Mark Cale really likes Ferraris. He likes them so much, in fact, that as CEO of System 3, he's been making a game exclusively about them. On top of that, he's delayed the game's launch since November of last year, endlessly tweaking to get that Ferrari feel just right.
And Cale must be confident he's nailed it, because he's taken a bunch of journalists to Silverstone to experience the real thing before playing the game. This sort of Pepsi taste test is a bold move (I think we all agree Infinity Ward took things too far carting us off to the Ukraine to shoot real Russians for COD4), and one that could easily backfire if Ferrari Challenge doesn't live up to the comparison.
There's a strange hint of family outing to proceedings as I bundle into one of Cale's Ferraris (a 60th anniversary 612 Sessanta, coming to the game as DLC). That sensation lasts precisely up to the point where he puts his foot down, and it feels as if I've been hit in the stomach with a well-placed fridge freezer.
This, Cale tells me cheerfully as I'm squeezed back into my seat and my brain starts to trickle out of my ears, is the g-force. I didn't think it existed outside of travel on the Millennium Falcon, but it does - racing drivers experience it all the time, and it's the one thing videogames can't recreate.
But g-force is just the start: that elusive Ferrari feel is all about a sense of brooding power waiting below the surface, coupled with the crazy grind as the stomach-melting speed of the straightaways gives into a frenzy of brakes as you drift around a corner. These cars may look calm and classy, but they really like to throw you around. Being in a Ferrari is a bit like being inside a really top class tumble-dryer, then - albeit a tumble-dryer that costs around GBP 200,000.
And the good news is, g-force aside, Cale's game seems to be on target. The cars in Ferrari Challenge are jolting and commanding, the handling is precise yet still has a thick, luxurious feel to it, and there's a real connection to the track, thanks to a bespoke physics model that applies centrifugal force to each tyre. With the assists off, the complexity of the Ferrari is - often tragically, in my case - right there on the screen, generally ploughing into the tyre wall. With them on, the cars retain a wilful charisma, yet the game starts to approach a restrained arcade feel. It's still a caricature of sorts - when Bruno Senna, cousin to Ayrton and the game's 'test driver', tweaked things for absolute accuracy, none of the developers could get the cars to go in a straight line - but comprehensive assists allow you to select your own sweet spot.
The Ferrari Challenge itself is a championship series which uses a single model - in this case the F430. Eutechnyx, the developer, has kept this purity as the game's centre: the career mode is all about racing your F430 against other identically untweaked cars, as in Yu Suzuki's F335 Challenge. If your heart's set on variety, then this probably won't appeal, but there's a brutal clarity in knowing the competition comes down to skills alone.
There are cars to unlock, of course - 32 will ship with the game, going back to a 1957 Testarossa - for use in specific challenges, but this is a game about mastery rather than shopping. It's not about finding shortcuts, but fitting, as closely as you can, into someone else's grand plan. The racing line isn't there on the ground to be beaten, but to be matched.
Visually, the game has an undeniable streamlined beauty. Cars are detailed and alluring, deforming with a crunchy realism, and the tracks are uniformly good-looking. Weather effects can be called in, but the game seems best with its SEGA-style blue skies showing off the shiny hardware. Things are looking relatively sunny in terms of AI, too, with a system of virtual button inputs replacing more traditional splining. "The cars will react to what's around them," says Cale. "The computer can say, 'Do I out-brake this car and try and make it or not?'" AI competitors certainly seem a bit more flexible, shunting each other around and suffering the consequences of over-enthusiastic cornering. It's not Burnout - and the game's 30fps frame rate needed to allow for its AI complexity may upset many - but it's also far from the sedate lunchtime drives of Gran Turismo.
Twelve tracks will ship with the game - regular suspects such as Monza, Hockenheim and Silverstone - and there's sixteen-player LAN or online multiplayer available (split-screen is impossible due to the high poly counts of the models, apparently). There was no sign of the DS, PS2 or Wii versions, which will follow later, although game-sharing is confirmed for the DS and gestural controls for the Wii. The absence of the 360 continues to be something of a mystery, too, with reasons given ranging from sales dilution across the formats to complex licensing issues.
There's no doubting that racing games have hit the skids of late, with Project Gotham Racing 4 underperforming in the shops and SEGA Racing Studios closing its doors following the commercial response to SEGA Rally. Despite this, Cale seems confident: "The racing genre is by far the second-most popular genre in the world after first-person shooters, and the best brand to be associated with is Ferrari." It's still hard not to see the dangers of releasing a game with such a precise agenda, however: Ferrari Challenge may just be too focused for many players, with its intense attention to a single manufacturer being mistaken for a limitation.
Anyone concerned that Ferrari Challenge is merely a brand cash-in can set their worries aside - this is a polished and often stubbornly distinct game, and opts for reverent love rather than cynical exploitation. With DLC adding a new track and five cars every month, Cale's dream is eventually to release every Ferrari ever made; it remains to see whether this kind of content can stop the game from being perceived as a dual of 430s. From what we've played, Ferrari Challenge is confident to carve its own path: it isn't about making your own perfect car, it's about driving someone else's. And luckily, that someone else is Ferrari.