Sports games these days seem to have turned getting ahead of themselves into something of a pastime. Both the FIFA and Madden franchises perennially pre-empt the dates in their titles by a sizable chunk of the year, and later on this month, the even more speculative Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 will be with us. Apparently, a Mayan delegation are already on route to this year’s Masters to inform Mr Woods that he’s made a prophetic faux pas of apocalyptic proportions.
So what are we to make then of F1 2011 arriving now on the PlayStation Vita? Is this some sort of reimagining of Back to the Future directed by Flavio Briatore? A Marty McFly does motorsport, starring Sebastian Vettel in the Michael J. Fox role and Bernie Ecclestone as Doc Emmett Brown? All that’s missing is a couple of guys willing to chase after Seb in a VW van with a rocket launcher (well, Lewis and Jenson have got to find some way of stopping him).
Actually, the reason for this small wrinkle in the sports-time continuum is down to the unfortunate confluence of the Vita’s launch and the impending start of the new F1 season. It’s certainly not the fault of the game’s developers Sumo Digital, who were also behind the ambitious but decidedly erratic port to the 3DS. But with car designs for the 2012 Championship revealed only weeks ago, and teams still testing and tinkering around down at Circuit de Catalunya, no one, not even those in the paddock, currently has a clear idea how this year’s runners and riders are going to shape up.
So, for the time being then, it’s a case of Formula Flashback for Sony’s forward-looking handheld. All last season’s cars, drivers and circuits are here, but while the decor may be slightly dated, F1 is a game fully fitted out with an impressive amount of content. Albeit one where quantity seems to have taken precedence over that all important final coat of polish.
Circling around the central, 3 year long, Career mode are a single season Championship, ad hoc and online multiplayer options for up to 4 competitors, and a selection of single player time trial, quick race and challenge events ideally suited for those after just a quick blast of speed and wind on their helmet.
The challenges in particular add some welcome variety to the standard, simulator-fair the rest of the game trades in. A selection box of fun-sized skill tests that include tasks such as hitting a set number of checkpoints or drafting and overtaking a certain number of cars before a timer expires, pass enough of them and you’ll unlock a more rigorous final challenge, such as going one-on-one with a pro driver or finishing a rain race on slick tyres, that needs to be completed to move on to the next group.
It’s perhaps too much of a stretch to argue that these challenges are quasi training tutorials. How often in a race these days do you have to dodge around identical stationary objects now that Minardi aren’t racing anymore? Instead they’re attention grabbing little arcade-y diversions. The main issue with them, aside from a lack of balance in the difficult of the different types, is a paucity of information on what’s required to reach the necessary ‘C’ grade in each one.
The Career mode itself involves working your way up the ranks in standard fashion. Each race weekend is segmented into the full complement of practise sessions, qualifying rounds and, of course, the race itself. A checklist of different options allows you to fiddle around under the bonnet employing different driver aids to give the learning curve a gentler gradient, as well as altering the settings for A.I. difficulty and mechanical failures. There’s even the chance to be given a bit more leeway with the race stewards who otherwise seem as keen as any other fascists to unfurl their black flag.
While the racing content is all present and correct, however, Sumo have excluded most of Codemasters’ largely unsuccessful attempts at trying to recreate the glamorous life of an F1 driver. While few will be disappointed at escaping the chore of mind-numbing press conferences, after all your toiling out on the track, it would have been nice to have at least seen your driver clamber up on a podium, pop a champagne cork and receive a peck on the cheek from a pretty girl. Instead, the game keeps such frivolities and other distractions at arm’s length, opting instead to conduct all its business through the rather impersonal medium of your email inbox.
Behind the wheel, it’s fair to say that if you’ve played the console versions of F1 2010 or ’11, you’ll quickly be up to pace here. Having said that, while the KERS and DRS systems are both in good working order – even on the Red Bulls, so it’s not entirely realistic – and the A.I drivers seem to be controlled by some sort of Alain Prost hive mind that enforces caution towards each other and is all be oblivious to you, it’s with the driving model that Sumo seem to have attempted their biggest risk.
While the Vita’s twin analog sticks are certainly no slouch, they don’t quite have the same accuracy of movement as those on a console controller. To compensate for this, Sumo seem to have made the handling a bit more forgiving, and although driving still remains about discipline, speed and precision – finding the edge without straying over it – there’s a bit more opportunity for correction before you find yourself conducting a close examination of a tyre wall.
The lack of the ability to rewind the action as you can in the home console game makes this added flexibility even more welcome. The unfortunate consequence to it, however, is that the racing does have a distinct sense of the Scalectrix about it. Not because the cars behave like they’re on rails, but because of a plasticy lack of weight to them and the damage model.
While the Vita’s screen is prestigiously sized for that of a handheld, its restricted dimensions hinder matters further. Success in Codemasters’ F1 games has always been down to committing the layout of each track to memory, but here you need to do it in Savant-like style due to the combination of speed and squint-factor. There’s also a lack of fine detail to the visuals, something particularly noticeable from the cockpit view, and while these appear to have been sacrificed to assist the framerate, this still judders occasionally under heavy breaking or when there are a lot of vehicles on screen.
As for the Vita’s touch controls, well, Sumo have used them in much the same way an F1 team does sponsors liveries on the side of their cars: Present as optional features, but in no way necessary to make the thing work as it should. This Vita version of F1 2011 really doesn’t need to be bothering itself with them, though. While it’s not quite the equal of its PS3 and Xbox 360 bigger brethren in terms of quality, if you’re a Vita-owning F1 fan, there’s more than enough of the content you’re looking for here to keep you going until F1 2012 arrives – which will hopefully be before 2013.
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