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F1 Qualifying

Article - Formula One week kicks off with a look at the leading Grand Prix videogames

With the British Grand Prix at Silverstone coming up this weekend, we decided it was high time that we followed the success of our Football Week with an F1 Week. Over the next seven days we'll be bringing you reviews of the latest Grand Prix games from EA and Infogrames and an interview with Downforce developers Smart Dog.

To get things rolling, today we take a look at the current state of play in the world of Grand Prix gaming. Is the battle as one-sided as this year's driver's championship, or is there a dark horse further down the grid?

Formation Lap

In the past Bernie Ecclestone and the boys have handed out F1 videogame licenses like they were confetti, with several new titles arriving each year from a variety of publishers. Although a few (such as the retro-flavoured Grand Prix Legends) managed to stand out from the crowd, most of these releases now grace the depths of the bargain bin at your local gaming emporium. And with celebrity endorsements from top drivers like... er... Johnny Herbert, it's perhaps unsurprising.

This flood of F1 games has eased recently though, which unfortunately leaves us with rather slim pickings for a Grand Prix round-up. As a result our starting grid looks more like the last lap at Monaco, with half a dozen weary competitors strung out across the track and former contendors embedded in the armco. Those who have managed to last the distance are essentially split into two camps - arcade and simulation.

F1 2002 on the Xbox, allegedly. Unfortunately it doesn't look quite this good in reality.

F1 2002

Except for F1 2002 from EA Sports, which tries (fairly unsuccessfully, it has to be said) to straddle both. It's a typically glitzy cross-platform package from EA, with all the latest track, drivers and cars for the current season included out of the box. PC, PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions are already available, and a GameCube port is due early in August.

The bad news is that EA have overstretched themselves, both in terms of gameplay and graphics. While F1 2002 is visually pleasing, it's a far cry from the gorgeous screenshots that we saw pre-release, and even the Xbox version suffers from chronic slowdowns on several circuits. The last thing you want is for the framerate to start chugging as you go down the hill at Imola, or streak down the back straight at Sepang, lining up to have a stab down the inside going into the final corner. Sadly this is exactly what happens.

Gameplay-wise, F1 2002 features both arcade and simulation modes, but neither of them quite hit the spot. We didn't think the AI was up to scratch and the simulation mode lacked the depth of a serious sim-focused game, while the arcade mode was rather on the easy side. To add insult to injury, some of the advanced features (such as vehicle damage and tyre wear) are only unlocked once you've completed a series of irritating tests which seem to have been lifted almost verbatim from Gran Turismo 3.

If F1 2002 was a Grand Prix driver, it would be Eddie Irvine. It looks good and has a big mouth, but it's a bit slow on the track at times, and although it's competent enough, it isn't really worth that much money.

Look at the size of the rear wing on that thing!

Downforce

Focusing firmly on the arcade side of things is Downforce, courtesy of the Titus empire and developers Smart Dog. Strictly speaking it's not a Formula One game - it doesn't feature any of the real world circuits, cars or drivers - but it's still grounded in F1 tradition.

The basic premise is that a group of Grand Prix drivers have got fed up with the constantly changing rules that the FIA imposes in a futile attempt to slow them down, and have left to form their own rival championship where speed, grip and aerodynamics are set free. The result is fast-paced arcade-style action, with outrageous looking cars racing around street circuits in major cities such as Tokyo and Las Vegas.

The scenery might look a little bland compared to some of its rivals, but Downforce runs fast and smooth, with plenty of on track action to keep you occupied as you muscle your way through the field. This is easier said than done though, as the AI plays dirty and isn't above punting you off the track, resulting in a spectacular fender bender with cars cartwheeling through the air and bits of debris flying off in all directions.

If Downforce was a Grand Prix driver, it would be Juan Pablo Montoya. It's not the prettiest game on the grid, but it's fast and furious and has plenty of crashes.

Wheel to wheel racing is the order of the day here

Formula One Arcade

And the prize for most appropriate title goes to Sony, for Formula One Arcade, due out later this summer on the elderly PlayStation One. Given the younger audience that Sony's entry level console is now aimed at, it's no surprise to discover that F1 Arcade is designed to be quick to pick up and simple to control.

All that car setup malarkey goes right out the window, and instead you are given a choice of teams to drive for and thrown straight into the action. Physics and driving model are likely to bear little relation to reality, and players will be able to get away with driving across the grass or having a nudge against the barriers. Developers Studio 33 have even added a few extra tyre barriers to make the steel fences of street circuits more forgiving if you get out of shape, while big brightly coloured arrows helpfully point you in the right direction.

Aside from these cosmetic changes though, the game looks surprisingly good. It was never going to give the likes of Grand Prix 4 and F1 2002 any serious competition in the eye candy stakes, but the circuits are instantly recognisable and (apart from rather blocky wheels) the cars are nicely detailed. If you want a truly arcade experience, complete with power-ups to give you temporary turbo boosts or improved grip, F1 Arcade might be worth a look.

If F1 Arcade was a Grand Prix driver, it would be Alex Yoong. Ok, so its hardware is a little behind the times and it spends far too much time in the gravel traps, but it's fun to watch.

An oldie but a goldie (or something)

Grand Prix 3

The past master of the simulation end of Grand Prix games, Geoff Crammond's last labour of love might be a little long in the tooth, but it's now available for a paltry £15. Given that it should run on pretty much any PC bought in the last three or four years, it's perhaps the perfect purchase for Formula One fans on a budget.

Grand Prix 3 wasn't exactly up to date when it was first released back in 2000, with a lengthy development cycle leaving the game saddled with car and track data unearthed from ancient history (1998, to be precise) by a team of archaeologists. On the bright side, Formula One was arguably more exciting back then anyway, and this was probably the finest representation in videogame format of that year's championship. If you have a few bob to spare a 2000 season add-on pack is also available.

Although the Grand Prix series has a reputation for serious simulation amongst the hardcore, the wide range of driver aids on offer means that pretty much anybody can jump into the car and get to the end of a lap in one piece, and the complexity can then be gradually ramped up as you get more comfortable with the cars' handling and the intricacies of pre-race setup.

If GP3 was a Grand Prix driver, it would be Michael Schumacher. It might be getting a bit old, but it's the reigning world champion and can still teach the upstarts a thing or two.

Another hit for Geoff Crammond and co?

Grand Prix 4

Which brings us to the latest challenger, Grand Prix 4. Sadly we're still waiting for our review copy of the game to appear, but initial reports suggest that it's another strong entry from industry veteran Geoff Crammond.

Obviously the graphics have had a major overhaul, and the results are stunning on high-end machines. The old fashioned motionless bitmap characters of yore have been replaced by a fully animated polygonal pit crew to refuel you, replace your tires and pull bits of debris out of your car. Even the track marshalls get a look-in on the action, waving their flags to warn you of impending trouble or running out to remove an expired car from the circuit. And if you don't have the hardware to handle it, an Xbox version of the game is expected later in the summer.

On the gameplay front, the series still isn't entirely up to date, but given that we put up with two year old data last time round, having to make do with the 2001 season isn't exactly a hardship for the fans. Besides, user-made mods are already available to update the cars and drivers with this year's line-up, and no doubt an official 2002 add-on pack will be released at some point as well.

If GP4 was a Grand Prix driver, it would be Ralph Schumacher. Its big brother might have been dominating the running for the last few years, but the general opinion is that the younger of the two is ultimately going to be picking up the crown.

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