Thank God it ain't Pod!
Seemingly from out of nowhere, Ubi Soft -- maker of that ho-hum arcade racer Pod-- has released one surprisingly good simulation of Formula One racing. It's called, simply enough, F1 Racing Simulation, and if the marketing suits at Ubi Soft wanted to be that bald and unimaginative about the whole thing, they might as well have just called it "The Best F1 Racing Simulation," because that's exactly what it is. This baby burns!
It all starts with a top-notch physics model. Of course, yours truly has never driven anything faster than a souped-up Dodge Dart with drink holders and fuzzy dice, but F1 Racing Simulation just feels right to me. And right in this case means hard. If you're looking for arcade thrills, look somewhere else; if you're up to a serious challenge, F1 Racing Simulation could literally keep you working for years. On the highest realism settings, these open-wheel demons handle beautifully--if you've got what it takes. I spent more than six hours attempting to learn a relatively simple track like Great Britain's Silverstone and yet my fastest lap barely won me a spot in the race weekend. Though this may sound unduly frustrating, practice makes perfect and you can definitely witness your progress and understand your mistakes in F1 Racing Simulation; except for the off-track surfaces (grass, water, mud and sand), the cars handle how they should, and the only thing holding you back from good track times is bad driving.
The overall environment of the sim is top-notch. Each of the 1996 season's sixteen tracks and 22 cars are rendered with loving detail and the fact that the game requires a 3D hardware accelerator means all users will be treated to similar eye-candy. From the TV-style race introductions and stat displays, to the special effects (lens flares, smoking tires, skid marks, engine fires and flying grass), F1 Racing Simulation near flawlessly recreates the feeling of "being there." Weather effects like fog, rain and variable lighting change the racing conditions, the damage modeling is realistic and visually impressive, opponent AI is the best yet in a racing game - it manages to be extremely challenging without appearing inhumanly good, and the sparse voice-over narration provides the important facts without annoyance.
Another key element that can make or break a racing simulation is the car setup, tuning or "garage" options. Capitalizing on this, Ubi Soft claims to possess the most comprehensive car setup ever to grace the screen of a PC. When it comes to Formula One racing, that's no lie: F1 Racing Simulation surpasses its main competitor, Grand Prix 2, by matching it feature for feature (gearbox ratios, wing incidence, brake balance, suspension control) and then adding steering ratio (or wheel lock), four tire types, camber settings (along with the ability to read tire temperatures), and an engine power setting (you choose the maximum revs before a limiter kicks in). When measuring F1 Racing Simulation against other open-wheel racing titles, a clear winner is a little harder to determine. While CART Precision Racing does have more options (tire pressure and stagger, third spring control and gurney flaps) it unexplainably does not measure tire temperature and its telemetry graphs don't display the variance in ride height. Without this crucial data, it's very difficult to intelligently use all the suspension and aerodynamic options Microsoft's sim provides. Similarly, CART Racing from Papyrus (formerly known as IndyCar Racing II) has tire pressure and tire stagger options, but zero telemetry data. All things considered then, I'd have to say that Ubi Soft's options coupled with its telemetry data (laps can be compared for speed, gear changes, wheel displacement, wheel camber, front and rear body height, acceleration, braking and angle of steering) do earn it the distinction of providing "the most comprehensive car set-up ever," just as the box claims it does.
Though Ubi Soft should be commended for a strong first effort at a realistic driving experience, F1 Racing Simulation is not entirely perfect. Besides the cars moving too quickly through sand and water and too slowly through grass, the engine sound is particularly weak and the far away 2D backdrops (particularly the cityscapes) are very poor quality compared to the rest of the graphics. Fortunately, the sound and graphic shortcomings can be easily remedied by downloading and installing any one of the numerous user-created patches that have sprung up on the net. Some of the other problems, however, are a little more serious: flags don't follow the real F1 rules, and drivers don't seem to be penalized straight-lining chicanes. Like most racing sims, we still don't get full control of driving in and out of the pits, you can't save or replay an entire race like you can with older titles CART Racing, and there's nothing like the much-needed driving school and race engineer provided by CART Precision Racing.
While the game provides a split-screen multiplayer option, it lacks TCP/IP and the IPX Internet play suffers from warping when more than three drivers join a game. Add to this a sub-par manual, an occasionally unintuitive and always slow-loading menu system, and F1 Racing Simulation falls short of a perfect "Agrade. Stillwith smooth controldriving physicsgraphicsand AI that equals or surpasses all competitorsUbi Softs F1 Racing Simulation is a must-have for anyone serious about PC racing.