Version tested: Wii
Any Formula 1 fan will tell you that March 2007 feels like a lifetime ago. The season that saw a young Lewis Hamilton - too young - miss out on the championship by a single point was also the last time an F1 game rolled out of a developer's pit. In fairness, by the time Formula 1 Championship Edition showed up on PS3, the sub-genre was already misfiring. A series of mainly monotonous and predictable real-life seasons combined with the restrictions that accompany any official Formula 1 game production resulted in F1 titles that, like the sport they emulated, had lost their spark.
Last May's announcement that Codemasters had snapped up the F1 rights got the excitement pistons going again. Much of that enthusiasm rides in the slipstream of next year's Ego-powered PS3 and 360 releases, given what the publisher has accomplished with GRID, but it would be dangerous to dismiss this year's effort on Wii (and PSP) on two counts. For one thing, developer Sumo Digital is no stranger to great racing games itself. And, of course, 2009 has been one of the best F1 seasons of the last 20 years. Even Codemasters, which has shown itself to be uncommonly shrewd when it comes to licensing in the past, must still be pinching itself over the timing.
Of course, the official seal on F1 2009 forces the game to follow some very familiar tyre marks, but at least the inclusion of Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina circuit and the Singapore GP track (F1 2009 is first game to feature the night race, which only joined the F1 roster last year) as well as the odd revision to established venues add a touch of diversity. And there are plenty of new faces, with all of the 2009 drivers to choose from. Well, the 20 that started the season, at least - disappointingly, mid-season changes involving Grosjean, Alguersuari, Liuzzi, Kobayashi and poor old Badoer aren't catered for.
Fresh, too, are the cars. New aerodynamic rules and a return to slick tyres lends the carbon fibre rockets a more menacing look, which the game's reasonably detailed visuals capture adequately, while real-life internal tinkering such as KERS (boost) is also implemented - although here it's present in all cars, not just a select few.
There may be few surprises in terms of what you can do with the machinery, but at least the options are plentiful. In addition to Quick Race, Time Trial and a decent two-player split-screen mode, you find Grand Prix Weekend and Championship alternatives, the latter two offering the opportunity to participate in all on-track sessions over the course of a race meeting, as well as play around with settings. These can be dealt with simplistically - the game includes simple-to-understand aerodynamics, car balance, gears and suspension settings - but anyone wanting to get their hands greasy does get a chance to alter wheel geometry, tyre compound and pressures, suspension spring rates, individual gear ratios, ride height and wing adjustments.
You also get to play 'mechanic' in the Career mode, which sees you join the F1 circus as a rookie driver, before going on to complete three seasons while working your way up the hierarchy. An email system communicates the off-track action (test session offers, race p/reviews, team quotes) but mostly fails to add humanity to the proceedings - other than a nicely animated pit crew, F1 2009's world is understandably mostly mechanical and architectural. Still, for some the pressure to meet your team's expectations will feel very real.
If that sounds a little too involving, why not kick things off with the Challenge mode? Split into some 70-odd bite-size chunks that, for example, test your ability to overtake as many opponents within a time limit, win a race, take corners as fast as possible, complete a flying lap or pass through checkpoints before you run out of seconds, it's the sort of thing you find yourself returning to in order to improve on past performances. It's hardly revolutionary - and neither are the 'scenario' versions that unlock every time a group of challenges is completed, and involve the likes of wrestling a car on slicks on a rain-soaked track to a points-scoring position or going head-to-head against Hamilton - but it nevertheless bolsters an already comprehensive package.
What matters ultimately is how that package performs, of course. Anyone who instinctively switches off the steering and braking assists (but wisely keeps traction control on) is likely to find themselves crashing into barriers with an ease Nelson Piquet Jr would approve of. Driving an F1 car in F1 2009 is twitchy but it is also realistically (and impressively) fast, and the combination of these two elements means you'll need a fair few laps to get to grips with the handling. To help matters, the game comes bundled with an F1-style steering wheel adaptor for the Wiimote to slot in and it unquestionably adds to the experience (and also ensures you emerge from the game with forearms and shoulders to rival those of an F1 driver, probably).
Once conquered, the steering reveals a very accomplished and enjoyable arcade-based driving mechanic. Those looking for an authentic drive will instantly pick up on a certain lack of feedback - namely in that the sense of the tyres being in contact with the tarmac suffers a little from the Wiimote's limited rumble ability, or the disappointingly restricted travel of the buttons assigned to accelerating and braking duties - but there is no criticism to be levelled at the responsiveness of the steering. The longer you spend in the cockpit, the better F1 2009 feels. Sweeping out of Monza's Variante Ascari, thumb flat on the accelerator having kissed all three apexes or sneaking around the outside of an opponent, Alonso-style, at Suzuka's 130R is as thrilling as any racing game has managed.
A shame, then, that the AI isn't more convincing. Your adversaries follow the correct racing line - too rigidly, in fact - but you get no sense of driving style or personality from their on-track behaviour. They do at least tend to respect your position on the track, but fail to capitalise on your errors in the way that their counterparts in GRID or Forza 3 do, for instance, which further contributes to their drone-like character. Even when you set their difficulty to 'Hard' they appear just as likely to run into your gearbox as attempt to overtake you.
Equally limited is the damage model, yet this is a more debatable issue given the arcade one-fits-all nature of the game. While it's disappointing to find that visual damage is restricted to the odd flying wing or broken suspension, in practice component failure (if enabled) seems well balanced - a few altercations with opponents and you soon welcome the fact that the cars in F1 2009 appear made of stronger carbon fibre than their real-life equivalents.
Other criticisms are less damaging. Switch on the penalties, for instance, and you can find yourself punished with the kind of severity Max Mosley would relish, even when your off-track excursion resulted in a time loss. On a technical note, frame-rate drops are occasionally noticeable (but quickly forgotten when hurtling towards the next braking point at triple-figure speed) and next to the hi-res exploits of GT5 et al, F1 2009 looks an entire generation away. That in itself isn't an issue - you can only do so much with the hardware at your disposable - but other areas, such as the AI, where Nintendo's console likely played a limiting factor feel harder to accept.
That will still not be enough to turn most away from F1 2009, and nor should it. Once on-track, few F1 games have managed to be as encouraging when it comes to pushing yourself to attack corners and better your lap time, and fewer still have proved as much fun. This may not be the revolution the Formula 1 sub-genre has been waiting for, but you're not likely to find many Wii owners complaining.
8 / 10