Written By Wrecker & Schrekdog
It’s been a while since a Formula One video game has hit the shelves, and with another exciting season in motorsport’s premier category recently concluding, Sumo Digital & Codemasters have taken it upon themselves to kick-start this popular sub-genre. Although not noted for great racing titles, it’s the Nintendo Wii (along with the PSP) that gets first dibs with the release of F1 2009.
After securing the rights off Sony, gamers will be happy to note that Codemasters F1 2009 is an officially licensed product, and therefore all of the drivers (as of round one), teams and circuits are present from the 2009 season. This means you can indeed play as Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton or Mark Webber and drive on tracks from our very own Albert Park to the traditional European circuits, such as Monaco and Monza, through to the new night races of Singapore and Abu Dhabi. Good start.
After setting up your player profile (including your country and helmet design), it’s time to hit the track in one of the many single player modes. You can get straight into the action via ‘Quick Start’ - just choose a driver, circuit and race settings (such as distance, opposition difficulty, damage, etc.), or Time Trail (race against a ghost for the best lap time - a good challenge). For more in-depth play you can choose a GP Weekend - a single round including practice, knockout qualifying through to race day, Championship - an entire season, or Career - set over three seasons. So there is a good variety of modes from quick dabbles to the “real deal”.
The game comes bundled with a 'special edition' racing wheel – a white F1 replica with the top and bottom cut off, which the remote sits in. It works ok, and does give a more authentic touch, however it lacks the precision and responsiveness of other input devices. The classic controller or the nunchuk and the remote (with three slightly different configurations) give a better experience.
The basic controls of the default remote/nunchuk scheme (the method we used) has steering applied with the nunchuk stick, accelerate with the B button, braking/reverse is assigned to the Z button, with the C button activating the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System – a bit like a nitro/boost). The thumb stick turns out to be a reasonable steering device. The A button shows your cars rear view and initially it seems not to be a good place to map it - such a prominent button for such a minor function, and annoyingly it takes a while to sort out. All in all there are no big dramas with the layout and anyone can pick it up and play without too much trouble.
Different camera angles for driving are conducted via the minus button and can be awkward to locate when you’re focused on driving (causing the inevitable crash as you look down on the controls for a split second). A feature that we did like was the rumbling vibrations as you drive over the ripple strips; this works well. The general handling of the car is pretty decent although turning isn’t as smooth as it could be (giving a slightly sluggish feel), however this may have more to do with the graphics. With buttons assigned to accelerating and braking there is no modulating of the pressures, which is a pity; it’s either flat-chat or nothing.
To assist the varying levels of gamer’s abilities, F1 2009 (as most F1 incarnations do), contains numerous driving aids such as a racing line, steering and braking assists and anti-skid and wheel spin. Penalties are also present and their application is rather harsh and you’ll cop drive-throughs for cutting the smallest of corners. They are handed out almost instantly, which is far from realistic. There is also the option to tinker with the more prominent car components such as gear ratios, tyre pressures and wing adjustments, however it’s not terribly in depth and the alterations don’t significantly alter your car’s performance.
F1 2009 is really an arcadey style of racer, most noticeable in relation to the damage characteristics. Damage is too forgiving, and when you slam into a wall you’ll just bounce off it and continue on with no noticeable effects (apart from your engineer on the radio saying you need to pit). We could not for want of trying make the wheels of the car come off even in a head on smash and losing your nosecone has no real impact on your handling. The AI in the game also lacks impact. Your opponents have little personality and they all appear to act similarly; once the race is a few laps in they really stick to the racing line and are generally rather placid. Overtaking is pretty easy and, as with the barriers, if you happen to have a collision you’ll just bounce off opposition vehicles and carry on as normal. Rain does not have a great effect on the vehicle’s handling either.
As already mentioned, F1 2009 contains a good array of modes and options, albeit in a simplified manor. The Career mode attempts to add a racing management type element, incorporating emails, a calendar and test runs with different teams in your attempt to rise to the pinnacle of F1 success. This mode comes off as a longer version of the arcade modes with some management aspects tacked on. It was encouraging (and amusing) to see grandstands full of fans during our first trial run, though.
There is also a Challenge mode, which is basically a mini-games section that is actually quite varied and enjoyable. There are plenty of mini challenges to try and it seems that a bit more thought has been put into them than usual. Tasks range from elimination races to gate and checkpoint runs, and from slipstream and cornering challenges to overtaking and one-on-one duels.
F1 2009 does have addictive qualities and you’ll fell inclined to complete “just one more lap” to better your lap times, (especially with your ghost car pushing you on). It does a good job of capturing the speed of an F1 car and successfully negotiating high-speed corners can be quite thrilling at times.
The visuals in F1 2009 contain an average intro and understated title screen. The menus are clear, simple and work effectively. Hitting the track reveals muddy, low detailed graphics and the cars models look pretty ordinary, blocky with basic reflections and poor shadows. If you are used to more powerful consoles graphics you might have to look away. (In fact during play those observing commented whether we had the PS2 version on, and to be honest they’re not far off the mark).
All of the circuits are quite well replicated and easily distinguishable, although the more detailed tracks, such as Monaco, look good but are far from spectacular and are almost completely devoid of any fine detail. Some venues are more “exciting” with Singapore suitably lit up for the night race (complete with moving Ferris wheel). The crowds look atrocious and it appears as if a steamroller has been let loose through the stands, but to be fair who’s really looking for such detail at over 300 kph.
The five car camera angles are all competent with the pick of the bunch being the nose tip view, as it reveals the greatest sense of speed with a nicely detailed road surface, and luckily removes your ugly looking car from sight. It’s good that you can adjust the screen layout from the speedometer, warnings, flags and lap info, and the track map, which only reveals the section of the track you’re approaching, actually works quite well. A nice feature is the ability to watch the sessions when in the pits, however it does miss the official FIA F1 timing and information graphics throughout the game.
Interaction between car and road produces some poor effects, with dust and smoke from cars looking ordinary and they’re an overuse of green on your tyres after driving through the grass. Gravel traps don’t fare much better. When you fly into one your wheels don't dig in and there are no pebbles thrown up as you try to power through it. When pieces of your car do happen to dislodge, such as the nose cone, they’ll do so intact in one piece even though the crash was big enough to shatter the car to pieces on impact.
The pit lane is a ghost town, there isn't a single person visible anywhere (except your crew during pit stops) and it would have been nice to have seen the pit wall team boxes in their respective team colours rather than being all the same. The safety car doesn’t make an appearance, however it’s not surprising given that you can hardly cause enough damage anyway.
F1 2009 does run very smoothly and the frame rate only dropped in "higher detail" areas, as well as somewhat strangely under braking through some of the slower corners. Most of these issues will become less obvious as you immerse yourself in play. At times the graphics look like they are almost incomplete (the cars especially) and may have been dumbed down to keep the speed up, and for that we can’t complain.
The sound package in F1 2009 doesn’t reach great heights either but is effective none the less. The engines sound quite authentic, revving and changing through the gears to top speed, without producing the “ear-splitting scream” of the real thing. Other sound effects are decent but lack detail and there is even no sound effect at all for your gravel trap excursions. You’ll hear the crowd cheering every now and then as well as those plastic horns.
The game lacks any commentary during racing and it really could have done with an injection of some enthusiastic calling (come back Murray). There is a steady stream of chatter from the pit wall to keep you informed of race positions, your cars status and penalties incurred. It’s not too bad, but is rather robotic and monotonous. There is some background music (we think) but it can’t have been at all memorable, not that music matters too much in an F1 game.
There is also a horizontal split screen multi player mode, which can be applied to the Challenges and even for a full season. This means that you and another can be play as rivals in different teams or as teammates in the same. It works nicely, especially within the challenges, and provides some good fun with a friend, and there is no significant slow-down either. The map however is removed which doesn’t help navigating unfamiliar tracks although a catch up system is included to make things close. The multiplayer elements add some nice replay value to this game.
There are also some unlockables to strive for in F1 2009 for completing certain objectives like, making a podium or making the cut (qualifying), and along with all your stats, can be viewed in the Records Room. Unfortunately there is no option to customise any drivers, helmets, teams or cars, nor is there any online content, which is a touch disappointing. Difficulty-wise the game is set at a nicely balanced level (with the appropriate driver aids and race rules factored in).
The Final Verdict
Although F1 2009 includes most elements of what a true racing simulator has, it’s definitely not one, with each part lacking any true depth. Instead what we have here is an arcade F1 game, and it’s a reasonable one at that. It’s probably a better style fit for the Wii anyway, and maybe Codemasters should have gone with a straight out arcader and dropped all the simulation components, but it is better than their last effort – DiRT 2. If you can get over the average visuals and sound, and lack of detail, the actual racing is pretty good. It seems the Wii is just not cut out for an in-depth driving sim with its limited hardware. F1 fans may be a bit annoyed with this effort (and may wish to wait for next years’ F1 2010 on the PS3, PC or XBOX360), but at the moment this is all that’s available. F1 2009 on the Wii contains a reasonable amount of content and can, at times, be challenging. Although it doesn’t quite capture the feel of the real F1 circus, it can be fun and is one of the better driving games on the Wii.