Full Review: At least these guys make right turns.
Despite the relative lack of interest in Formula 1 racing in the US, there are still plenty of F1 games that have seen the light of day here, the most popular being the F1 series by the former Psygnosis. EA Sports has dabbled in F1 racing the past 4 years, and are the company behind the first F1 game released for the Xbox ? the aptly titled F1 2001. While the game is a fairly straightforward PlayStation 2 port (which seems like a buttered up PSX port on the PS2 in places), the core element, the gameplay, is not shabby at all, and in a lot of ways very creative. By all means this is not a must-own racing game, but a serviceable game for F1 fans, or Xbox owners looking for something different in a racing game ? besides the 2 NASCAR games on the system.
F1 2001 comes loaded with a myriad of ways to play ? of both the single and multiplayer modes. We'll discuss multiplayer first because it isn't as deep, gameplay wise. Multiplayer has a handful of interesting little mini-games to give the game plenty of replay. Besides the standard split-screen mode for up to 4 players (no LAN parties here, however), there's a Time Challenge, a Tag Team, an Advantage Mode, and Last Man Standing.
Time Challenge is for up to 22 players ? pick a track and whoever has the fastest lap of the group (all racing at separate times), wins. Tag Team is a regular race, only there's a 2 on 2 wrench thrown in. After each lap, your teammate takes over until they finish the lap, then you take over. This goes until the race is over and someone wins, of course. Advantage is somewhat similar to the Car Challenge modes from Project Gotham Racing ? you can set it so one car gets a head start, and whoever has the most laps in a time limit wins. You don't have to have a head start, but it's there. Finally, Last Man Standing is easily the coolest MP option ? you race on the track, and whoever is in last place is eliminated from the race, until it's down to 1 on 1. This is the kind of feature that might work better in a 16 player LAN or even online, so perhaps if F1 2002 ever appears on Xbox, this might be a possibility. The potential is there, that's for sure.
The single player portion of the game has 5 modes ? individual race, grand prix, custom grand prix, teammate mode, and Domination (where the goal is to win all of the 17 circuits). However, before you can even race any of these, you have to prove your worth in challenge mode. The Challenge mode is similar to Gran Turismo (notice seemingly every racing game in the world apes something from that series) ? passing particular tests gives you a percentage, which is higher based upon getting bronze, silver, or gold medals for beating them. These consist of basic tests like starting and braking, to challenging tests like being able to handle a car with no gasoline (running on fumes), an oil leak, or severe damage to the car. Once you hit a particular percentage of the tests complete, it unlocks a new mode of play for you to use. What's also neat is beating certain tests unlocks the option to turn on the feature in game ? like tire damage, car damage and interactive pit stops.
The meat of the game is still the Grand Prix ? with a full 17-race season and 22 super-duper professional drivers, there's a lot to do. Plus it's never ending, so you can just start over again once you've finished a year. And since there are a lot of races, it will seem fresh still. The tracks consist of some of the most famous ? Suzuka, Indianapolis, and Monaco (Cote D'Azur in Gran Turismo 3), along with races in Australia, Montreal, and a host of stops in Europe, where F1 is the most popular.
Before each race you can fiddle with the settings of your car, to optimize it for your best possible performance. It's not really a brainteaser kind of tweaking, but it does have potential to change how the car rides.
From there you can run a usual weekend of events. You can get a feel for the track in practice mode, then head out and qualify. Qualifying is a bit different than you'd expect. You get a set amount of laps (I imagine based upon how many laps you chose for the actual races), and race around, with computer opponents coming out every so often to join you on the track. Once you're finished, you may or may not keep the pole if you got that far ? since other racers have yet to hit the track, they could beat you with a better time. It adds a cool element to the game ? being unsure whether or not that great lap time will measure up against the rest of the field.
Before the actual race, there's a warm-up option to just get you prepared for the actual race. Once you're ready, you can begin the race.
The race itself presents a very different control scheme from what you might be used to ? not in terms of the Xbox controller, but more about the way the cars handle. EA and developer Visual Sciences set out to make a simulation, and they seem to have succeeded. The big change is how the cars handle turns and braking. The game frowns heavily on braking while turning the wheels ? instead of the car slowing down and making the turn, the car's wheels will lock and push you off the track. So, in order to actually make a turn properly, you need to either take your finger off the accelerator, and drift your way through a light turn, or brake right before the turn, then let off the brake, make the turn and hit the throttle when you see daylight. This undoubtedly will take time for most to adjust to, given few racing games actually behave like this. Thankfully you can turn on an assist mode to let the computer do the braking for you until you get used to it.
The rest of the driving parts are nothing out of the ordinary ? and the controls are very responsive ? almost too responsive in places. But they behave like an open-wheeled racecar should, so you get that extra push or pull because of it.
The weather can play a part in the race too ? even though the only weather pattern besides sunny is rainy, the rain makes the track slicker and tougher to take turns through. Thus, you have to brake way before the turn now, instead of just a little bit before. Plus the graphical effect of the cars kicking up water in front of you can mess up your judgment ? a cool addition.
Also, turning on different options in the game menus will change the way the cars handle. You can turn on car damage, tire wear, and pit stops to add in your strategy. Cars with worn tires don't carry much traction, so making corners with them is a major challenge (or major pain in the ass) in order to get to the pit stops. Car damage has the same effect, so it's best to NOT mess up your car.
The pit stops come in 2 forms ? automatic and interactive. The automatic one lets you pit and get done with it, but the interactive pit can actually speed up the process if you're good enough. It's not interactive where you control the actual pit, just the approach. Bear in mind it's a fair challenge to get the timing down for this kind of pit stop, so you might want to spend time in the Challenge mode to get a gold ranking on the test for the interactive pit.
The computer AI is pretty tough ? but not extremely challenging. They never stay far away from you, nor do they get way too far ahead ? this isn't really rubberband AI though. Instead it's realism ? the stupid FIA rules force all the cars to be practically the same in terms of power, so nobody gets an unfair advantage. So typically the races don't have a lot of movement in the field, nor is there ever a lot of big distance between the drivers. However, if mistakes are made, they'll put the hurt on you and put yourself way behind the leaders. Unforgiving is a good word for F1 2001's AI. Race well and be rewarded, but race like a drunken twit (even if it is fun to race like a drunken twit, pushing other cars off the road and stuff) and kiss a chance of winning goodbye.
Honestly, F1 2001 will either be liked or hated ? the realistic way things are done will turn off people who just want to race (the Ridge Racer crowd), and highly be enjoyed by the Gran Turismo/Sega GT crowd, as well as the fans of Formula 1 racing. Of course, I'm in both crowds, so it really doesn't matter on my account. There is a bit of learning curve that is uniquely worked on in the Challenge modes, but once it's down in your head the game proves to be an entertaining, if demanding, racing simulation.
Where the game really struggles is in the visual department. When I was looking at screenshots, the game didn't look too bad ? but once you start playing the game doesn't even look PS2-ish. It is a straight port from the PlayStation 2 ? but it almost looks like a little more enhanced PS1 game. It barely looks like a first generation Dreamcast game in a lot of places. It certainly has its moments ? the cars look great, and the tracks are well laid out ? basically exact replicas of the real things, plus there's a great sense of speed due to the fast and fluid frame rate, and when the rain is pouring the game does look excellent - but the bad outweighs the good.
There's a lot of funny effects ? the trees are extremely pixilated and look out of place, and the game is filled with jagged edges and flicker effects. This is most evident with turns ? if it wasn't for the little arrow letting you know what turn was coming up, I'm sure I'd have ran into a wall because of how poor the polish was done on the game. When coupled with the great sense of speed, the combination makes for a major mess.
The presentation of the game is nice though ? all the in-race menus are exactly like the ones you'd see watching a race on TV, with plenty of updates on how the field is performing, so you know where you stand whether you're ahead or behind. When the overlays are the best part about the graphics, however, there's a slight problem.
The audio is pretty good, if not really spectacular. There's no in-race music, and it fails to take advantage of the Xbox hard drive for custom soundtracks (C'mon EA, throw us a bone here). All you get is the sounds of the engines, the roaring crowd once you pass a grandstand, and the voice of your pit guy barking out positions and such. He'll let you know where you stand, when you get your best lap, and when to watch out for other cars nearing you. In other words, he can be very annoying, but useful when you're behind and have to make a move.