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.
The cars will take damage, but it has no effect on the handling or speed. It's a half-hearted cosmetic feature, and given that the Ferrari Challenge is supposedly a rough and tumble TOCA style experience, this lack of meaningful physical impact leaves a crucial element of the game - risk versus reward - feeling undercooked. I can still vividly remember TOCA races on the PS2 where I gritted my teeth and steered a mangled wreck to unlikely victory. That's not going to happen here, where shunts and collisions feel torn between gamer expectation and licensor disapproval.
In fact, the whole game feels rather aloof and clinical in its approach. This obviously isn't something that can be scientifically quantified, but there's a nagging suspicion that opening up a desirable sports car around the world's most famous racetracks should feel more...fun. Between the realistic handling and the fanatical attention to detail, the result is a game that seems more concerned that you admire your Ferraris with due reverence than do anything as disrespectful as using them for fast-paced amusement. It's obviously a game born of passion, but it feels like the sort of middle-aged "look but don't touch" passion that leads to grown men keeping scale models in carefully guarded display cases. It's all very stoically efficient, but you can almost hear the game tutting should you do anything that even feels like a dirty-boy power-slide.
Variety isn't really a concern, so I'm not about to make the foolish mistake of criticising a Ferrari Challenge game for sticking to the established one-car Ferrari Challenge format. Even though the Challenge mode restricts you to the 430, there are over fifty Ferrari models drawn from throughout the company's illustrious history to be earned, as well as sixteen real-world tracks - some renamed, presumably due to licensing hiccups. The rather ambitious plan is to apparently add new tracks and cars via download each month until every Ferrari ever made is in the game, and I suspect that Mark Cale is obsessed enough to do it as well, even if only five people buy the bloody things.
Outside of the main event there are several attempts to expand the scope of the game, including specific Trophy events for the various Ferrari cars which can be unlocked and an Arcade mode, which handles exactly the same but allows you to razz any Ferrari you fancy through a tiered series of set races. There's no offline multiplayer, only internet and LAN play, which all feels rather 1995 MS-DOS. The options here aren't staggering - you can basically set up a race for up to 16 players, but there's no long-term championship scope or leaderboard incentive. Worth a tinker, then, but not something that will keep you logged on for long. [Or indeed at all until it's patched, in some cases. - Ed]
There's also a Top Trumps card game in which the CPU player seems to cheat like a bastard. There's no way of playing this game with a friend, so it seems like a rather odd inclusion. For those with an Airfix mentality, you also get a reasonably broad customisation suite that allows you to plaster your vehicles in vinyls and decals, saving different livery types for different events.
Overall though, Ferrari Challenge is a promising physics engine welded to a game that may be a little too anal for its own good. Dedicated followers of the brand will obviously find much to enjoy, as will those who like their racing dry and technical. It's just a shame the game doesn't do more to win over everyone else.
7 / 10