It's taken a long time, but the first quality Formula 1 racer has arived for the N64. Developed by Paradigm Entertainment and Video System, F-1 World Grand Prix is an outstanding sim that runs circles around last year's F1 Pole Position from Ubi Soft -- the only other N64 F1 racer to date.
F-1 World Grand Prix comes home with an impressive list of features. Next to Rumble Pak and (albeit limited) steering wheel support, the game has a slew of great racing modes and full FIA licensing. You will find all of your favorite drivers (except for Canada's Villeneuve, of course, who is replaced by a generic "Williams Driver") and race teams, and all the real tracks. On a side note, if you're a huge Villeneuve fan you can simply change the default driver's name with the included name edit function. All his stats are there. On to the racing modes:
Exhibition: Pick any track and driver and race between one and 35 laps against the rest of the pack. And since World Grand Prix is a racing sim at heart, you decide your fuel level, tire types, wings, and gear-box settings before each race, just like in the Grand Prix mode.
Grand Prix: Drive an authentic 1997 Grand Prix season on 17 tracks. Maneuvering the hairpin turns and twisted tracks of Monaco or Suzuka is not an easy task, so be sure to drive a few practice laps, then qualify for the race, warm up your "tyres," and finally battle against 21 drivers from 11 teams. Make pit stops at key points in the game to change your tires or refuel.
Challenge: One of the coolest features in the game gives you the chance to jump into the midst of a historical race from the 1997 season and try to finish a set task. The missions are excellent. For example, you are the only driver to forgo Good Year's new, softer tires -- while everyone has to do a pit stop, you have the chance to overtake everyone and gain the lead.
Time Trial: Compete against a ghost car. Each time you complete a lap in record time, the ghost car is updated with your latest performance.
2 Player: Go head-to-head against a second player in a vertical or horizontal split-screen battle, then watch a split- or one-screen replay of the race. Unfortunately, there is no Championship mode for two players.
In addition to the basic modes, the game offers options to make the game less or more realistic:
Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: This is a sim. If you're looking for an arcade racer with huge jumps and lots of dirty tricks, this isn't it. F1 World Grand Prix has high speeds and fine-tuned controls that will make every sim fan's heart beat higher, but it also requires exact navigation, downshifting for curves and following the racing line. On top of that, it's a tough game to beat with a steep learning curve. But the good news for beginners is that the makers of this game haven't forgotten about you. When you choose your driver, you can pick "rookie" skill and controls that help you stay on the tracks by applying brake and acceleration assistance before and after turns. Anyone familiar with F1 racing will of course go for the "professional" or "champion" difficulties, which lack the default assist options and feature much tougher AI for the other drivers.
Before starting a race, you can check out the track's layout and weather conditions and accordingly customize your car's settings on your Paddock Computer. Fuel, tires, wings, gear, suspension and steering all influence your machine's speed, acceleration, turn and brake capabilities -- and thanks to the graphically well-designed displays, you can see the effect of your changes in real-time.
Although there are plenty of racers on the system, creating a realistic F-1 racing game on the N64 is no small feat. Not only do the physics have to replicate the feel of the real thing, but the programmers also need to recreate the real tracks with all their turns, long straights, and accurate details, and have 22 cars race at the same time. This translates into large numbers of polygons on screen at once and large, detailed texture maps -- not ideal prerequisites for an N64 game. Thankfully, Paradigm and Video System pulled it off. The game controls like a charm, mirroring the touchy controls of the real race. Steer left and right with the analog stick and push down left/right for tighter turns. It's tough at first, but you'll soon get the hang of it. The other cars -- most of the time -- behave like they should, follow the racing line, weave in and out, and drive with varying levels of aggressiveness (you can sneak by Trulli without a problem, but Hill will put up more of a fight). There are some moments with questionable physics (some cars come to a dead stop behind you when the yellow flag is up) and the impact physics aren't always right ("twitching" cars), but overall, this game is a sim fan's dream. For those of you with a little more action in mind -- losing tires and watching the sparks fly can be quite entertaining. Too bad only that you can't blow your engine. Perhaps in the next one, Paradigm?
The Challenge Mode, a popular feature in better soccer and football sims, is another high point in World Grand Prix. Reliving "real" events of last year's F1 season and taking on the roles of famous drivers in key moments of the races adds a lot of replay value to the game. The "Time Trial" and "2 Player" modes are also well-executed, although the lack of a two-player championship (perhaps with a more limited number of cars on the tracks) is sorely missed.
The game sports that same blurry look as most N64 racers, but the international courses are rendered with a keen eye for detail, down to the accurate billboards and cityscapes in the background (of course, Nintendo changed the cigarette and alcohol ads into something less "harmful" -- but the changes are only slight). Even Monaco appears accurate, with all the right elements where they belong, including the yacht harbor, the tunnel, and the infamous winding curves. It looks like Paradigm is running some wicked LOD routines as you can look quite far into the distance with only light atmospheric fogging way in the background. Because of the detail involved, framerates are erratic at times, which is one of the game's few problems. When turning around corners the visuals tend to stutter for a moment before the game works its way up again. Not a big deal, but a detraction from the otherwise impressive look.
On the positive side, the detail level of the vehicles is surprisingly high. You will instantly recognize the different body shapes and features of the respective teams' cars. There are five viewpoints, including an incredible cockpit view -- the best we have seen yet -- complete with the driver's hands moving the steering wheel. Like in real life, the two in-cockpit views will shake the screen quite a lot when driving, making the action all the more realistic.
Some of the graphical effects in the game are outstanding and make the game look almost real. Your tires leave skid marks on the tracks, start smoking in tight turns or even kick up dirt when driving off the road. Your tires even get dirty when you leave the track and the dirt wears off after a few moments. Similarly, if you get new tires in the pits, you will see the factory markings on them for a few seconds. Another example of the high level of detail in the game is the brake glow. Go into a turn and put on the brakes and your front brake disks will turn red for a moment (if you have a car where the disks are visible).
Weather conditions change from sunny, over cloudy, to rainy -- the latter featuring the most impressive rain effect on the N64 yet, complete with appropriately moody cloud backgrounds and fogging. The replay mode, which lets you check out your last lap from a variety of angles, is equally impressive. The framerates are painful when there are many cars on screen, but it almost looks like a TV broadcast most of the time.
Other features include a graphically well-designed Head up Display (HUD) that provides key info on car at all times (race postion, current lap, and series of six warning lights detailing the car's vital signs) and the cool looking Paddock Computer.
While still not perfect and a little to clean, the cars' engine sound real enough, accompanied by a few real-life race samples in the background. It sounds authentic, but I wish there was a little more variety as the crash noises and skid noises quickly get old. I have yet to play a game where you hear that nasty rubber-grinding sound when your wheels come into contact with another car. In terms of speech, Paradigm included basic pit talk advice, such as "your suspension's damaged" or "Coulthard is three seconds behind you." It's limited, but it works and serves as a good reminder to check your rear view and HUD.
F-1 World Grand Prix is easily Video System's best game yet. Excellent control and driver AI highlight a hyper-realistic racer that only seems to suffer in one area: smoothness. If you're a graphics nut who can't take an overall lower framerate, or you're not sure that realism is what you want in a racer, you might want to rent this one first -- F1 and sim racing fans, don't even think twice. This game is too hot to pass up. Let's hope this is only the beginning of a long line of racing sims from the Paradigm/Video System team.