-based co-op play. It's possible to go through an entire world championship in split screen with someone else, which is great if you have someone to race with. For shorter-term play, the challenge modes have a multiplayer aspect too, and even the ability to set up random lists of these challenges with a score-tallying system built into them. The lack of online multiplayer is a significant oversight because it would be good to be able to race with a complete lineup of human opponents, but the wealth of offline multiplayer options goes at least some way toward making up for it. The one problem with split-screen multiplayer is the lack of track map for either player; this is a puzzling omission that makes racing unfamiliar tracks significantly harder than necessary.
If you're looking for an arcade-style racer with a Formula 1 badge, then F1 2009 may fit the bill and is likely to keep you busy for quite some time. Unfortunately, if you're looking for a game that captures the essence and challenge of the pinnacle of motorsport, you're going to be disappointed.