Here, finally, is my review of this year’s Formula One video game for the PlayStation 2. I’ve had a few weeks to let the game sink in, so it’s time to let rip!
Diving straight into a ‘quick race’ and the game feels quite similar to last year’s edition — on the surface at least. It can be difficult to find your feet when you play a racing game for the first time. Different racing games all feel quite different, so you will often find yourself running wide or spinning off on your first lap. But within another two or three laps you will find your feet and you’ll be right up to speed.
Not so in Formula One 06. A brilliant new feature in the game is that each kerb is individually modelled — they are all different. So you can’t just attack every kerb like you would in most racing games.
Martin Brundle’s excellent book, Working the Wheel, which I read earlier this year, really illustrates the fact that tackling a corner and finding the racing line is not merely a matter minimising the angle of the corner. You must also watch out for bumps, crowns, dodgy drain covers, slippery paint and whatever else might increase or decrease your grip.
Formula One 06 gives a sense of that. You actually have to learn which kerbs you can ride, and which way you can ride them. You won’t always get away with it. Some evil kerbs — such as Variante Alta at Imola and the final chicane at Magny Cours — can throw you up into the air, into a spin or straight into a wall. A lot of trial and error is involved. This is a great feeling though. It feels like you really have to learn the tracks as opposed to just pointing your car towards the apex and flooring the throttle.
One of the other things I quickly noticed was how easy it was to spin the car. It can get quite frustrating. But it would just be boring if it was too easy, right? And that brings me on to another great thing about this game. My biggest problem with last year’s edition was that it was simply too easy. Even on the hardest difficulty level with all driver aids turned off, the AI cars would just tour around at a snail’s pace. The game simply was not enjoyable, and as such I didn’t play much of what was otherwise a pretty solid game.
The good news is that the difficulty has been ramped right up for Formula One 06. At first it is actually quite intimidating. All of your opponents seem almost impossibly quick. When you combine this with the fact that it can be quite easy to spin and that you now have to tiptoe your way around the kerbs, you end up with the opposite problem to what we had in last year’s game.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that F1 06 is too difficult. Besides, it would be better for it to be too difficult than too easy. But let’s just say than in Career mode I’ve been sacked from Scuderia Toro Rosso, and now I’ve found myself doing donkey work for Super Aguri, unable to get a race drive. I guess that’s realistic.
While we’re on Career mode, I must mention how much of a step up this has taken yet again. In particular, the role of test driver has been well thought-out. The qualities needed of a test driver are quite different to those of a race driver. A racer needs to drive fast, spend all day looking cool and spray champagne like nobody else can. Meanwhile, a test driver has to trundle around doing hundreds of laps at a time — not quickly, but consistently, so that the team can collect data.
So in F1 06, a test driver’s role is not merely to go quickly, although that’s obviously part of it. But as a test driver you must go consistently quickly. It’s all very well to beat your target time by two seconds — but can you do that for three laps in a row? Because this is what you have to do in F1 06. And I can’t do it! I am a complete failure at driving consistent laps. The amount of times I have set two stunning lap times only to lose my concentration on the third lap — I am going insane with this game. And I love it!
On a similar note, the developers have also devised a clever way to make Friday practice mean something. It is called Race Car Evolution. Your team will send you out with a variety of different set ups, and from there you can judge how each change affects the handling of your car and ultimately your lap time. At first the process looks laborious. But if you can get clean laps in consistently it can be over quite quickly. Whatever, Race Car Evolution is optional anyway, so you can skip the whole thing and set up your car normally if you wish.
Once you’re happy with the set up, it’s time to qualify. And this is another area where this game excells. You can tell that quite a bit of thought has gone into the presentation of the qualifying sessions, which can be great fun. The on-screen graphics mimick those used by FOM for television, but not just for the sake of it. Pole time is shown, as well as the time you have to beat in order to avoid knocking out. Towards the end of the session, a list of people in the ‘drop zone’ slids out. Watching the times fall while you’re stuck in the drop zone really piles the pressure on. Perfect for a video game.
Come race day and yet another nifty new feature is unveiled — the formation lap. This is one of those things that spoddy F1 gamers have asked to be included in a game for a long time, along with the safety car, pit lane speed limiters and all the rest of it. Now that the formation lap has made it to the game, I realise why perhaps it has never been included in a game before. It is horrendously dull.
Or it would be, if you could ever manage to complete the formation lap. This feature is extremely buggy. Sometimes it will all go wrong. A car might go away slowly or something, and then all of a sudden the game skips straight to the start. Not good. The formation lap is just badly executed in general. It was billed as an opportunity to get your tyres warmed up, but it is actually impossible to do that. Your speed is limited and besides, the AI controls your car to a large extent.
The formation lap is a nice idea, but it needs some real work if it’s going to be included in next year’s game. As it stands, it is far too rough around the edges to be included in the game.
So we find ourselves at the start of the race. A smile was brought to my face when I noticed an added element of realism — James Allen’s commentary is complete with Allenisms in this game! “When the lights go out we are…… RAAACIIIIIIIIIIING! It’s almost as if Allen has scripted the commentary himself. 😀
In all seriousness, the commentary has improved greatly from previous years, especially as you can now hear commentary in Career mode, unlike last year where a bug crept in at the last minute. It could still do with a lot of improvement. There is no interaction between James Allen and Martin Brundle. Indeed, Brundle appears to be confined to the pre-race spiel. Formula 1 97 still has the best commentary in my view, because both Murray and Martin would keep you entertained, and they spoke to each other, even if it was just the occasional “That’s right Murray” from Martin.
Another criticism I would have about the commentary is that they never mention the player during Career mode. Granted, this would be difficult due to the fact that you play yourself in Career mode. (Unfortunately you can’t create your avatar with the Eye Toy this year, but I guess that was a bit gimmicky anyway. You can still enter in your own name though.) But it can’t be too difficult to have generic commentary along the lines of, “the Super Aguri driver has spun!” or, “the Brit is in the lead”. Developers used this method to good effect when Jacques Villeneuve couldn’t appear in the video games.
Now for some more bad news I’m afraid. There is a bad bug in this game which causes the field to start very slowly, almost as though they were on the formation lap. The form a nice, orderly queue — sometimes single file, sometimes in two distinct queues — and they are all very polite, they are slow and they don’t overtake each other. Unfortunately this makes it very easy for you, the player, to charge your way through the field. Even if you started from last place, and even if you are in hard mode, you will find yourself leading by the second corner. Doh!
My first suspicion was that this was a problem with formation laps, so I turned the option for formation laps off. It seemed to be the end of the matter, but a few starts later and the problem cropped up again. I read at F1Gamers.com that the bug could perhaps be something to do with Race Car Evolution — skipping RCE avoids the slow starts. I’ve not had a chance to test this out yet, but it doesn’t matter. This simply should not be happening.
Bugs have haunted Sony’s / Studio Liverpool’s Formula 1 series, particularly on the PS2. In a way it is understandable, as they are made on a very tight schedule. But that fact doesn’t make the pill any less bitter for the gamer to swallow. I find it difficult to comprehend how this game was released with such a massive flaw in it.
Luckily the AI cars aren’t slow for very long — maybe half a lap or something — and after that we are back to the difficult challenge we faced during testing and qualifying. Opposing cars really hound you in this game. They will overtake you, and it is such a thrill to be racing like this after years of fairly duff Scalextric-style AI. The AI is also quite clever during qualifying and practice. If they are shown the blue flags they will slow down and get out of your way if you’re on a hot lap. Oh, and they have been known to make mistakes aswell.
A few laps in and you’ll find yourself having to make a pitstop. No surprise there, but this year’s Formula 1 rules which saw the reintroduction of tyre-changing mean that the interactive pitstops — essentially QTE mini-games — are much more of a challenge. If you need to change your front wing you are bound to get in a muddle! Don’t expect to gain so much time on your opponents during pitstops this year!
A final word on damage. It is much better this year. You can’t really get away with slamming into the wall this time around, which is a relief. There is also a cool phase where your tyre will wobble around like Kimi Räikkönen’s at last year’s European Grand Prix. It doesn’t seem to affect the handling too much, but I wonder if when the wheel flies off James Allen says, “See, I told you!” 😀
So there we have it. All-in-all, not a bad game at all this year round. Yet again the whole thing is let down by some bad bugs, but I can see myself playing this game a lot more than I played F1 05 for the sheer reason that it’s much more of a challenge. I can’t wait to unlock those classic cars and the Jerez circuit.