• F1 2002 Review - Nintendo Gamecube

    F1 racing has always found a natural home on the PC, due to various factors, one of which is the availability of suitable, albeit expensive driving control devices. Reproducing the level of control and sensitivity required for a great F1 game on a console becomes more difficult when the default control device is a joypad, with little more than a few millimetres of travel on any of the sticks or buttons. Serious F1 games require a range of movement large enough to allow small, accurate changes in steering, throttle and brakes. Steering wheel and pedal combinations are available for consoles, but most gamers just use their normal pads for whatever type of game they play.

    F1 2002 on the Gamecube is no different from other F1 games in that it would benefit from the use of a proper racing controller, and using a joypad is never going to be as rewarding. Any criticism of the control setup would be solved straight away with a wheel (with gear change paddles) and pedals, but since most players will be using the Nintendo pad, it is best to be aware of what to expect. Fortunately gamepad design has improved with the current generation of consoles giving more opportunity for different control choices.

    Control choice in F1 2002 comes in three styles. The first method tried used the analogue triggers as accelerate and brake, as implemented so perfectly on Dreamcast and Xbox racing games. Distressingly, at the beginning of the first lap, it was apparent that the analogue portions of the triggers were redundant and the only parts doing anything were the digital clicks right at the end of their travel. The only way to gain analogue control of the throttle and brakes is by using the C-stick, accompanied by the normal stick for steering in the style of Sony dualshock based racing games. Using the C-stick, it is undoubtedly more difficult to react to tyre traction needs than it would have been with fully implemented analogue triggers, but certainly not impossible. It does mean that using the semi-automatic gearbox must be done with the digital clicks on the triggers, which seems strange because of the length of finger travel required before the next gear is selected. A fully automatic box is the other option.

    Beginners will have no problem with the analogue stick controls because when using the "Normal" race mode, the game prevents overuse of any of the controls. However, more experienced players using the "Simulation" mode should be expecting everything the game throws at them. Brakes must be eased off up to the corner to avoid locking up the carbon discs. Brakes will lock up straight away if the wheels are not straight. The powerband kicks in quite suddenly so anything nearing full throttle out of a sharp corner will send the car spinning. Too much steering lock wears the tyres down more quickly. Realism of car handling is maintained as far as possible in the simulation mode and the move towards the more realistic PC style is to be commended over the older arcade approach to console F1 games. It is gratifying that small changes to suspension and brake setup can actually be noticed both in lap times and feel whilst driving.

    Other aspects of the control detract from the experience. Even in simulation mode, there is a restriction on the speed of steering, so sometimes it seems to take an age for the wheels to turn from one direction to another and this lack of responsiveness makes reacting to sudden loss of grip difficult. It also makes mid corner line changes difficult at higher speeds.

    The loud engine noise makes the gear change point easy to hear without having to see a rev counter, but it drowns out the tyre noise which is equally important for sensing brake lock up before corners and tyre scrub in the corners. Their volume is linked under the general "sfx" heading, so concentrating hard on the tyre noise is essential. Since the Wavebird controller has no rumble effect, a quick change to an original Gamecube pad was promising due to rumble signalling tyres starting to lock up, and giving time to ease off the brakes, but was counteracted by all but the smallest of steering inputs setting the rumble off. In many corners the rumble is almost constant and starts to distress the hands after a short amount of play, so turning it off or using a Wavebird is no great loss.

    The real life tracks are the usual mixture of F1 circuits, mainly wide and twisty with the odd high speed circuit. The specialised track circuits have very little trackside "furniture", so recognising a corner is done from memory and how tight the corner is. Monaco is the only pure street circuit and every corner is recognisable by the buildings or port or tunnel. Spa and Melbourne use closed public roads in part. The only way to make your way round F1 tracks quickly is to learn them, so practice laps are essential for the beginner. More experienced players may find they have to spend time learning some of the newer tracks like Indianapolis, which takes place partly on the banked curve.

    The opponent drivers have their top speed quite restricted on "easy" setting, but their cornering is sedate too. On "medium", they go almost as fast as you along the straights, but are good in the corners. "Hard" is exactly that. Fast and on the ragged edge round corners. They do make mistakes occasionally, but overall their behaviour is not revolutionary. The game intelligence is interesting, for example the "variable" weather setting could have parts of a circuit dry but other parts underwater as a rain front comes in and quick reactions are needed to avoid going at dry speeds round unexpectedly wet corners. Following the drier racing line is doubly important if caught out with dry tyres. The optional damage and failure models are more functional than for spectacular effect. If bits break off, it still might be possible to limp back to the pits for repair, and random mechanical failure like a smoking engine can be overcome by not using full throttle.

    There is nothing about the look of F1 2002 that particularly stands out. Modern graphical effects are present but subtle enough to not be overpowering. Look out for vapour trails condensing off the wings, which is a nice touch. The draw distance always extends to the next corner, so essentially to the horizon. The road and scenery speeds past smoothly enough. The nose cam is the smoothest view, but it can be difficult to tell how wide the car is, which makes overtaking a bit hazardous. The helmet cam shows the driver's hands and rev indicator lights on the steering wheel, along with working rear view mirrors, but suffers from more frequent drops in visual quality. Like some other EA Sports games, F1 2002 supports widescreen on the Gamecube which is a definite bonus.

    Beginners are catered for with all the usual assist modes which can be turned off as familiarity grows and there is a series of challenges to complete before many of the major game features are unlocked. They will not take too much time for anyone who has tried an F1 game before, and some of it such as the interactive pitlane tutorial is essential for everyone. This involves reacting to various instructions on screen while the car is under computer control and determines the overall pitstop time. It is quite fun but luckily is an option, since it will not be to everybody's taste.

    F1 2002 on the Gamecube makes an effort to impress both newcomers to the Formula 1 genre, as well as more seasoned racers, and in many respects it succeeds. The more arcade like "Normal" mode is very accessible and the "Simulation" mode works, penalising impatient, excessive control actions.

    However, a few aspects stop the title from achieving a higher status. The multiplayer mode is good for 2 players, but any more and the view ahead is slightly too restrictive. Control with the pad is not as predictable as it should be due to the lack of steering speed and sensitivity mentioned above. The lack of analogue trigger support is sorely missed and could have worked so well. There is no decent Gamecube steering wheel and pedal kit available, and thus no force feedback. If these were addressed, along with the other issues such as the sound levels, F1 2002 would be superb. With any luck, a sequel will make these improvements, but for the moment F1 2002 is the only F1 simulation available on the Gamecube. F1 fans will love the challenge.
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