Despite what the tabloid headlines may suggest, Formula 1 is still very much about the cars, the drivers and the racing.
As appealing as some will find the idea of an official F1 game dealing exclusively with endless bickering over the sport’s financial model, revelations about the F1 governing body president’s naughty escapades, scheming cheap cheat strategies involving deliberate crashing, and even a lying-to-the-stewards mini-game, the licence forces the content to focus on the on-track action.
And thankfully so.
Aside from the political turbulence that has affected F1 recently, the timing for a new game of the sport couldn’t be better. New champions Brawn and Button have emerged from one of the most unpredictable and exciting season in years, while the last F1 game to grace the PSP dates back to 2006 (Formula One 2006, if you’re wondering).
So F1 2009 ventures onto a relatively open track, but that doesn’t mean it doesn't have to work hard to earn its place amongst the PSP’s ever-growing great racing games grid.
It begins by impressing with its content. You get this year’s teams, drivers (the 20 that started the season but no substitutes) and 17 tracks (including the brand new Yas Marina track). As for play options, there’s Quick Race, Time Trial, Grand Prix Weekend (which includes the opportunity to engage in every session of a race meeting), Championship, Career and Challenge.
The last two provide the largest proportion of the game’s considerable horsepower. Career sees you sign up with a team after a test session and aim to meet their season demands before moving your way up the F1 hierarchy over three years.
Along the way you get to integrate yourself into a relatively comprehensive recreation of the sport. As in Grand Prix Weekend and Championship, you get to participate in all sessions, as well as tweak the set-up of your car. This ranges from a simple to understand option to more detailed alternatives allowing you to play around with tyre geometry, suspension, ride height, and so on.
Challenge, meanwhile, is an entirely different (if not new) proposition. Think of it as 70-odd mini-games involving set demands such as clearing as many checkpoints as possible before time runs out, taking corners as quickly as your skill will allow, overtaking a maximum number of cars within a time limit, setting fastest laps or winning a race, to name a few.
Every time you clear a block of challenges a scenario-based event unlocks, asking you to make the best of a realistic situation (for instance, finishing in the points by surviving the last three laps of a wet race while still on dry tyres).
If it sounds disposable, it isn’t. Even when completed - and it’ll take you a while - you find yourself coming back to previous challenges to try and better your performance and their quick nature is perfect for dip-in-and-out play.
And play you will, because F1 2009 feels so rewarding. The handling model is worryingly twitchy initially (most will want to tweak its sensitivity) and it takes a number of races to get fully comfortable it with once the most intrusive driving aids are turned off. Surprisingly, the analogue nub proved the most difficult, with the D-pad soon becoming the default choice for steering input.
Once mastered, you can begin to appreciate its easygoing arcade nature and relish the excellent sense of speed (occasional frame rate judder aside) while enjoying nailing braking points, skimming the apex and powering out of turns (all cars in F1 2009 feature the KERS boost button).
Taking part in a full-length race demands considerable investment but also reveals the game's accomplishment - driving an F1 car has never been this much fun or as well implemented on PSP.
It’s not top step of the podium all the way, though. Your opponents can behave in a disappointing manner (there’s no sense of driver personality present, either) and any kind of contact - either with a competitor or a barrier - is accompanied by poor audio/visual feedback (the engine note, by contrast, adds much to the atmosphere).
But you find yourself ignoring the negatives because you’re generally too enthralled in conquering the circuits, pushing to shave fractions of seconds at every corner while fighting your way to the front.
And whether your interest in F1 is casual or serious, the comprehensiveness of the content ensures that you’re bound to find something that will grab you. Regardless of what the real-life F1 gets up to, with F1 2009 you’ll at least be too involved with the racing to care.
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