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Formula One 99 (PSX) Review

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Can the latest version of Formula One from Psygnosis deliver all the excitement and drama of Mika Hakkinen's driver's championship run? Will Michael Schumacher break a leg, leaving Eddie Irvine to push Ferrari into the constructor's points lead? And will team Ferrari get accused of an illegal part just one week before the final race of the season? Well, maybe not, but Formula One 99 can deliver semi-realistic racing with all the top-name drivers and teams.

Sporting a full FIA license, Formula One has the big names like Mika, Eddie, brothers Schumacher, Heinz-Harold Frentzen, and the soon-to-be-retired Damon Hill. Likewise, every team is represented, including the familiar red cars of Ferrari and Jordan's yellow-colored machines. If that's not enough to get you excited, how about every 1999 track, including the first year for the Malaysian track? So strap yourself into the canopy, attach that steering steering wheel, and hang on for fast and furious road course racing.

Presentation/Graphics : 88
Unless the graphics are completely simplistic, it is difficult to penalize a racing game like Formula One for poor graphics. After all, racers should be focused on the racing and not the trackside scenery. However, Formula One thankfully appeases the graphics zealots with a nice blend of graphics. The signs that border the course come into focus as you approach them and can be easily read. Likewise, the detail of your competitors' cars improves as you close in. Features of the fuselage are discernible if you are close enough, which from a driving standpoint is not advised.

The buildings that line the courses are remarkably well done. The developers took great pains to model each course exactly, and it shows. The downtown streets of Monaco are done impeccably, complete with the appropriate elevation changes. Clouds in the distance look realistic, as do most of the weather effects. Rain, when present, is somewhat spotty. Cars exhibit rooster tails in wet conditions, although the lengths of the tails are unrealistically short. Tires smoke and leave a rubber scratch mark on the track during quick accelerations and decelerations, but the effect is overused. Virtually every acceleration from a low gear leaves some rubber on the track.

The game runs fluidly with no apparent slowdown at all. Even with all 22 cars bunched somewhat closely at the beginning of the race, Formula One keeps up the pace. On some courses, there is just a small bit of slowdown which is almost unnoticeable. This occurs mainly in hairpins or when the rain is pouring down. Pop-up occurs but is not a factor in the game. Limited mostly to trees and signs, a spruce will rapidly grow out of nowhere. The only significant graphical glitch I found, if you would call it a glitch at all, is that some of the walls on the tracks are transparent. The traffic around a turn is clearly visible on the other side of the wall.

Perhaps the biggest graphical issue is the camera. Formula One 99 offers four camera views. Two of the views are third-person views from a near or far perspective. The other views are a cockpit view or a nose view. In the cockpit view, two side mirrors provide a view of the action behind you. Unfortunately they are too small to be useful. All cameras share the same problem - the track is difficult to follow in the distance. To set up turns you need to know exactly how the course is bending, and in Formula One 99, the detail of the road surface is inadequate for the task. Unless you take time to memorize each track and learn to set up each turn based on the trackside details, you'll repeatedly end up hitting the walls. Some courses I can map out visually in my mind from being a fan of F1 racing and F1 racing games, but in Formula One 99 my ability to mentally duplicate the track was useless. To mitigate the problem, the more distant third-person view became the view of choice. The two first person views were too difficult to use, even though they provide the best action. Even in the third person view some turns were difficult to navigate initially. Some tracks feature distance signs to signal an upcoming turn. While present in this game, the signs are too small and almost invisible. I can imagine that if this series makes it to the next Playstation, the issues will be moot, as the detail will be better and the road will flow well graphically. But on the aging Playstation, the blocky track surface graphics just blend into the horizon.

Presentation/Audio : 75
While I have never attended a Formula One race in person, I have seen and heard plenty on television. In addition, I have a wonderful CD, Stereophile's Test CD 3, which contains a track from the 1992 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. In both cases, which I have to assume accurately model the sounds of the cars (after all, they were both taped live), the car sounds are nothing like the ones in Formula One 1999.

As mentioned earlier, the tires leave some rubber on quick starts and stops, and a lot of it. If you like tire squeal, you are in luck. Tires squeal on almost every acceleration from first or second gear and every time you get a wheel on the grass and come back on the track. While the tire squeal is a decent sound sample, it's overused. Unfortunately tire squeal never makes its way to the game to let you know if you are on the ragged edge of instability in a turn. I tend to take curves to the limit and depend on the sound of the tires to provide some audible feedback. If I start to squeal I'll let off the gas. In Formula One 99, squeal is limited to the aforementioned situations and not to those that could be useful.

Formula One 99 has no in-game music but does have the commentary of Murray Walker and Martin Brundle. The commentary seems to have changed little since the first Pysgnosis release. The comments are trite and repeated incredulously. The TV gang would make incorrect calls on the action at times, and the vocabulary of the commentators was so limited that Pysgnosis should overhaul the voice track or lose it completely. The commentary added no value to the game whatsoever. If I hit a wall, the boys in the booth would state the obvious.

Interface/Options : 80
Formula One 99 supports virtually all your favorite controllers. In my time with the game, I tried a full-sized steering wheel, a hand wheel, and an analog controller in both analog and digital mode. Fortunately I found the analog controller to be effective in both analog and digital modes. Unfortunately I had a difficult time with the wheels. The dead spot on the wheels was too much to overcome. In fact, this game is easily played with a simple digital controller.

The game is simple to control. Gas is applied with the X button and brakes with the square. If needed, reverse is controlled with the circle button. For a manual gearbox, the L2 and R2 buttons shift the gears down and up, respectively. The R1 button cycles through the available driving views, and the L1 button snaps to a rear view. The dual analog was also easy to use, although initially either my controller was reprogrammed or there is a bug in the game. The functions for steering and brake/gas were reversed.

The menus can be difficult to navigate through. In setting up a car, each car has three presets and three custom settings. For the presets, only 3 of the settings can be changed, although all the settings are shown on the screen. Finding the OK button on screen can be challenging at first. The layout of the screen was a overly complicated and at times confusing. The options menu to set up a race is also not as simple as it could be.

The biggest complaint about the race options is that they appear to be reset to their defaults after you exit a race. If you don't mind the defaults, this is not an issue, but if you want some extra challenge (or even easier racing), than you'll have to set your preferences for each race in the single race modes.

The manual mentions all of the options in the game, but I found the manual to be poorly written for this type of game. Little explanation was given for each of the car options.

Gameplay : 65
I'm willing to forgive a game's sounds and even the setup options if it has solid gameplay. Likewise, graphics are easily forgivable if the gameplay is good and the graphics don't affect the play. Unfortunately that is not the case with Formula One 99. As mentioned earlier, the camera issues do affect the racing in this title. While I eventually overcame the difficulties of not seeing the course clearly, for beginners this can be overly frustrating. I love to play my racing games in the first person, but I simply can't come to this in Formula One 99. To get the most enjoyment out of the game, I had to play in the third person, depriving me of the true excitement of driving a world class machine.

But even if we take my personal preferences out of the mix, you are left with a mediocre arcade racing game. The game truly is arcade with some sim-like components. First, consider the car setup. If you skip the presets for the car, each car has a limited number of options. The front and rear wings each have a limited number of angles - low, medium, or high. Likewise, gears only have a couple of presets like long and short. Driving simulation fans will no doubt be disappointed by the lack of a tunable car, but I guess the game is aimed at the masses rather than the sim fan.

Formula One 99 has two game modes - a Quick Race and a Grand Prix mode. In the Quick Race mode, you have a one-lap qualifier and a three-lap race. The emphasis is on fast and furious racing. In the Grand Prix mode, you take part in either a championship season or a single race. However, in this mode you experience the entire race weekend, including all the practice sessions, a full qualifying session, and the race.

For any of the races, the difficulty of the AI can be set to easy, normal, hard, or expert, with normal being the default. To get a sense of the arcade nature of the game, the difficulty settings seem to only affect the lap times of the opponents. Throwing reality out the window, I posted a quick qualifying time on Monaco. In fact, I beat the actual lap record by a few seconds. I certainly thought I'd be sitting on the pole. Nope. Playing on the hard setting, I was stuck at the back of the grid, with the pole sitter nearly twelve seconds better than the all-time fastest time for the course! So I decided to see how the settings affect the qualifying the times. On the easy setting, Mika qualified first with a time about three seconds better than the record. On normal, Mika again landed the pole with a time seven seconds better than the record. On expert and hard, Hakkinen and Eddie Irvine split the pole, each with times far better than reality. The times were similar at Monza, where on easy the pole sitter posted a time four seconds better than the all-time best, and on expert the difference was around thirteen seconds.

But even with the unrealistic lap times, I never found the game to be one of driver against driver and course, but rather just driver against course. As an example, at Monza I raced the course on easy with the default settings. I deliberately skipped qualifying to be placed last. By the end of the first lap of the race, I was in first place. Thinking this was simply due to the difficulty setting, I tried the race again in expert with all the settings set to be as "realistic" as possible. While I failed to take the lead on the first lap, I did come in first on a five-lap race, even after a nasty spinout and a crash. Likewise, on the Quick Race mode, I won the Spanish Grand Prix on the expert level my first time out. And again it was just as easy in the Grand Prix mode, even with the settings set to make the game more difficult.

What I perceived in these experiments is a game in which the programmers want you to win. Everybody is a winner! I don't want a politically correct racing game. I want real racing. What I got was a watered down AI that left a bad taste in my mouth. On quick races, the AI cars would jump out on the first lap, but by the third lap, the AI was such that all cars experienced bad gas in the tanks. The game's challenge, for me at least, was to not finish first on any difficulty level.

Other questionable AI aspects include Mika Hakkinen going into the pits at the end of the last lap at Australia. I was leading Mika by a few car lengths when all of a sudden, on the last turn, he heads to the pits, placing him out of the points. This was in the full season championship mode, so I picked up an easy ten points on the actual 1999 F1 champion. I'm sure if Mika had seen what just transpired he would have pulled the disc from my PlayStation and burned some rubber on it. No driver in their right mind would pull into the pits on the last turn. Even if he had mechanical trouble, he'd pop the car into neutral and coast across the finish line. He had a decent lead over the third place car and would have at least scored some points.

Other bugs with the game include crashes. During one race, I tapped the back end of another car. As soon as I tapped the car, I was vaulted backwards about 60 miles per hour and left a tire mark on the course. I couldn't believe my eyes, but fortunately the replay confirmed this completely bizarre act. Newton would be aghast with this new brand of physics. Crashing into the walls at a slight angle usually sends the car bouncing right back onto the track. The entire crash system appears flawed.

Formula One 99 features damage, but for the most part, damage is limited to your opponents. In all my time with the game, I only once encountered damage to my car, even with the damage set to maximum. It appears that damage is mostly limited to the opponents rather than your own car. Heading into a wall at 200 miles per hour simply sends you backwards, with absolutely no damage. The only time I ever experienced damage was when I clipped an opponent and my steering was messed up. The car developed a significant pull to the left, where if I let go of the controller I quickly hit the wall. But even with a severely damaged car, I had no problem achieving speeds close to 180 miles per hour.

The driving physics of the game are unrealistic but decent. If you speed down the straights at top speed and jerk the wheel you'll start a turn rather than spin, as you would in a real F1 car. The control, therefore, is tight. In fact it is so good that you never fishtail. Cars never get squirrely going down the straights. About the only times you will be in jeopardy of losing the back end is to brake heavily while turning or accelerating from first gear and turning.

Once you get the handle of braking in the game, the game becomes easy. The key to victory (almost every time) is to tap the brakes repeatedly rather than holding the brakes down. Since the game lacks any audible feedback when you are about to lose grip in the turns, as you drift to the outside of the turn, lightly tap the brakes or let off the gas to remain in control.

Replay Value : 70
It's not that Formula One 99 is a terrible game, but it is somewhat easy for the racing fan. If you are a racing sim fanatic, the game is a letdown. I could forgive the game's lack of realism if the racing was more engrossing. But unfortunately the AI is targeted towards making my driver win. It's no fun when the AI cars essentially give up on the last lap of a race. While passing twenty cars in a lap may be exciting, there's no challenge after some time.

But if you are a beginning racer, this game may actually be for you. The variety of F1 tracks is always a good thing. Racing at Monaco requires a different mentality than a wide open course like Monza or Hockenheim, and it will give the beginner good insights on the skill required to race on the different types of courses. Heck, it beats driving in circles (or ovals). The lack of realistic driving physics plays to the casual racer. I know that when I first got my PSX some years ago, I loved the original F1 game from Psygnosis. It was a great introduction to console racing on the PSX and to F1 racing. And this version is much better than the original, both graphically and control wise.

Overall : 73
If you are a simulation fanatic, rent, and don't buy this title if you feel you have to play it. The lack of a realistic F1 car physics model and poor AI won't keep the F1 follower occupied for long. If you are a casual gamer new to the F1 style of game, Formula One 99 will certainly appeal. The challenge to the newcomer is there and the number of tracks will keep the game fresh. And once mastered, graduate.

By: James Smith 2/17/00

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