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For a number of years Electronic Arts have been the biggest publisher in the gaming world. Since the Mega-Drive and SNES days of the early nineties they have been associated with a number of enduring sports series based on (among others) basketball, ice-hockey and football. In recent times, EA have ruthlessly tightened their hold on the market by expanding to cater for cricket, rugby and formula one, and whilst they have taken severe criticism for their lack of innovation, F1 Career Challenge is something of break from the norm.
Released in 2003, F1 Career Challenge (F1CC) is an arcade-slanted formula one racer which, just as with Sony's official series, contains all the real circuits, drivers and teams you would expect to feature. Its key selling-point, as hinted at in the title, is the Career Mode, and the game inevitably lives and dies on the success of this feature.
The Career Mode basically allows you to race as 'yourself' over a period of four seasons spanning 1999-2002. After you earn your super-licence (think Gran Turismo's licence tests only shorter and easier) you will be given some offers from teams for which you can begin your career with. Each race from the beginning until the end of your career you will be given a target finishing position - achieve it and your reputation will increase, attracting offers from the better teams, but underperforming will see you head towards the slower end of the grid.
There is a lot to talk about concerning the Career Mode, as firstly it's the only mode you will really play for the duration of the games lifespan, and secondly because it mixes elements of the purely inspired with the simply careless.
The clearest positive on offer is certainly the playability factor. Though some may be a little put off initially by the nippy handling, F1CC gradually evolves into a highly-addictive racer that manages to combine elements of arcade-accessibility with smatterings of realism to an uncommonly good standard. For instance, races tend to last between six and eight laps, and whilst this means for significantly shorter races than in real life, the mandatory pit-stops (which require practice, timing and decent reactions) together with the well-judged pace of your competitors means that the excitement and intensity levels remain high throughout. Continuing the good work are the post-race bonus points, which reward you're qualifying, race-pace, cornering and overtaking techniques and depending on how many you earn, you can purchase various engine, brake and traction related upgrades next time out. Again this is very nicely implemented as it avoids trivialising the racing but remains a notable incentive, especially if you are racing on your own and well in the lead.
It's certainly among the better F1 game-engines I've come across - whilst novices will undoubtedly be frustrated by the (initially) quite erratic handling, lack of steering when applying the brakes (leading to many a trip across the gravel traps) and tough competitors, there's real fun to be had if you're willing to put in the practice. Formula One connoisseurs like myself will no doubt love the prospect of racing across four different seasons; witnessing the ever-evolving driver line-ups, car liveries and track layouts. Even race-to-race driver changes have been taken into account, so for the mid-part of the 1999 Mika Salo takes Michael Schumacher's seat at Ferrari whilst the German legend recovers from his (then) broken leg; the detail in this respect is highly impressive. Less impressive is how drivers seem to inherit points from those who have driven the car in their place, so in the above case, Schumacher with 28 points before his '99 break would then magically become Salo with 28 points (rather than continuing/starting his own points tally), which is at best careless and at worst absurd if the drivers swapping places are near the top of the world championship.
Indeed, its generally these non-gameplay related problems that taint F1 Career Challenge somewhat; for example, there is a poor excuse for a 'Driver CV' that displays four statistics for each season you race - your first pole-position, win, podium and points finish - all equally uninteresting and somewhat obsolete if you gain a pole and victory in the season-opening race. And its not that I don't like statistics; I absolutely love them, but frankly an F1-loving monkey could have come up with a better, broader selection than is on offer here. Much worse is the incredible lack of reward for playing out the four seasons - I won the World Championship in every year and what was my reward for all the effort? A page with the aforementioned Driver CV, a grid showing how my reputation changed (I won't even pretend to care) and… that's it. No bonuses, unlockables or secrets; not even a lousy 'Congratulations' screen to show for the work.
Elsewhere, loading times can be rather lengthy by PS2 standards, and collisions can be extremely punishing, especially when taking into account the fact that you can't choose your own pit-stop strategy as such - so if you gain a puncture one lap before you are scheduled to pit for fuel, you have to come in twice in successive laps, which given how short the Career races are, means you have little or no chance of scoring points.
Still, being an EA game, the graphics are typically fabulous - the tracks come to life with their mammoth levels of detail (the rollercoaster and Ferris-wheel of Japan and the harbour of Monaco are two such highlights) and are surpassed only by the dreamy-looking cars and supreme sense of speed. The two work together in perfect harmony when you race with the in-car view - the developers have managed to find a way of convincingly conveying the sensation of racing; individual bumps in the road buffer the car around and the speed of the thing is amazing, the scenery positively rockets past on the straights, but also remains creditably solid - in my experience, only the WipEout series generates a smoother, speedier experience. Whilst it could so easily have scored top-marks for graphics, the game once again gets clumsy. Pit-lane cut-scenes show mechanics to have literally single-frame, 2D cut-and-paste faces on 3D animated bodies, and the same is the case in the drivers podium precession - it looks so naff that it isn't even funny, and by EA's usually high standards of presentation, is a real let-down.
There is no commentary in F1 Career Challenge, but its substitute is more than worthy enough. Essentially you have a race engineer relaying information to you as you drive, concerning position changes, retirements, pit-stops, crashes, hazards up ahead and your teammates performance - rather nice all in all. Music isn't especially memorable but then it's never been particularly crucial in a game of this ilk, with the meaty engine notes proving the most impressive.
F1 Career Challenge falls into an awkward and unusual bracket; too initially difficult to entice the casual gamer (or younger player) and yet ultimately too unrewarding for the F1-gaming veteran. Remarkably, Formula 1 '97 (PSOne) still remains my favourite example of the sport on a home console, and despite it being statistically well out of date nowadays, it is still streets ahead of the latest titles in terms of A.I., gameplay, challenge and longevity. If you like the formula one-meets-arcade concept of F1CC, then perhaps the best game to try would be the overlooked gem that was Formula One Arcade - released in 2002 in the latter days of the PSOne, it managed to provide immediate enjoyment as well as a surprising degree of lifespan, and the best news is it can be bought for just 1p on eBay.
The fact that EA have attempted a genuinely different slant on a familiar idea earns them definite credit, though it's hard to judge whether F1 Career Challenge would be a worthy purchase. On the one hand it looks and plays like a dream, and while it lasts it is enjoyable and gripping. However, veterans of the F1 genre may find themselves mastering it within a couple of days, and because of the complete lack of rewards and extras on offer, it's highly unlikely you'll go back to it upon completion. EA have the foundation for an excellent game here, it just needs a little more to keep the player interested beyond the first week or so. Perhaps one to rent, in anticipation of Sony's Formula One 2005.
Excellent review not a fan of F1 the career mode sounds a good idea though.
darkangelwing 21.08.2005 17:45
hrmm..i prefer the F1 on gran turismo 3 myself,this sounds great though,so much detail,well done(:
DBZKing 07.07.2005 14:04
A good review, I would not buy this myself, not a F1 fan, and I kind of despise these type of games, and does not sound too good either, so what would be the point getting something that you dont even like... meh ... anyway good review as always :P looking forward to seeing more of your reviews -Shaun