Review by sidebeard

"Formula Fun!"

Codemasters' F1 2009 is the latest attempt to capture the thrills, excitement and speed of the premier class in world motorsport and whilst it falls short of perfection it's a largely successful effort on a console that has a dearth of good racers.

Graphically, F1 2009 has been compared with PS2 standards with most criticism aimed at the level of detail in the crowds and trackside objects (flat and blocky) and pit lane (deserted, barring your own crew) but these are niceties that gamers will gladly forsake for a realistic recreation of speed and on this measure F1 2009 comes out on top. Rather like F-Zero, this isn't a pretty game by current standards but most players will agree that it makes up for this by its convincing recreation of speed and handling. As the game demands a lot of the player's concentration he is unlikely to be troubled by the lack of peripheral details, particularly as the cars and tracks themselves have been recreated more kindly (and with full sponsorship). Sadly, the frame-rate does suffer if using cockpit view when the console is given too much to think about but happily this is infrequent enough not to spoil the player's immersion.

Sound and music have never been of prime importance in racing games and in F1 2009 both are fittingly average. Selecting an option produces a satisfying ‘squelch' but without podium ceremonies or ‘The Chain' (!) there's really not a lot to show off. The engines sound good but collisions sound like trashcans being knocked over, the pit radio sounds good but the comments are too few and too general, the title music has a kind of techie F1 formality about it but doesn't really add anything (and how could it?) Thankfully there is no music during play and this sensible omission adds credibility.

Players hoping for race replays and the ability to direct and save footage of races from multiple camera angles will be disappointed as this feature is absent from F1 2009. Curiously, the player is able to watch the qualifying session (but not the race) from the garage where he can change camera angles and the car he is viewing. This indicates that F1 2009 intended to have this feature but that it was abandoned (perhaps due to time constraints) mid-development.

F1 2009 is also lacking a satisfactory damage model. Damage is limited to buckled front wheels (they will never detach) and broken nosecones. If the player's car is shunted from behind the rear-wing may be damaged but never visually so (rather your race engineer will indicate that ‘some damage' has been done to your rear-wing). The effect on performance of tyre degradation and fuel consumption are accurately reproduced but whilst a player's engine may fail completely or merely falter (with reduced power and smoke coming out of the back) there are no other mechanical failures. This is a major step backwards considering that gearbox, electrical and brake failures—not to mention vastly more extensive damage models—have been around in Formula One games for at least 15 years. Codemasters are fortuitous in that the much improved reliability in F1 in recent years helps mask their neglect in this area.

Newcomers will be pleased to find that F1 2009 has a gentle learning curve (unlike, say, Gamecube's F1 2002) and it doesn't penalise the player for making use of the usual driver aids (anti-skid, ABS, racing line and automatic gears etc.) Indeed, if using the Wii-wheel, one will almost certainly leave anti-skid and ABS on as even F1 veterans will struggle to keep the brakes from locking and wheels from spinning without the use of analogue controls. In addition to a choice of driver aids there is the option to turn on or off variable weather, vehicle damage, mechanical failure, and to set the strictness of stewards' penalties.

The ability to tune one's car with some detail will satisfy gearheads although the depth of customisation is undeniably a long way off the standards set by Geoff Crammond in the 1990s. Ride height, tyre pressures, wing settings, gear ratios, anti-roll bars and suspension stiffness can all be altered or left well alone—as is the player's wont— as default car settings are competitive enough that players need never look at tuning unless so inclined. All of this means that, to some degree, player preference determines whereabouts F1 2009 sits on the ‘simulator / arcade' spectrum; turn all of the settings on, turn driver aids off and muck-in with tuning the car and F1 2009 is a ‘light' simulator, do the opposite and the game becomes a full-blown arcade with just a veneer of realism.

Easy, medium and hard difficulty settings further broaden F1 2009s appeal although the game would benefit from a ‘professional' setting as experienced players will reach a point where they are comfortably a second per lap faster than their nearest rival. A peculiar ‘quirk' with the length of pit-stops during races artificially keeps things competitive, however, as your pit crew generally take anywhere between twelve and twenty seconds to change your tyres and refuel (even on a two or three-stop strategy) whilst the computer is usually significantly more efficient. Furthermore, the player is not able to change pit-stop strategy mid-race which, along with only minimal changes in weather conditions, diminishes the tactical aspect of a race.

The computer AI is poor whenever it has to manoeuvre other vehicles, meaning that rival cars habitually collide with the player's (and each-other's) gearboxes and rarely stray off the racing-line to overtake. AI also struggles when blue-flagged; instead of moving over on a straight part of the circuit a rival car will often stay on the racing line and effectively ‘break-test' the player into a corner (resulting in a broken nosecone and a drive-through penalty for the human and impunity for the computer). Authenticity is also harmed by stewards' decisions which blame the player for accidents in which the computer is clearly at fault and a bizarre oversight whereby, under yellow-flag conditions, the player is given a stop-go penalty for overtaking the car/cars that are off the track and involved in the incident (this will happen to you at least once at Suzuka)!

Despite these failings, the vast majority of the time the racing is fun, fair and exciting and with numerous game modes and awards, dedicated players will find themselves with plenty to do to achieve 100% completion, perhaps as much as twelve week's worth of casual gaming. On initial start-up the player sets up a profile and chooses a helmet design which he will use in the majority of game modes. Quick bursts of play are available in ‘Challenge', ‘Time Trial' or ‘Quick Race' modes and more lengthy, sustained campaigns are found in either ‘Championship' mode or the three-season long ‘Career' mode (with full race distance if you choose!). Challenge Mode is particularly addictive and contains an extensive range of tests that you must pass in order to advance, some are comparatively easy but about three will have the player utterly exasperated (but always coming back for more) in the pursuit of an ‘A***' rank.

Overall then, F1 2009 is a more than satisfactory recreation of the sport hampered slightly by the limitations of the console and some strange oversights in debugging (one suspects due to a rushed release). Focusing on the shortcomings outlined above paints a less than impressive picture but the review is hypercritical; make no mistake about it, Codemasters have proved themselves more than worthy of the license. The tracks are expertly recreated, the cars handle and accelerate superbly, the action is fast and utterly immersive. Formula 1 fans will simultaneously be happiest of all that they have an up-to-date and immensely playable game and the most critical of its weaknesses. A revised instalment at the end of 2010 with an improved damage model and just a little more polish would be most welcome.

Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 02/22/10

Game Release: F1 2009 (EU, 11/20/09)

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