Now that Formula One is officially the most predictable sport in the world, it must be hard for videogame makers to generate enthusiasm for something that has lost all the elements of competition and surprise that it once had.
Nevertheless, Sony has had a pretty decent track record of producing F1 games, stretching way back to the launch of the PSX. We've lost track of how many it has produced over the years, but including the often excellent Psygnosis developed editions, this must be at least the seventh it has released.
Developed by 'Team Liverpool' since the demise of Psygnosis, Formula One 2002 hardly needs any introduction - it features all the real life tracks, constructors, drivers and cars as usual, and even dear old Murray Walker doing his usual excitable, and slightly irritating commentary.
Gameplay modes are plentiful, with something for everyone: Quick Race, Arcade, Arcade Season, Time Attack, Simulation, and two player split screen mode. Three difficulty modes enable you to turn off or on numerous driving aids, so in theory whether you're a veteran or a rookie, you should be able to get to grips with the game in no time.
Arcade enables you to jump in on any track and have a five lap quickie, but features a damage bar - so charging around bashing into everything is not an option. Ram too hard and it'll be Game Over before you've made it around the first lap.
Single race is a similar story, although this time you can whack on the driving aids and blast around to your heart's content. This does, however, show up the rather suspect physics within the game that enable you to perform some truly bizarre manoeuvres, such as flipping the car multiple times, and being able to drive on regardless - while, of course, showing no signs of damage. These anomalies aside, the handling is the right balance between challenging and forgiving. The right amount of braking and knowledge of the oncoming bends does give even novices the chance to work their way up the pack.
Time Attack is self explanatory, while Simulation mode is where the real effort has been made, giving gamers the chance to prepare for each race in the most authentic fashion possible. Tweak the cars, shave seconds off the practise lap times - it's all there. If you're really keen, you can even perform the same number of laps that the professionals would in real life; but surely you'd have to be some kind of masochistic nutter to want to race around the same circuit for over an hour.
Sony claims the driver AI has been set up so that you'll begin to really notice driver personalities, with some acting aggressively. We honestly didn't notice, but then we suspect you'd have to play the game a) in a serious, committed fashion (i.e. not driving like a lunatic like us) and b) for a long long time before elements like that become noticeable.
Feel my roar!
One area Formula One 2002 does excel is its simulation of the engine noise - as you're powering towards a bend, it's just as much your reliance on the engine sound as your speedometer that tells you if you're going too fast. Whoever's responsible for this deserves a hearty pat on the back - shame about the really bad generic 'rawk' music that accompanies the Arcade mode. It's hard to know what's worse: that, or Murray Walker bellowing "He's on the grass again" for the 19th time in succession.
What happened to the visuals?
But whatever your racing preferences, it's immediately apparent that the visuals are nowhere near approaching the standard we've become accustomed to on the PS2. Texture blandness abounds, with advertising hoardings blurring in and out of view, trackside detail uninspiring, and spectators wafer thin cut outs. Compared to the competition (mainly EA's F1, but Infogrames has the promising Grand Prix Challenge out soon) the eye candy just isn't up to scratch. While pop up and slowdown doesn't appear to be a problem, the whole game looks like a first gen PS2 game. In its favour, at least the frame rate is nippy and the gameplay experience isn't hindered in any serious way, but still, any discerning gamer faced with such visual blandness has to dig deep to find out whether the game makes up for it in other areas.
Formula One 2002 is by no means a turkey - it's just that we've been spoiled by visual splendour from the likes of Burnout 2 and Shox lately. And besides, with at least three publishers releasing F1 games every single year, Sony needs to at least make its version visually exciting - otherwise they end up looking like limp, also ran cash in releases.