Okay, time to own up. Who of us has ever dreamt of owning a Ferrari? Ah, I see plenty of hands. Who has gawped as a Ferrari slenders it's way past while you're in town? Yet more hands! Who has ever power-drifted a Ferrari out of the Parabolica at Monza? None of you! Well, looks like that is about to change.
Bought to Yu Suzuki and his crack team of coders at AM2, F355 Challenge Passione Rossa brings the power and the beauty of arguably one of Ferrari's finest cars into your home. Based upon the real life Ferrari 355 Challenge race series, the game allows you to race one of these stripped out, race bred red lovlies.
Initial signs are excellent. The attract sequence from the arcade begins after the usual credits, using the in-game engine rather than FMV. It shows off the gorgeous visuals and little details you won't see in the game normally, such as the fully detailed interior of the car, right down to the traditional chrome HH gearbox gate. Unfortunately, the music is pretty much the opposite of the graphics. It's downright awful. That is, of course, you enjoy cheesy 80's style rock music. Fortunately you can turn it off while driving.
Since this is an arcade port, you're given the usual options to select at the main menu. Selecting Arcade or Single Race brings up the track select option, with Motegi, Suzuka Short, Monza, Sugo, Suzuka and Long Beach all ready for selection, with other real life tracks opening up as rewards for accomplishing certain tasks. Then it is onto the transmission select, and seeing as this is meant to be an all out simulation, the reviewer suggests ignoring the auto 'box with braking assist, and going for the manual gear box for the get-go. After that, you're giving the option of fine tuning your car (essential for shaving those hundredths of a second off a lap time), and then onto the race.
Then the fun begins. You're sitting on the grid in a car made by the world's most famous marquee, at some of the world's finest tracks. Blipping the throttle sends the rev's spiralling, and the metallic shrill of the engine sends shivers down your spine. 7 other Ferrari's are lined up in their positions ahead of you. The red light illuminates…engine note's rise in proportion with tension…a pause, then, green light. A good start enables you to pull past the driver in 7th place. You tuck in behind the driver in 6th place to get into his aerodynamic toe and follow him along to the first chicane. Waiting until the last possible moment you pop out from behind his car. He brakes late…you brake later…and chances are if this is one of your first few goes at the game, you'll end up floundering in the gravel trap.
You see, this game has a huge learning curve, and I mean HUGE. Even though you have traction control, anti lock brakes and stability control, you will still struggle. For some people the difficulty is going to put them off the game forever. Unlike some other games you can't just jump in and zoom around the circuit. To the game's credit, it does have the option of a training session, where you follow a red line around the course denoting the racing line, and a voice telling you when to brake and change gear. The flip side of the difficulty is the immense sense of self-achievement when you finish a race, let alone come in first place. While I mention satisfaction, I will add that if you're the type of gamer who feels rewarded solely by gaining a extra tracks, a new costume or an extra special move, this game isn't really going to appeal to you. Sure, there are 5 extra tracks to open up, but the enjoyment comes from pulling off an audacious overtaking manoeuvre, clipping the apex of a corner at juuuust the right point, or the first time you break the 1 minute 30 barrier around the Suzuka Short circuit.
A feature of the game I have not mentioned is the online functions F355 has. There are 2 separate modes that feature internet access, online lap time ranking and internet racing. The online rankings are just as you would imagine. A list of lap times submitted by players. It is very simple to compete. All you do is connect to the internet via the game's browser, and you are taken directly to the game's website. From there you must register, and then you simply click "upload" et voila, you're entered into the worldwide rankings. On an interesting note, players using the Ferrari 355 Challenge 2 arcade machine can upload the best times in their session to the same score board and compare. Although comparing lap times does not sound too compelling, you'll be amazed how drawn into upping your name on the score board you'll get. In fact a lot of the fun in the game comes from working at decreasing your lap time, working out new lines, braking as late as you dare into a corner, all to shave those fractions of a second that you need to put you ahead of Londo from Spain.
Then of course there is the online racing I mentioned. Now before you all jump for joy this is not 'true' online racing. The formula for racing online in F355 needs a bit of explaining. First up, select "Network Race" for the main menu, and the DC will connect to the internet. From there you select your circuit and transmission, and then you wait for other racers to join. Once you have a minimum of 2 players and a maximum of 16 players, you then begin qualifying. You do 1 lap around the selected circuit (which is chosen by the majority vote) and then your time along with everyone else's is uploaded to the server. Players are ranked in order of quickest to slowest, and if there are more than 8 players, the slowest are not entered into the final race.
Then the 'race' begins proper, but it isn't really a race. You take up your grid-slot on the track, but there aren't any cars around you. The way F355 wants to do it's online race is by asking everyone to drive a race around the circuit as a time trial. Their data is uploaded onto the server along with yours and all the other competitors, and then it is all download onto your Dreamcast. You are then automatically disconnected from the internet and sit and watch a replay of your race along with everyone else on the track. Of course, collisions are impossible to take into account this way so all the other cars are ghost cars. This is a bit of a disappointment considering how much the Dreamcast's online abilities have been hyped about. Indeed such functionality was the major point made in many of the advertisements. It is in it's own way a lot of fun. Racing against human competitors (even if you can't see them) does get the heart beating faster than against artificial competitors, however good the AI. It is even better playing against someone you know.
Which brings me on to offline multiplayer. You have the usual 2 player split screen gubbins. It still plays in silky smooth 60-FPS glory and maintains a lovely draw distance. Also included as a secret option is a link up mode, but the review does not have access to the necessary hardware to test this feature.
It's also worth while mentioning that this game feels absolutely perfect with a steering wheel controller. Pin sharp steering response, none of your vague lagged steering that you usually find tacked on in racing games.
All in all, if you think you can live with going nowhere but into the gravel for the first few goes, and feel rewarded by your continual improvement at a game, then this is well worth a go!
Text by: Oliver Grant