Leslie’s Advent Calendar – December 11

December 11 – F1 2009 (PSP)

Today has been wet with rain of strength and duration that would put Edinburgh to shame, hence today’s object is F1 2009 on the PSP. Strangely enough, the launch of F1 2009 has been staggered, with the juicy versions on the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 due in the spring. For now, though, I can be a little smug as it’s been released in the first instance on the humble PSP (and also the Nintendo Wii).

It’s been a very long time since I’ve played an F1 game on a console. It was over ten years ago that the lovely F1 ’99 came out, and since then none of the Formula One software has really done it for me. I was therefore quite happy to see the clear, crisp visuals of F1 2009 when I first loaded up, which while not quite as luscious as those in Gran Turismo PSP nonetheless get the job done and run smoothly. In other words, a Force India in this game actually looks like a Force India and not a Tony Hart watercolour.

As soon as the game had loaded I raced for the driver select screen, hoping to be able to pick one of the ‘interesting’ drivers like Romain Grosjean or Kamui Kobayashi that had appeared late-season. Sadly this was not to be, as the game only features the pilots that lined up on the grid for the first race back in Melbourne. I can understand why the developers would want to restrict the number of drivers for clarity’s sake. but it wouldn’t be too much to ask to have the option to sub in the late-season replacements, would it?

The real reason I’d wanted to be able to pick Grosjean was that I wanted something to mask my slowness over the first few races I did in the game – it would have been a little embarrassing if I’d been four seconds a lap off the pace in a Brawn, but somehow it felt okay to be painfully slow as long as I was pretending to be one of the slowest guys out there in real life. Realising that as well as being slow I would also crash a lot, I did the next best thing and selected Adrian Sutil. The Spa track was chosen and off I went.

It didn’t take long before I was in trouble. The first few kilometres were negotiated successfully, but when I went to tackle the hairpin at Rivage rally driver mode kicked in. I emerged from the corner broadside in a cloud of dense white smoke, revs bouncing off the limiter in second. That wasn’t a freak incident, though. More than a dab of oppo was required on subsequent corners to keep the car straight, and for the next few laps my driving bore more of a resemblence to a Mark 2 Ford Escort tackling the hay bales at Crail Airfield than a polished circuit driver. The little analogue stick on the PSP used for steering takes a bit of getting used to, especially with something as highly strung as an F1 car.

Braking proved to be something of a black art too. I was having a certain degree of difficulty in hitting the brake button at the split second that allowed me to slow down for the corner without coming to a complete standstill 100 metres before the bend or ploughing straight on into the Armco. This isn’t like Colin McRae Rally where you can compensate for such situations by turning in early and drifting round, though. This is an F1 simulator, and any indiscretion of this ilk will be punished.

More Mark 2 Escort moments followed as I attempted to work my way round the lack of traction control with only a solitary button to control the accelerator. You never see F1 drivers blipping the throttle in real life, but then they do have a pedal to play with as opposed to a button. Or at least that’s my excuse.

Finally, after dozens of laps and what would have translated to millions of pounds of damage in real life (not to mention several concussions and a number of bruisings), I put together an incident-
free lap. One that was three and a half seconds off the pace. And yet, for all the difficulties in getting to grips with car control, I really liked this game. The reason I engaged with it so well was because it wasn’t a piece of piss. It was bloody difficult, especially on the expert setting that I always play games on where you have to use manual transmission, eschew traction control and feel the full weight of Charlie Whiting and his system of penalties. What’s more, it wasn’t challenging because of bad design, it was hard for all the right reasons – having to pick the correct braking points, selecting the right kind of tyres, picking lines in the braking zone so as not to be penalised and knowing when to tap into the KERS system for maximum benefit.

This isn’t a game where you can do one flying lap to get a decent qualifying slot and then expect to carve your way through the grid. When you start out at least, you really need to put the laps in in the free practice sessions if you’re to have any chance of being close to the pace by the time the race comes round. And when the lights go green, you’ll need to race more like Jenson Button than Jason Plato if you’re to have any chance of success. All-or-nothing lunges into corners will wreck the tyres, contact will snap bits off the delicate car and crazy zig-zagging across the road will land you a drive through. The only thing that’s missing from real life is the Trulli train, but even then if someone drives slow enough a backlog of cars will build up behind them.

It’s been a few years since we last had a decent Formula 1 game for the consoles, an F1 2009 represents a superb step forwards. Assuming that more games are coming on the horizon, what would I like to see? There are three things. First off would be the ability to edit or change drivers, if not whole cars. I know there’s a certain economic logic in forcing folk to buy each year’s new game to get the new data, but letting gamers customise names, strips and stats in the Pro Evolution Soccer series of games has done nothing to harm their sales. Second would be the commentary. One could argue that having your engineers coming on over the radio makes the game more realistic, but at the same time it would be absolutely fantastic to have the insights of Jonathan Legard, Martin Brundle and (for comedy value) Eddie Jordan as you make your way round the track. Third would be an expansion of content. I refuse to believe ten teams and nineteen tracks maxes out the capacity of a PSP disc, especially when you look at the number of cars and circuits Gran Turismo manages. If this game is marketed at F1 boffins, which the driving dynamics make me think it is, then the ability to take part in classic seasons from the past would be nothing short of heaven.

At the time of writing I’m still about a second a lap off the pace, so there’s a long way to go yet. F1 on the consoles is back with a vengeance, so let’s hope they can get the 2010 installment out to us while there’s still time to play the championship out through our PlayStations before it actually happens.

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Filed under Computer Games, Formula 1, General Motorsport, Non-Wheeled Objects

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