Electronic Arts may sell more games than anyone else by a mile, but one genre it hasn't had blockbusting success with is Formula One. Given the saturation in the market, and broadly similar titles, it's perhaps not surprising that it chose to let the official license pass onto Sony, which now has the full rights to the sport for the next four seasons.
But with such a big investment over the years, EA had two choices: either wash its hands of the diminishing F1 games market or try and recoup its money from the four seasons it doubtlessly paid a bundle for. Unsurprisingly it took the latter option, and has created an imaginative career-based game that allows players to try and work their way up to F1 stardom using all the official teams, drivers, tracks and stats across the last four seasons, from 1999 to 2002.
Prove your racing mettle
In a nod to the Gran Turismo series, budding drivers must first earn the right to be considered a Formula One driver and earn a 'Super Licence' by proving their prowess behind the wheel in a series of increasingly taxing tests. After you've created your own personal racing hero, you have to pass three sections; firstly, 'Basic Driving' tests speed, stopping and fast cornering on the Monza circuit, followed by more focused cornering techniques through a chicane and a hairpin bend on Imola, while 'Racecraft' tasks wannabe drivers with tricky overtaking and pit-stop techniques.
It's a neat introduction to the game, and although quite tough, it acts as a decent tutorial, preparing you for the rigours ahead. Each test has a Pass and an Ace rating, and depending on how well you perform you'll be offered a racing contract with a selection of three teams once you've got the Super Licence in the bag.
From there you can get stuck straight into a full season, and each race is broken down pretty much exactly how you'd imagine it in real life. Car setup allows you to tweak all the major elements of the car, including steering, downforce and gearbox, giving you the chance to tailor the settings to the demands of the track.
Get your babes here
If you don't fancy getting your hands dirty, you can always jump straight into the Test Scenario to take a lap on the current course and gather valuable telemetry data for your team, followed by the various weekend qualifying sessions and the race itself. If you want, you can skip all that and dive straight into the race, albeit at the back of the grid. Getting familiar with the track, however, reaps its own rewards, with the game dishing out 'cards' when you perform certain race tasks well, such as cornering, overtaking, or completing specific 'Hot Zone' sections of the track. After the race, you'll be able to spend your cards on various extras and upgrades such as Pit Lane Babes (we kid you not), and slightly more useful kit like a better engine.
As a rookie, your team doesn't expect miracles, but gives you a base target to aim for, and you'll find that a 17th place finish is enough to keep them happy in the beginning. Enhance your reputation, however, and soon they'll be expecting more from you, and won't be shy at giving you a dressing down if things aren't going to plan.
With a full four seasons to aim for, there's a serious challenge in there is you fancy it, but it's not one you'll have an easy time managing without one hell of a reserve of patience.
Our biggest headache was attempting to get to grips with the handling, if you'll pardon the pun. Even after a fairly ruthless examination, the Super Licence cannot hope to prepare the unwary for the task ahead. Even with every driving aid turned on (of which there are predictably plenty), and messing around with understeer or oversteer you'll have a major task wrestling your car around every single bend without coming unstuck. Although you're given fair Red/Amber/Green warning of the upcoming danger of each approaching bend, it's does little to water down the omnipresent danger of skidding off into the gravel.
An erroneous trial
You can, of course, ease off the gas and via a process of trial and mainly error learn exactly the best way to navigate each bend, but the trouble is, the car always seems to want to work against you, and any slight contact with opponents, or overcompensation in the steering will almost always result in yet another visit to the trackside scenery. It's frustrating to say the least, and even getting around the track without crashing will strike you as a major achievement. Given that driving remotely carefully will almost certainly leave you well behind the pack from the very first lap means any hope of challenging the CPU opponents disappears very quickly. It's a vicious circle; you take risks to keep up, but can't cope with the tough handling, or you overcompensate by slowing down and still can't keep up. Ugh.
No doubt, if you're really into your F1 games you'll welcome the punishing realism and see this as part of the fun. For us, we're approaching this perhaps from a more casual perspective, and recommend that you consider any potential partnership with F1 Career Challenge as a long-term commitment, rather than an exciting fling. Even so, it's not often that EA decides to sacrifice instant fun for bloody-minded realism. When you think of EA Sports you associate it with pick up and play mass-market fun. Well presented, slick, solid, but ultimately short lived. Not so in this case; it's almost the polar opposite of Sony's arcade-minded Formula One 2003, and suffers because of it.
In the likely event that you find yourself all at sea, you can always take time out to practice in the Quick Race or Time Trial modes, which allow you to choose any track, with any car and in a variety of lengths, weather conditions or just about any other racing conditions you can imagine. Either that, or you can pit your skills against a mate in the inevitable split-screen multiplayer mode. In the PS2 version, the game limits you to two-player split screen for the full grid, but supports four player head to head racing, mercifully, either via Multitap, or a combination of two pads and two USB steering wheels. The frame rate and detail levels are within the realms of acceptability, but don't expect too much.
But even in one player mode EA's often-celebrated graphical splendour is lacking in this release. Two years ago, this game engine was the best F1 gaming had ever seen, displaying splendid (albeit overused) wet weather effects and a lightning quick frame rate. In most respects it's showing its age next to Sony's effort, with the trackside detail in particular no longer anything special, and sense of speed not up to the same level.
At times the graphics stray into the realms of comedy, especially when you're welcomed by your zombie pit team, who wobble about and stare gormlessly clapping like they're mocking the afflicted. Most odd. Suffice to say it looks like EA cut the investment bloodline for this release, choosing to stick with its existing tech rather than splash out for an all-new engine.
In fairness, F1 Career Challenge is a solid release, but in the crowded F1 arena that's no longer good enough. For anyone who has either of the last two EA F1 games, don't bother, unless the idea of building an F1 career specifically appeals to you. For us, it just smacks of more of the same, and in this ridiculously crowded genre that's about as much of a kiss of death as we can think of.