The Perfect Formula?
EA is back with another seasonal update to a popular sports franchise. F1 2002 fares better than the lamentable 2002 FIFA World Cup did earlier this year, but then we prefer bouncing a ball against the radiator in the front room to playing that game. F1 2002 is certainly not decrepit, and it's beyond competent, but is it beyond its competition? In a word: no.
Upon firing up F1 2002, the most obvious thing to do is hop into a car and race around your favourite F1 venues, and thanks to the ubiquitous Quick Race option you can do just that, with Silverstone, Hockenheim and Monza available from the get-go. Achieve a top six finish in the four-lap exhibition and you can unlock more circuits, and this gives you a nice grounding for the rest of the game.
A better introduction is provided by the excellent Challenge mode, which teaches you the basics, the moderately difficult stuff and the things that make modern F1 drivers cringe, with gold, silver and bronze Gran Turismo 3 style ratings dependent on your performance. You may find yourself cruising through the first few tasks, but then starting off, braking and simple cornering aren't exactly rocket science - even my unwieldy Volvo can manage those. When asked to handle chicanes and hairpins though, one requires a bit of instruction, and the demands of dry and wet weather conditions and pit stop protocol are certainly in need of some explanation. F1 2002 does a good job and takes things a few steps further, introducing you to advanced features like damage control, oil leaks, how to employ manual transmission and even when and how the various penalties and flag warnings apply.
Once you emerge from boot camp you should be fully equipped to deal with the 17 circuits, but applying your newfound skills is more difficult than simply peering down the track ahead of you. With this in mind, EA has included detailed flybys of each circuit to case every turn and nuance of the courses, which as you might expect are authentic right down to the colour of the tarmac. This wealth of detail is impressive throughout, and the game makes a meal of the whole race weekend tradition, with practice sessions followed by qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday, and then warm-up laps and the full race on Sunday, complete with busty models prowling the pits and a roaring crowd of spectators.
This detail is reflected in the graphical side of the game too, which is mostly good with a smattering of bad. As you would expect from EA, the cars are all perfect replicas of their 2002 season counterparts, and circuits likewise are beautifully modelled and detailed. The real highlight though, as with the likes of Moto GP and Wave Race Blue Storm, is the presence of Mother Nature, with rain batting down at an angle throughout, while raindrops settle on the windscreen and refract your view of the world. It's not torrential, nor unrealistic, but it can transform a relatively sedate spectacle into something more challenging. Cars obviously receive damage, and the game can cope with pretty much any part of the vehicle giving up the ghost and falling off, and the fact that there are gameplay implications with every splinter makes all the difference.
Despite a strong showing so far though, F1 2002 suffers at the hands of incessant slowdown, which persistently punctuates high-speed encounters on tracks like Imola and Monaco, and cuts through the tension and realism like Michael Schumacher through a Silverstone tyre wall. Sounds are good, with roaring engines and splintering metal, and although there's no official commentary we reckon we would have hated it anyway, so that's no big loss. However, whirring and revving can't make up for a jerky product.
The depth of F1 2002 tries to return to its rescue, and as you flee the shuddering track in search of a little repair or refuelling, the pits come to life. This is an area of true strength for EA; you can simply duck in and out again, just as you can enable assisted cornering, traction and braking, but this leaves you with a flawed arcade racer, so the advanced simulation features come as a relief. Here you can tweak tyre pressure, wing angles, brake bias, gear box ratios and all sorts of other things, and the game even tells you why you should or shouldn't. Unlike Grand Prix 3, which can be overwhelmingly detailed, F1 2002 makes a strong argument for "almost realism".
Sadly though, almost realism turns out to be less than you might hope for. With all its optional assists, EA has created a pretty good on-the-rails arcade racer, and for those in search of more than just turns and crashes, it's a competent enough simulation as well, but F1 2002 is surpassed by the ageing Grand Prix 3 in both respects, and the much anticipated sequel from Geoff Crammond is due out on Xbox this summer, with the PC version already available.
F1 2002 lets you tone down the realism, but then so does GP3, and GP3's on-the-rails racer is effectively more realistic and more fun than its counterpart here. Similarly, you can go for the most possible realism with no cog left untweaked, but where F1 2002 lets you play with the brake bias, GP3 practically invites you to redesign the braking system. EA picked the wrong fight here, and even the 2002 season date with the Toyota team and proper, life-like vehicles can't save it, because most would argue that F1 has got progressively less exciting anyway, so the older the data, the better!
It's also a little sad to see EA hiding the advanced features behind the Gran Turismo style tutorial mode, because it's not a piece of cake to finish, and it does mask some of the best elements of the game. I feel the need to be equally disparaging in my assessment of the AI, too. It's good, but not without fault (a pretty accurate description of the game as a whole), and most drivers are apparently programmed to cause problems for themselves to simulate driver error. The fact that I never found myself too far off the pace to recoup my position was also a shame, but then the fact that I could overtake easily at all could be considered unrealistic...
There is some added value to consider in the shape of the multiplayer mode, with up to four player split-screen racing, but trying to render four times the action on one screen when the game couldn't even handle it reliably the once makes the whole thing resemble a slide show.
Ultimately, what it all boils down to is this: in playing F1 2002, you can simulate F1 to the nth degree, and the high standards of presentation and authenticity are important gimmicks, but as anybody in F1 will tell you, you can't give the opposition anything. In Geoff Crammond and his team, EA's competition is the proverbial Michael Schumacher of the circuit, and in the end, Michael doesn't make mistakes, and F1 2002 makes plenty.