Version tested: PlayStation 3
Do you follow the work of the Church of Ferrarism? Do you put your faith in the prancing horse, give thanks to the healing power of sleek red bodywork, offer silent prayer in the direction of Fiorano?
If the answer is no, then Ferrari Challenge has little to offer you. This is a game that opens with a sensual car close-up soundtracked by soaring choral music. Created and designed to indulge System 3 boss Mark Cale's hot burning for all things Ferrari, the game itself ultimately does little to explain where this passion comes from. If you're not already besotted with the brand, and don't get off on deeply technical racing games, then it doesn't want to know. As far as the Church of Ferrarism is concerned, we're preaching to the converted rather than knocking on your door and trying to change your life with a fistful of evangelical leaflets.
The approach is hardcore simulation rather than arcade thrills which already places this in a niche within a niche. The handling model is robust and convincing, but also ferociously tough and unforgiving. Brake hard and brake early, or every corner becomes a trap, draining precious seconds through wasted momentum and forced penalties. It has more in common with a Formula 1 or Superbike game than most of its four-wheeled peers. It's certainly an impressive work of simulation, especially since it comes from Eutechnyx.
The Newcastle-based developer has specialised in driving games for over ten years, yet has been mostly stuck churning out the uninspired likes of 007 Racing, Big Mutha Truckers, The Fast and the Furious, Hot Wheels and the ghastly Pimp My Ride. Not a track record that quite matches the prestige of the Ferrari name, but the team's risen to the occasion and produced a thoroughbred racing physics engine that can almost hold its own against the Bizarre Creations and Polyphony Digitals of this world.
Given its technical nature, the game is thankfully generous with the assists, to the extent that the relative strength of everything from traction control to ABS can be tweaked. Tweaked within fairly narrow parameters, and there's very little explanation as to what the jargon means, but it's tweaked nonetheless. Tiff Needell is also on-hand to talk you around the Ferrari test track, and while his sarky tone can grate, his advice and post practice breakdown are extremely useful in identifying and tackling your weak spots.
Yet for all the realistic visual and sensory feedback (the game supports DualShock 3) the gameplay balance feels somewhat askew. The AI is not exactly razor-sharp, and rival racers often seem more concerned with preserving the finish on their car than with making aggressive decisions. For less experienced players, the challenge comes simply from mastering the demanding control and keeping the car on the track.
Once you've grasped the skills required, or if you're already adept at this sort of technical driving game, you'll find that beating the pack actually isn't that hard. The assists therefore provide some element of scaleable difficulty, but only as far as the driving goes. The game really needs a way of ramping up the game itself, even via something as old fashioned as an Easy - Medium - Hard selection.
The visuals are impressive, though its clear attention has been focused on the cars rather than the scenery. These are lovingly recreated vehicles, and the frame-rate holds steady - if not particularly high, at 30fps - regardless of what's occurring on-screen. As with all licensed racers, it's the damage model that lets the side down.