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F1 World Grand Prix (DC) Review

Background Info

Screens (6)
The Formula 1 season began on March 12 in Australia. F1 World Grand Prix (F1WGP) was released at the end of April. If you think that is late, consider that this racer uses data from the 1998 F1 season to set the stage. Despite being two years old in the statistical department, F1WGP packs in a full season of F1 racing on all the 1998 tracks and with all the 1998 drivers.

So if you have ever dreamed of sliding into the cockpit of a truly amazing piece of machinery, now is your chance to live vicariously through a virtual Mika or Schuey. Whether you take a quick spin on a favorite track or grind it out over the long F1 season, this game has something for everyone. It serves up a nice compromise between a full arcade racer and driving simulation.

Presentation/Graphics : 70
Once the action starts, you'll be awestruck by the detail of the game. The default camera view is a first-person view from inside the cockpit. This means an accurate representation of a real F1 car. Dashboards feature plenty of buttons and lights, and gloved driver hands gently turn the steering wheel. When the gearbox is manipulated, the gloved hands discretely activate the shifter on the backside of the steering wheel. Two side mirrors keep up with the action behind you and let you plan your moves. Move the camera up a notch and you have a view similar to those found on F1 race broadcasts. This view shows everything in the previous view but has the bonus of the driver's helmet bobbing to and fro as you drive down the course. An extra nice touch is that hard braking causes the head to surge forward. Backing out even more, a couple of third person views shows the car in its entirety. What you notice is that the cars look like their real-life counterparts. Advertising is abundant on the machines, although tobacco and alcohol ads are conspicuously absent. One last view is a first person view at the tip of the nose.

The screen layout is very well done. The game throws up the course map, elapsed lap time, best lap time, record lap time, speed, gear, damage, fuel, and on and on in a clean manner. There is even enough room to display television style graphics at the bottom of the screen. All the extras are out of the way and have no impact on driving. At the beginning of a race, the starting lights appear in a box which stays on a few seconds after the flag drops. Depending on your starting position, you can lose sight of the traffic ahead.

The course graphics are unique to the track location, and each track is modeled after the real course. Grandstands dot the course in certain areas. Not to short change the console fan, the crowds flash camera bulbs and wave flags and add dynamics to the game. The Monaco course is always taxing on an F1 game, but F1WGP does its best to model every single building along the course. All the off-track detail comes from the horizon in a convincingly smooth manner. The on-track graphics are more bland. Road surfaces look natural, which means boring. There is a flaw with the game, and that is when the best racing line feature is turned on. On all the views, the racing line blinks off just before going off the screen. This creates a strobe-like effect that can be annoying. The racing line adds little value to the game and is better served kept off.

Despite some nice looking graphics, F1WGP suffers one major problem. It is not pop-up or draw-in that are the problem (those are virtually non-existent), but frame loss. On the first course of the season (Australia), I noticed a slight drop in frame rate on a couple of turns. I shrugged it off and blamed it on the traffic. But on the next course (Brazil), the frame rate demons were in full force. I was extremely disappointed when I went out for some qualifying laps. Although there were a couple of other cars on track at the same time, they were off screen while I was putting my laps in. With no traffic to speak of, the frame rate would drop enough to affect my driving. The frame drops occur mostly on turns on that course, where you need to have a smooth rate to complete the turn. This occurred lap after lap in the same spots. Still, nothing had prepared me for the Monaco course. The game was so choppy that it proved too difficult to play, let alone enjoy. That course has loads of tight turns, and once the frame rate goes awry a 90 degree turn can be completed in a handful of frames. Oddly, when I played with rain the game appeared smoother.

I can live without extra off-track detail in racing games. My attention is focused on the track and AI cars. But one thing I cannot stand for is a choppy graphical presentation. The frame rate in F1WGP is too inconsistent in several critical locations on some tracks that it adversely affects your ability to drive well.

Presentation/Audio : 85
Since when have radios been a standard feature in F1 cars? I sincerely doubt that Bernie Ecclestone loosens his grip enough to allow drivers to listen to a little road music. So the first thing I did was find the volume control and turn it off. Not only is it unnatural, but the music was plain awful.

The next thing to get the volume turned down (but not off), was the ambient noise. My only complaint with the ambient sound is that it is simply too loud at the outset. The largest component of ambient sound is crowd noise. The cheers of the crowd only occur when the grandstands are in proximity. Clearly you shouldn't be able to hear the full force of the fans in remote areas of the course. But their cheers sound like they were sampled from white noise, kind of like the machine my mother uses to put herself to sleep.

There is limited commentary, but it is isolated to calls from the pits and bland, and often incorrect, calls from the TV commentator. The commentator would often tell me I needed to regain that lost position after a spill, even if I had not been passed.

This leaves the car sound effects, which on the whole are pretty good. Engines rev with a realistic pitch, and you can hear cars coming up from behind with no problem. If you get a wheel off onto the grass or gravel, it really sounds like you are driving on a gravel road. Perhaps the one shortfall is tire squeal. Tire squeal only occurs when spinning out, and as such there is no aural clue to let you know if you are pushing the limit on a turn. Since you lack realistic feedback when sitting in front of a television, the next best thing is sound. When I take a turn too fast in my little Saturn, the tires let me know. Why can't F1WGP do the same?

Interface/Options : 90
As mentioned earlier, F1WGP is based on the 1998 F1 season. So this means that the stats are accurate to that season, with the exception of Jacques Villeneuve, who is the lone holdout. The driver who takes his place is simply "Williams Driver." Come on Jacques, you may have won the 1997 Driver's Championship, but you haven't done squat with BAR since then.

The game offers four modes of play - single race, a championship season, time attack, and two player action. In the season mode, both driver and constructor points are accurately totaled throughout the season. The game tends to favor the big teams (Ferrari, Williams, etc) when doling out the points for the AI cars, but the cars are all evenly balanced. No matter which team and driver you choose, your chances at winning are the same. So the true characteristics of F1 racing are not in the current version of the game.

Single races put you right on the course faster than a pit stop. There are no practice or qualifying sessions associated with the single race mode. If you want to see how you fare from different positions, you can select your starting position. Conversely, the championship mode lets you take part in the full race weekend. One flaw is that once you've locked in your tire selection (hard or soft), you are stuck with it until the end. The only other major flaw occurs with qualifying times.

I have to think the statistical engine breaks down when it comes to the qualifying session. F1WGP has four settings for opponent strength - easy, normal, hard, and super hard. The course records are displayed in the game and are based on the actual F1 records. On the normal setting, which is the default, the AI cars are a couple of seconds slower than the record. On the hard setting, they are a couple of seconds faster. Personally I would have preferred realistic qualifying times across the board, especially since no matter how well you drive you won't be able to match their times on the higher levels.

The game has options galore for every aspect of the game. When in the paddock you can tailor your car any way you see fit. Forward and rear wing angles are customizable, as are steering angles, suspension stiffness, braking characteristics, tires, and gearbox selection. In addition, a simple gear ratio slide bar is present. You can only change the final gear ratio and not each gear. When on the practice rounds, you can pit in and check your telemetry data to see how changes affect your performance. In addition to the car settings, the race settings include damage (on or off), number of laps, weather, starting grid position (for single race only), and pits (on or off).

The game controls are typical of other Dreamcast racing games. The control scheme is fully customizable, but the default selection is more than adequate. The analog triggers serve as the gas and brake pedals. Gear shifts for manual transmissions use the A and X buttons. The Y button changes the driving view, and the B button toggles a quick rear camera view.

The game manual describes the control layout as well as every single option in the game. For car settings, it provides a short description of how the parameters affect the car's performance. Because of an easy and intuitive menu system, the game manual is nearly superfluous. You can go forego reading the manual and not miss a thing.

Gameplay : 70
If I were to compare F1WGP to a movie, it would have to be A Bug's Life or Antz. Last year I bought the version of the game for the Nintendo 64. The first thing I noticed was that the AI controlled cars acted like ants on the march. Each car followed nearly the exact same path around the course. Very little has changed since that version of the game.

The AI for the computer-controlled cars is simply rudimentary. As an example, I played a single race and placed myself on the pole. I then deliberately stood still. One column of cars passed me right away. The cars behind me waited patiently until the first 11 cars were clear. Then the cars pulled out in single file and began to pass me. As they pull out, each car had the exact same movements. They caught onto the scent and drove around like pre-programmed automatons.

Fortunately the cars behaved a little better on the course. I tried clogging up a corner, but the cars were smart enough to go around me. But then my hopes were dashed when I played with pitting turned on. I pitted on one lap, and on the next lap every AI controlled car decided to pit at the same time. This created a traffic snarl at the pit entrance that affected my driving. I was in the lead and came up on the tail end of the traffic jam. As I rounded the turn I was not expecting nearly two dozen motionless cars. I quickly rammed into the column and had to shimmy my way through the line.

When I played with damage on, the pit strategy of the AI cars was a little better. But even then their movements were suspect. On the Australia course, the pit entrance is on the right side of the track. Whenever a car decides to pit, it circles to the left side, goes part way onto the grass, and then cuts across the track at almost a right angle to the track direction.

At this point you start to question the AI of the game. And when you are about to give it a second chance, you flip on damage. Then you wish you hadn't. Besides coming to an abrupt halt as they stack up for pit stops, the AI controlled cars have little respect for your car. I can't count the number of times I was bumped from behind by my opponents. As I take a hit, I incur a little damage that affects my top speed. And of course the stalled cars ahead destroy the front wing almost instantly. And then racing on the chop suey course called Monaco is a nerve rattling experience.

AI issues aside, there is one more significant problem with the game. If you get a wheel off the track, you are likely to get sucked onto the grass. When I race around a course, I use every bit of the track to give me the best lap times. Sometimes this means taking a turn with a wheel off the road, a strategy employed in real life by the top drivers. Doing this in F1WGP results in the car coming to almost a complete stop (down to about 20-30 mph). Oddly, on some hairpins you can cut right across the grass at full speed.

Other than these issues, the driving control is tight. The turning radius depends on the speed of the car, and you will have to let off the gas to cleanly take corners. You can play with spin control on or off. Spinning is mainly isolated to coming out of turns when you hit the gas prior to straightening out. Braking is an area that takes time getting accustomed to. Braking effectively locks the steering, so late braking is penalized by rolling off course.

The opponent strength depends on where you set it. On the normal and hard settings I had little trouble overtaking cars. In the championship mode, you have to live with the fact that the AI cars qualify seconds faster than you. Even starting from the back of the pack is not a problem for experienced drivers. For the rookies out there, you will enjoy the early passing.

The enjoyment in the game comes by racing a clean race. If you keep clear of the sides of the track and limit contact with the opponents, you have a good chance of winning. Formula 1 courses require you to brake often and make turns of all types. That just screams of challenge and fun. In that respect, F1WGP delivers.

Replay Value : 70
With all that is wrong with the game, there are ways to make it more enjoyable. The best opponent strength would lie somewhere between the normal and hard settings (super hard had ridiculously quick AI cars). Next, turn damage off. The finicky nature of the AI controlled cars will mess up even the most cautious of drivers. Finally, play with pitting on. It will cause you to head to the pits and come out and face traffic.

The beauty of Formula 1 games is that there are plenty of tracks to race on. It takes time to familiarize yourself with each track. It you stick it out for the entire season there is plenty of play. You just have to live with some flaws.

I liken this game to Sega's CART Flag to Flag. If you liked the road courses in CART, you should love F1WGP. The cars grip similarly, the complexity of the AI is nearly identical, and the damage model is almost the same. And I had fun with CART, as I did with F1WGP. Since I am a simulation fan, it won't replace Ubisoft's Monaco Grand Prix 2 as my Formula 1 racer of choice, but for the average gamer who does not want the complexity and touchy handling of MGP2, this game can serve up a nice play.

Overall : 74
This is a tough game to recommend. On the one hand, I am biased towards sim-style racers, which this game clearly is not. On the other hand, I love over-the-top arcade racers in the vein of Speed Devils or 4 Wheel Thunder on the Dreamcast. Formula 1 World Grand Prix falls somewhere between the two. If it were not for the questionable AI and giant sucking sound that occurs as you get a wheel off the track, this game would be one great racer. But you also have the frame rate inconsistencies which drive you mad. When it comes to finding the perfect F1 game for the casual gamer, the answer will probably that this title is good enough. If you want a little more meat to your F1 game, wait it out. There's got to be something better on the horizon.

By: James Smith 6/7/00

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