A racing title that’s less than a simulation, with charm that wears off before the champion is crowned.
I'm not a Formula One (F1) fan. I don't know much about racing, the teams, or their racers. For those even less aware of F1 than I, F1 is the premiere international open-wheeled racing circuit. The sport is not particularly popular in the United States, but garners a substantial worldwide following.
Codemasters secured the F1 license last year, and F1 2009 is the culmination of their efforts. They have experience producing specialized racing games, with titles like Colin McRae DiRT and GRID to their credit. It's no surprise, then, that while not stellar, F1 2009 is a simple and fun title.
F1 2009 puts you behind the wheel of the fastest race cars on Earth. At its most basic, F1 2009 comes down to the races. In them, you line up on the starting grid with 19 other racers for a (default) three lap race. Unlike most styles of automobile racing, F1 tracks are “street” tracks, so they include many twists, turns, and hills. Each track is different, and the battle for position requires a certain amount of strategy beyond simply going fast.
Aside from the simple race, there are a handful of modes.
Grand Prix Weekend mode allows you to experience the entire weekend life of a F1 driver. It starts with a series of time-limited practice sessions, during which you can adjust your car's configuration. At the conclusion of the two practice sessions you can compete in a series of time-trials. The time-trials are lap events in which your goal is to get the fastest lap possible. Your placement on the starting grid is assigned based on the result of these time-trials. Finally there is the actual race, which plays just like the standalone race event. You can skip any step prior to the race, but you can only adjust your car's configuration during the practice rounds, and if you skip the time trials you'll be start the race near the end of the pack.
Championship mode is an entire season of races, each represented as a separate race weekend. The result of each race earns you points. The driver with the most points at the end of the season's eleven races wins the World Drivers' Championship. The two-racer team with the highest score also wins a championship. Career mode is a series of three seasons, but unlike the other modes it allows you to create your own racer, earn your way onto teams, and receive email from various sources chronicling your exploits.
The individual races are reasonably enjoyable, but the lack of reward makes them feel less fulfilling than the Career and Championship modes. Progressing through your career is an enjoyable and substantial experience, giving you plenty of opportunity to sharpen your skills as racer.
Also included is the Challenge mode, which asks you to complete tasks like “get through as many checkpoints as possible before time expires” or “pass as many cars as possible before time expires”. At the conclusion of an event you're awarded a rating, and higher ratings can unlock more challenges.
The game also features a two-player version of both the single race and the single season modes. The screen is split horizontally, with a racer occupying each half of the screen. It can become difficult to follow the action in this split screen mode, but the ability to play through a season with a friend makes the competition more exciting. It's always fun to put an end to your friend's aspirations of F1 stardom.
However, the fundamental issue with F1 2009 is that it isn't sure what it wants to be. The effort put into the recreation of tracks, teams, racers, and the whole Grand Prix weekend experiences give it the trappings of a sophisticated racing sim (for example, there is a large number of tuning options that allow you to infinitely tweak performance). However, the game is quite "arcadey" in nature. It is very simple to play, and there is no penalty for simply ramming cars out of the way; the kinds of collisions I adopted as my strategy should have destroyed my F1 car. The game likely wouldn’t prove difficult for a player with experience playing racing titles, and while I found the more arcade feel to be enjoyable, players looking for a serious F1 sim will be disappointed.
The game offers a litany of control options, allowing use of the Wii Remote, Nunchuk, Classic Controller, or Wii Wheel. The Wii Remote option uses motion for steering and the 1 and 2 buttons for acceleration and braking, respectively. This option takes a while to get used to, but once I did I found it to be the most enjoyable. The Wii Wheel is the same as the Wii Remote control scheme, with the addition of a plastic shell. The Classic Controller option forgoes motion control, assigning steering to the D-Pad or the right Analog Stick, with the gas and brakes controlled by the shoulder buttons. The Nunchuk option controls steering with the Analog Stick, accelerates with the B-Trigger, and brakes with the Z-Button. The game simply isn’t as much fun without motion control, and considering that motion control worked pretty well there is really is no reason not to use it.
Graphically, F1 2009 won't turn any heads. While it is very fast, with only brief moments of slowdown, I have seen very little that could not have been done on GameCube. The most impressive visual elements are the massive pieces of track architecture that lord over the circuit. Towering arches, massive grand-stands, and huge skyboxes are all taken from the real-world tracks and recreated to maximum effect. Without exception, these structures are unique and reflect the international nature of the sport. The cars themselves look flat, which is disappointing, but there is enough detail to get the job done at speed.
There is very little sound to speak of. The game features all the engine thrashing, squealing tires, and loud thuds you’d expect to hear on a track being traversed by 200 MPH super-machines. There is voice work in the form of your very English coach, who alerts you via radio as to your current position and lap speed, and warns you of any potential obstacles ahead. In terms of music, there is a single song played on the menu screen. However, as this is a racing title, the paucity of music really isn’t all that shocking.
It's hard to recommend F1 2009. While not a bad game, it doesn't do anything to stand out even amongst its relatively weak competition on Wii. It is fun, but it just doesn't last. If the game were more of a simulation it could be recommended to hardcore F1 fans, but in that arena it falls short. That's a shame, because if there were more depth to the title the enjoyable racing would have been put to better use.