When EA Sports' F1 series first bounded into our consciousness in 2000, it appeared as a thrilling and exacting, but somewhat flawed, strike at the reigning Formula 1 champs in Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix and Ubisoft's superb Monaco Grand Prix II. In the three short years since, developer Image Space Incorporated has tweaked the game through three revisions, the most recent of which drove this series to the top of the open-wheeled racing genre. Surely something even more exciting would arrive in the next edition. And it has, in the form of F1 Challenge '99-'02. Sadly, this excitement is somewhat tainted. Firstly, though the game is a grandiose and stunningly gorgeous affair that builds upon its already strong base by combining all four seasons from 1999 to 2002 into one neat package, it is not the huge face-lift some were expecting. Nor does it even brush upon the most recent season, 2003. Furthermore, there's little doubt that it feels like a backward-looking wrap-up--a parting shot--to a series that has unfortunately come to its fruition. And that's because it has.
Indeed, F1 Challenge is to be the final installment of this superb franchise. Whether it is resurrected in the distant future is anyone's guess, but it is most assuredly gone for some time to come. According to EA, "The license was up, and we chose not to renew." According to its growing fan base, which has come to view F1 as the most authentic depiction of open-wheeled racing on any gaming platform--and leagues ahead of anything played on a console system--the end came far too soon. The good news is that EA and Image Space have given us a really big finale that is already the subject of numerous third-party modifications.
F1 Challenge begins humbly, with a simple interface sporting a simple request to login with your chosen player ID. It then expands exponentially from there. Once you've entered your ID, which, thankfully, allows you to race as yourself rather than one of the game's 34 real-life F1 pilots, you have a big decision to make. Namely, you have to decide which of the last four seasons, excluding 2003, you wish to enter. To the uneducated driver, four separate seasons--each with many of the same venues and many of the same drivers, teams and cars--would mean very little. But the seasoned pro knows differently. Image Space has done a nice job in this respect, developing a unique set of parameters for each year. If a circuit has been altered, dropped, or added in the real world during those years (Hello, Indianapolis!), such changes are reflected in the game. If a driver has changed teams or a team changed sponsors or colors, you'll see it.
When you create your ID, you'll also be asked to choose a nationality, a team, and a car in which to drive. The latter is quite important, as a fast, capable machine in the real world is also just that within the game. This means by selecting something like an also-ran British American Racing entry, you'll have to perform at an even higher level if you hope to dislodge the Ferraris and McLarens from their typical podium positions.
Once through the opening rigmarole, you needn't revisit it unless you want to change teams or seasons. In the meantime, you'll want to do some driving. F1 Challenge offers a variety of choices, including single races, test days, and full season-long championships; the latter of which incorporates every test, qualifying, and warm-up session you'd find at a real F1 event. Unfortunately, EA decided to drop its informative driving school component, which certainly makes the game a more difficult proposal for newcomers. What's worse for returning veterans is the continuing exclusion of a career. Seeing that this is the grand finale of the series and an examination of four full seasons, a career or even a chance to do a little sponsorship hunting and business wheeling and dealing would seem like a natural fit. Too bad EA didn't see it that way. In F1 Challenge, you can't even campaign the four championships concurrently without starting freshly on each given season. Nor can you build a custom season or undertake a second championship without first ending your current championship.
On the track, the already incredible racing experience of last year's installment, F1 2002, is incrementally better this time around. It should be noted that the game sports no dramatic enhancements, just a few key improvements here and there to further increase the sense of authenticity. From a visual standpoint, F1 continues to excel, delivering the finest, most painstakingly detailed representation of open-wheeled racing cars of any game past or present. Each of the game's 44 vehicles is purportedly modeled to perfection, right on down to every aerodynamic nuance and sponsor decal--and they certainly look it. Only slightly less impressive are the game's incredible lighting effects, which are seemingly picture-perfect from any perspective. Certainly, for believable three-dimensional virtual racecars, you can't currently do any better. As a bonus, Image Space has apparently fiddled slightly with the graphics engine to produce a more fluid frame rate, even at comparatively high levels of detail.
Vehicular damage is a slightly different story. Though suspensions may bend and tires and wings may detach, F1 Challenge cars never display the raw, ragged effects of collisions. When a chassis takes a beating, it doesn't crumple as it would in real life. When two or three cars come together in an accidental mass, there are few flames and very little of the smoke that accompanies serious real-world contact. And when a part separates, it never, ever remains on the track long enough to harm another car. It simply disappears instead.
Conversely, tire smoke is billowy, translucent, and dead-on perfect. Skid marks and offtrack tire indentations are convincing and permanent. Track textures are meticulously and grittily depicted, thus enhancing the game's already awesome sense of speed. Bumps and dips in the track can be seen and felt, bouncing your car about like the fragile piece of technology it is. Motion-captured pit crews and scantily clad grid girls add a human touch to the ambience, and the skies above are now alive with distant aircraft and hovering helicopters. Away from the track, the menu interfaces are polished and much more professional than ever before, though they still rely on cryptic icons that may confuse newbies.
However, the truth is that the latest game doesn't look too far removed from F1 2002. Fine details and improved frame rate aside, most would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Still, it is fair to say that even with minor enhancements, it's easily one of the prettiest racing titles in existence today. In fact, at 1024x768 resolution or above and with all graphic options cranked, F1 looks better than television coverage, simply because it's so cleanly displayed via the high definition of your computer monitor. Interestingly, the game does not feature direct control over antialiasing. For that, you must access your graphic controller's properties window.
Cockpit audio is both authentic and informative. Image Space says it's sampled its engine sounds from real-world F1 recordings, and you'd have a tough time arguing otherwise. Certainly it's a big step up from last year's digitized, milder motor growl. And from an external trackside camera, you'll hear those lovely engine notes in their full Doppler glory. To best experience all the other sounds--like tire squeals, gearshifts, road rash, and the multitude of other effects so smartly incorporated into the game--you'll want to go to the audio menu and trim back the default engine volume. When you do, you'll realize just how much sonic variety Image Space has concocted.
If the racing in F1 2002 was convincing, it is now marginally more so. Continuing a trend developed in last year's edition, Image Space has tweaked the physics model even more to lessen the twitchiness in turns and allow the patient, smooth driver to excel where the fast reaction arcade driver will fail. Returning players will surely note that the game now features a more advanced, more gradual application of adhesion loss, thus allowing them to ride that envelope even further. We were able to pull off high-speed outside passes on long, sweeping turns that were literally impossible in prior versions.
Certainly one of the game's great joys is its car control. Driving with some or any of the abundant driving aids activated is fine for rookies, but when you finally arrive at the point where you can race "naked," F1 Challenge really comes into its own. Learning the track fully and completely, including all its new rough sections and each and every nuance, is the first step. Thereafter, you can rely on the physics model to deliver even, credible feedback.
Aiding in your quest is your artificially intelligent opposition. Certainly they are driven to beat you, but they do so with respect and impressive high-speed collision avoidance maneuvers. However, as was the case in F1 2002, they are prone to certain foibles. They'll smack you from behind if you don't gun it immediately at the outset of a race. They tend to slow more than they should in turns, especially if the AI difficulty level has been reduced. Furthermore, at some corners, like Spa's Chicane de L'Arret de Bus, they come to a virtual standstill. Nevertheless, the game's separate AI strength and AI aggression slider controls are the best AI modifiers we've seen in any game to date. Adaptive AI would have been a nice option, but the lack thereof is not surprising when you consider the finality of this edition.
Whatever you do, don't hit the Esc key while in midrace. Doing so will dump you immediately and unceremoniously from the event, with no chance to get back on. This is one of several niggling annoyances that remain with the series even still. Another is the inordinate amount of time involved in loading a track. We lost 30-45 seconds of our valuable life with every load. We also lost some of our eyesight squinting to decipher images in our tiny rearview mirrors.
The F1 Challenge garage is an extremely daunting proposition, but it's one you must master if you want to battle it out at top speed. The game caters somewhat to those who want to keep it simple by offering a simplified garage front end, featuring four large, self-explanatory sliders, but demands that you get in there and tinker if you really want to battle with the big boys. Ultrahardcore racers will undoubtedly turn to the telemetry section, which, just like last year, provides all manner of graphs and charts for your last 60-plus laps on a given circuit. This is exceedingly complex stuff that few other developers have even attempted.
One area that has seen admirable enhancement is F1's multiplayer mode. And it's about time! In last year's game, chances are your car felt and looked a lot like a Mexican jumping bean when battling online. Yes, the frame rate and lag times were that bad. However, F1 Challenge now offers vastly improved imaging that, at times, resembles that of a single-player game. The number of participants is limited to just eight, and, from what we saw of the game sessions being hosted online, there were a heck of a lot of mismatched .exe files out there. Nevertheless, the car was, at least, drivable when we were able to get up and running. Unfortunately, though you can now race successfully with either human or AI competition, you cannot do both at the same time.
The F1 series is deserving of the fine legacy it will leave behind. There is a certain sadness over "what could have been" had EA somehow held on to the F1 license and dropped a few more dollars into new ideas and concepts rather than rehashing and stabilizing that which already existed. Nevertheless, F1 Challenge '99-'02 is currently the most authentic, most taxing open-wheeled sim on the market, and, with a sophisticated mod community already established, may well remain that way for some time to come.