Formula One’s greatest challenge during its longstanding tenure on Sony’s PlayStation consoles has been to appease demanding technical racing fanatics without excluding casual NASCAR gamers as a consequence. This fine line between offering too much and too little for both sides becomes even more important as the series shifts into a new technological gear on PlayStation 3 in Formula One: Championship Edition.
Hardcore Formula One racing fans will be pleased with the car tuning options and robust career mode in the series’ next-generation debut, both of which are the cornerstone for a solid simulation experience. The foundation of this success comes from Race Evolution, a pre-Grand Prix feature that allows drivers to adjust their cars for each of the 18 individual tracks after completing practice laps to evaluate where tunes are needed. Modifications can be made to fuel/tires, downforce, suspension, camber, balance and tow in/out.
Whether the better part of an hour is worth spending before each and every race to tweak a car is subjective, because only hardcore F1 fans may notice how the car handles differently as a result. Here Sony makes the first move toward appealing to casual racers by providing the ability to skip Race Evolution, practice and qualifying sessions altogether and jump right into a Grand Prix race. Even without tweaks, these cars all accelerate and handle amazingly well, so there’s no negative consequence for taking this route — though skipping qualifying laps is not advised, as it guarantees starting in the 22nd and last position.
In the drivers seat is where Sony best offers a unique experience for casual and hardcore F1 drivers. A number of driving assist tools can be toggled on or off, including car guide lines with color changes for accelerate, brake and coast; brake assist for cornering; car damage, which is key because one wall scrape resulting in a lost tire can end a race; weather control to keep the skies clear; and more. As a casual racer myself, I was ecstatic for the car guide lines, which helped me get a feel for when I needed to hit the uber-sensitive brakes on the F1 cars, and liken it to the digital first down marker that shows up in NFL broadcasts for viewers who need a little help seeing how far the team has to drive for another set of downs. After several laps with the guides on, I felt comfortable enough to turn them off on each track. Had these guides not been included, my trials and errors with braking would have lasted at least twice as long, if not longer.
Taking a casual attitude into career mode is an intimidating affair from the get-go. While Sony did right by including all the drivers, teams, car, circuits and rules for the hardcore fans, there’s no jump-in-and-start-racing-right-away option with a single button click. Instead, you have to earn your way onto a driving team by beating some rather aggressive lap times no novice could pull off. And, even if you’re offered a spot by a team, it might only be as a test driver who must again prove his or her worth before being offered a shot in a real race. There’s no option to bypass these early trials and tribulations, which will certainly turn away several prospective career racers before they ever race a Grand Prix lap.
With PlayStation 3 comes the first opportunity for full-fledged online support and Sony has delivered. Up to 22 human opponents can compete against each other simultaneously, which, in theory, should make for thrilling competition. During the time I played for this review, a couple days before the game’s official release, there was only a small handful of drivers active on the game’s 100,000-driver load server. The most human drivers I could find for a race was two, so I cannot comment on lag other than to say three drivers showed zero signs of the dreaded online bug.
Both casual and hardcore fans will agree Sony has taken advantage of the PlayStation 3’s processing and high-definition capabilities to present the best looking and sounding F1 game to date. Running in 720p the car models are, as expected, spot on with paint that glistens under the sun’s heavenly glow. Small details like dirt appearing on tires when cars are steered off the track and cones being momentarily lodged in the front wing help add to the realism and next-gen visceral experience. More impressive are dynamic rain effects that can turn on or off during the course of a race. Pounding rain results in streams of water rushing across the screen that requires intense concentration to see through on top of adjusting brake times for cornering on wet pavement. The tracks are unfortunately hit-and-miss with some elements, structures and natural landscaping objects receiving much higher polygon counts than others. These small imperfections shouldn’t be an issue if a driver’s eye is on the course and not its surroundings.
The 5.1 channel audio support in Formula One: Championship Edition is a perfect compliment to the game’s visuals. In particular, the rear channels are bustling with roaring sounds of the racing field’s engines with equal wattage as heard from the front speakers. The result is a perfect enveloping sensation of being in the thick of a race. The British commentators and your pit crew do an admirable job of keeping the race engaging by alerting you of your current position, wrecks on other areas of the track (always reassuring when AI drivers make mistakes too), and offer insight into how you’re performing against your own previous times for specific lap segments. The commentary’s only downfall is being a step late to the action on-screen at times and repeating phrases like “you got involved in that scrape as well” over and over within the same race.
If casual racing fans and hardcore F1 fans competed in a tug-of-war battle with Formula One: Championship Edition tied in the middle, the hardcore fans would win out by a hair thanks to the tedious career mode lacking even a basic tutorial. Casual fans aren’t left out and will have their fun too with a number of optional racing guides, a simplistic mini-game that determines how fast a pit-crew works, and Sixaxis controller support for harrowing steering experimentation. Everyone will be smiling at how well this game presents itself on PlayStation 3, making the demo worth the effort and time as a free download off the PlayStation Store at the very least.
- Overall: 8.4
- It looks and sounds “next-gen,” and the career mode is definitely deep, but it might be a bit intimidating for casual fans who just want to hop into a Grand Prix race and play. It could also benefit from more people actually playing online.
— Dan Bradley