FORMULA ONE (1996) – BIZZARE CREATIONS
About a month ago, Codemasters released the latest instalment of the Formula One video game franchise, in the form of F1 2011. Happily (as a fan of both Codemasters and the sport itself) it has been pretty well received, making it one of the better F1 games. And upon reading about its success, I looked up at the shelf in my room where I hold all of my old games, and took down the copy of one of my absolute favourite games of all time: Formula One – the original instalment for the Playstation, and a game that despite being released in 1996 is still enthralling to play today.
Licensed racing games often have an easier time drawing in players than the likes of Gran Turismo, because there is none of those complicated driving tests to pass before you can actually start racing, and the same is true of Formula One. As soon as you pop the disc in the drive, you can take to any of the 17 tracks of the 1995 F1 Season, and race as any one of the 26 drivers. All sense of nostalgia aside, these tracks and drivers come from a time when F1 was perhaps at its peak: the likes of Schumacher, Hill, Alesi and Hakkinen are all present to play in their fully licensed cars, and the tracks have rarely been better (including a fair few that have since disappeared from the calendar, such as Argentina, Portugal and France) – all of this combined helps to create the feeling that you are a part of the sport.
The options available to you are refreshingly simple as well; if you want to get straight into the action you can pick a single race, if you want to recreate the experience of a full season of F1 you can pick the Championship mode, and if you want something a bit more unique, you can have a crack at Ladder Mode, which involves you playing 12 races through a season with the objective of finishing higher on the gird than a pre-selected driver from each of the 12 teams. All of these modes have a fair amount of customisation behind them as well; for example in a single race you can choose to race the full grid or duel with just one driver. If you want to, you can also engage in full practice and qualifying rounds to get a feel for the tracks. Variable factors such as fuel, damage, tyre wear and weather can all be altered leading to notable effects in race, and best of all you can choose to play with one of two driving modes, in the form of Arcade or Grand Prix. Arcade racing means all assist are on and you can stick to the track like glue while racing against the clock, whereas Grand Prix racing is brutal in its learning curve, as putting just one smidgeon of a wheel on the grass will lead to you spinning out into the tarmac. You can also tweak the ability level of the AI to suit you as you see fit as well.
All of this combined leads to some quite captivating races. I always preferred the instant thrill of Arcade racing; there is nothing quite like speeding round the outside of 15 cars going into the first corner at Monte Carlo. The ability to tweak difficulties really does affect how the AI works on the track in a way that I haven’t noticed in other racing games since – put it on Easy and other drivers will practically park the car to let you through, whereas on harder difficulties they will bob and weave all over the place to stop you getting through. All the other elements that one would attribute with F1 are also present, including fully functioning pit stops (you select what you want the crew to do as you approach the box) and yellow/red flags for serious incidents, although sadly you cant cause a debris strewn crash like that seen at Spa in 1998. My only criticism of the game engine is that sometimes the AI suffers from moments of mass stupidity – if you are leading the pack going into a tight hairpin or chicane, you can stop the car dead on the apex, and most of the grid will simply queue up behind you and not make an attempt to get by. Also, on some tracks it becomes beneficial to take the front wing off of your car because it causes you to go faster for no scientifically proven reason.
Comparing the visual appeal of this game to its successors is an exercise in futility, as this was the first F1 game that was made. I will argue for it however in saying that for the time that it was released, it demonstrated what the Playstation was capable of and set a good precedent for subsequent titles to follow. All the cars in game are fully rendered with promotional logos, and the tracks follow the same route as their real life counterparts, with a few notable landmarks thrown in for good measure. Most importantly, the game feels fast – scenery such as trees and grandstands go by at a million miles an hour, the speedometer is always flicking about in the redline zone, and when you do mess up the crash can often be done in the blink of an eye. It was not Wipeout levels of fast, but it was more than enough to sell the experience. It also has a full replay mode that you can watch once the race is done, complete with trackside camera angles which were quite revolutionary for the time.
Surprisingly for an early Playstation game, Formula One also had an ace soundtrack. It took me years before I realised that the ridiculously catchy main menu theme was performed by legendary guitarist Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai also provided music for the game as well. All of this falters however in comparison to the in game commentary, provided by the single greatest sporting commentator of all time, Murray Walker. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of Murray’s greatest quotes (“He’s shedding buckets of adrenaline in that car!”, “And unless I’m very much mistaken….I AM VERY MUCH MISTAKEN!”, “IT’S VERSTAPPPEN!!!!!”) and his enthusiastic delivery further pulls you into the game. Absolutely top notch stuff.
Formula One holds an enviable position (in my opinion at least) of still being one of the best F1 games that you can get for a console – Formula One ‘97 was great, but ever since then it was a very lazy rehash of the same games until Codemasters got their hands on the franchise. It would eventually be displaced as my favourite Playstation racer by the likes of Gran Turismo 2 and TOCA 2, but I still adore playing it even now, and it more than deserves the status of being a golden oldie.