Monday, 2 April 2007

Grand Prix Challenge PlayStation 2 video game review ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Grand Prix Challenge logo
★★★★★ ★★★☆☆
Challenging and very good-looking PlayStation 2 Formula One game whose only real deficiency comes on the hardest AI difficulty levels where you will probably notice the computer opponents have an unfair advantage or two. However, you can mostly play around that to enjoy the genuine challenge and thrill of the best Formula One game on the PlayStation 2.

Critically, the handling is predictable and learnable but challenging and satisfying once it starts coming together. It's very easy to drive fast on the Intermediate handling level but there is more to learn on the Expert handling level. Most of the game lets you choose both the AI difficulty and the handling level. The cars feel like they can corner and accelerate in an astonishing manner which is at it should be.
The cars feel like they can corner and accelerate in an astonishing manner
A number of F1 games have made the cars too twitchy to drive and made them impossible to accelerate while exiting corners. They claim this is realistic and accurate but "tosh!" to that. Anyone can see how F1 cars drive by watching them every couple of weeks on their television. You never see F1 drivers struggling to drive in a straight line like you do in a lot of so-called simulations. You don't see them creeping around 150mph corners and waiting to get the car back on to a straight before nervously stroking the throttle. No, they barrel around corners, leave braking unbelievably late and stand on the throttle any chance they get. Grand Prix Challenge gets this handling down and couples it to a nice sense of speed. At times, you can't believe just how fast you can take a corner if you get everything right, it seems to take entire seconds off your lap time.

It reminded me a bit of the F1 car in "Gran Turismo 3: A-spec". During the game you thought you were driving some high performance cars, and you were. But the F1 car was something else. It's acceleration was a bit better but the braking and cornering were absolutely astonishing. It's performance was modeled just as accurately as the other cars in the game and the difference between even the full race specification sports cars and the F1 car was night and day. A F1 car is a special car, even among race cars. Grand Prix Challenge successfully makes this game feel entirely different to touring car, sports car and other racing games.

F1 brake engineers ... would be making their brakes out of grass instead of that stupid carbon fibre rubbish.
There are many F1 and sim-racing fans who might not be as happy with the driving model as me. It is accessible, easy to learn, and moderately challenging to get good at. It is also fun to drive. This game also doesn't employ the standard F1 game tactic of a number of switchable driving aids that Geoff Crammond introduced in "Formula One Grand Prix" (aka "World Circuit") and that everybody else copied. It's simply easy to learn and fun to master. One last note regarding the driving model is one that is, again, common to a number of driving games. Why does grass slow you down faster than standing on the brakes? Clearly, F1 brake engineers haven't spotted this. If they had, they would be making their brakes out of grass instead of that stupid carbon fibre rubbish.

This is a racing game which demands concentration and commitment and delivers greater psychological rewards because of it. For example, after being somewhat humiliated in my first race at the game's default medium difficulty I decided to practice and qualify for the following round. I qualified 6th and had a most enjoyable race, getting up to second position by the end of lap two (of five) then taking the lead on lap four. I couldn't relax for the last lap as Schumacher was right on my tail but I held my concentration and won the race. I was delighted.

Collision detection translates to a box around the cars and, while this may not be accurate, it does mean that you can enjoy more argy-bargy with the opposition than is normal in an open wheel racing game and you won't get your wheels interlocked (a common but rubbish occurrence on even the best open wheel racing games).
ups the fun factor
This makes the game more fun because you can get into the action without being certain than any overtaking maneuvre will end your race. The damage is also very forgiving allow you to bump and jostle much much more than in other open wheel racing games before it starts to have a serious impact on your performance. Again, this ups the fun factor and is a good thing.

However, the difficulty balance and gameplay illusions starts to unravel slightly the better you become.

The computer cars are constantly jostling among themselves meaning that, most commendably, they don't finish in the same order every time you race. They are very aggressively tuned meaning that there is lots of overtaking of you and by you and plenty of action in your race.
...the game cheats...
This is fine but the game cheats badly with the computer cars to make it happen. Now these are my observations and they may not be technically accurate if you ask the programmers but it is how things appear while racing.

AI cars are not affected by the surface they are driving on whether it is tarmac, grass or gravel. AI cars do not appear to be affected by tyre wear. AI cars cannot have their speed altered by you hitting them or by you being on the fastest racing line. AI cars do not experience lateral G-forces on their car meaning they can overtake you even if you weave in front of them (in fact, an AI car can rub along one side of your car and then instantly overtake you on the other). AI cars are not slowed down by driving into the side of you, in fact, you car slows down if it touches an AI car, even if the AI car touches from behind. When an AI car touches you your tyres lose a lot of grip (meaning you cannot brake, steer or accelerate as desired) but theirs are not affected. Slamming into the back of an AI car under braking makes no difference to the AI cars speed or line. AI cars jostling for position do not slow each other down because their speed is not affected by their adherence to the racing line. AI cars will almost always have enough speed to move back in front of you completing an overtake no matter how long or short a straight is. This means that you will frequently smash into the back of them as they slam their car in front of you and stand on the brakes.

Even on Intermediate AI, this cheating is apparent but a bit of practice can make you largely fast enough to compensate but on Hard AI…

This is probably most notable on Monza where the computer cars always go around corners faster than you and accelerate down the straights faster than you. They also bump you off line without impacting their own speed or line; in fact, they can bump you off line and go around you on a gravel trap without any problem whatsoever. No matter what downforce / gear ratio I used I couldn't match their acceleration or corning ability on this track. In the end, I was forced to cheat (by cutting the first chicane and not overtaking anyone) just to remain competitive. This gave me a handful of laps that were three seconds faster than the pole position time and, on those laps, the lead computer cars still hauled in my dishonest advantage (it gains you about five seconds) and drove right by me. Dispiriting is not the word. Cheating is. Racing on Monza on Hard AI / Expert handling is not a fun experience. Not even a little bit.

At a lot of the circuits outside of Monza, you can tune your car, practice, get pole position and, largely, keep a podium position or victory with a clean enjoyable race. On Hard AI / Expert handling I have
...enjoyed a number of thrilling races...
enjoyed a number of thrilling races at most of the circuits but if you ever get caught back in the pack or even by a couple of the top three it is not uncommon to find yourself getting pushed off the racing line and then watching the AI cars consistently re-overtake you regardless of how fast a lap you put in.

That said, regarding Monza, if you are competing in a World Championship on Hard AI / Expert handling things do balance themselves out because the AI are rubbish on the Hungaroring. You could probably drive around in your own real car and beat them.

AI cheating is unacceptable...
This AI cheating is unacceptable though commonplace in games. Your opponents should have the same circumstances as the player. Even though AI drivers don't literally drive around in a car modeled like the player, it should represent as close an approximation as is possible and things like track surface should always, always, always be taken into account. That said, graphics sell games and Grand Prix Challenge has lovely smooth graphics. In this case, it has been at the expense of fair AI opponents.

Staying out of the way of the computer opponents is critical to performing well on the Hard AI setting. After having my posterior posted to me upon trying the Championship with Hard AI and Intermediate handling, it was with some trepidation that I hit the Blue Skies Grand Prix Challenge where you are forced to play against Hard AI with Expert handling. Now it took me a good number of laps to figure out but the Expert handling employs a pretty significantly different physics model for your car, one where your setup has a more complex effect. For example, in Intermediate handling, altering Downforce basically gave you car more speed and acceleration with only minor effects on cornering noticeable at the extreme ends of the available settings. In Expert handling, the downforce also massively affected stopping ability and cornering ability. Once you realise that this is a whole different game and that you have to learn new, slightly earlier, braking points, you can get back up to speed but it is a significant and surprising change as you move from the one handling level to the next.

I put some time into the Blue Skies Grand Prix Challenge, performing better each time (qualified on pole for my last two attempts) and finally, after abandoning my hard tyres, long stint tactic, tried the race on soft tyres and just eked them out to the pit stop and then to the end of the race. I won the race and was elated. My heart was in my helmet for the last few corners even though I had built up a twelve-second lead. As I exited the last corner and straightened the car for the finish line, I put my left (steering) hand in the air with a triumphant single finger of victory. Number One! Yay! Just got to do it again, now…

Grey Skies Challenge was not one I was looking forward but, thankfully, the game's wet weather handling doesn't make the track an ice-rink (as it does in most racing games) and gives you the impression that you are driving a car with immense grip (provided you stack the downforce on in your car setup).

Agreeably, records are maintained no matter which mode you are in. I do find it stupid that you often find that your best times (which will have happened in a full blown race / qualifying most likely) are not listed in the Records page of most racing games. Usually, these pages only list the times achieved in the dedicated Time Trial mode. Which is stupid. In this game, the records page has just that: the records for the game.

We have a small but rewarding innovation in the mini-game in the pitstop.
rewarding innovation... mini-game in the pitstop
Here you have to select your strategy, then press the accelerate button to fill up a bar. Depending on how much you fill this bar, another bar then appears and gets smaller. The fuller the first bar, the faster the second bar shrinks. You then press the accelerate button to stop the second bar shrinking. The closer the second bar is to half-size the faster your pit stop will go. You can gain up to a highly satisfying and potentially critical four seconds. The best I've done in race conditions is about 3.8 seconds.

Another nice touch is that the game automatically picks up whether your PlayStation 2 is in Widescreen mode or not. This happens so infrequently that it is a slightly bemusing surprise when it happens.

Sound effects are very good with the only downer being that they are not in surround sound. However, the cars have powerful screaming (but not annoying) engine tones and the audio feedback is consistently accurate and helpful. Your car sound effect changes as you change driving view placing more and less emphasis on the exhaust note as you move from inside the car to outside the car. Also impressive are the environmental sound effects with crowds that ooh, aah and cheer depending on what you are doing. Wheel-to-wheel action, off-road excursions, overtaking and crossing the finish line deliver gratifying crowd feedback. Impressively, this only seems to happen when you are actually in view of a crowd.
This is a really nice effect that I wish would become a standard feature in racing game audio.
This is a really nice effect that I wish would become a standard feature in racing game audio. At Suzuka you can hear the fun of the fair when you pass. At Monaco you get seagulls. There are also loudspeaker announcers at each circuit.

Speaking of Suzuka, it is noted with great delight that the fairground is animated. The Ferris Wheel is turning and the gravity drop ride goes up and drops. I couldn't quite see as I passed at 160mph whether there were cars going around the roller coasters. This is an appropriate point to mention that the crowds are generally very well done. There are flags waving (sometimes different flags, on one track I was using a Scotland flag as a braking point, next time I played it wasn't there!), camera flashes being fired and the occasional coloured smoke flare being set off. Animated marshalls would have been nice but there are no marshalls on these tracks at all. (Flag status is shown via an icon at the top of the screen.)

The developers claim that the game runs at a constant 60 frames-per-second and this gives the game super-smooth motion. The frame rate does wibble briefly if you look backwards or change view but during normal gameplay I was very impressed by the graphical sheen on the game. Each team is individually modeled meaning that the Ferrari car looks very different from the Orange car, for example, not just in decoration but in shape. This is a great detail. All the camera views are all highly usable. There are five: Nose (no part of the car is visible, like "Gran Turismo"'s default view), Driver (where you can see your hands and steering wheel, the view I used), T-bar (like you generally get on the television), Close Behind and Far Behind. The game sometimes remembers your favoured view.

There are some graphical grumbles but these are all very minor and were probably sacrificed to get the more important smooth frame rate. Your driver isn't animated for gear changes but his head does wobble at high speeds. There is very minor graphical damage in the game. Your rear wing can appear crooked and the front and rear wings can come off. You can knock tyres off and make them wobbly but all this takes some doing. There are no pit crews. There are no marshalls. The onboard driving views and close behind view seem to make your car feel larger than it is. In these views your car generally feels a little under half the width of the track. In the replay and far behind view the car appears to be correctly proportioned and is generally about a quarter or a fifth the width of the track. Interestingly, this is something that affects most racing games and it doesn't affect the gameplay too badly here. In fact, you probably wouldn't notice it unless some pedantic twit pointed it out.

In conclusion,
the only real thing knocking a star or two off is the cheating AI but, as I said, this is only noticeable on the hardest difficulty settings and can largely be driven around. Otherwise, this is an outstanding F1 game and a outstanding racing game. It is fun, thrilling and satisfying to play.

I purchased this in 2007 after discovering it while looking for reviews for the PlayStation 3 title "Formula One Championship Edition". I didn't even know the game existed but as soon as the review mentioned the developers Melbourne House I went out and bought it. Melbourne House were responsible for one of my favourite racing games "Le Man 24 Hours" on the Dreamcast, a game which I gladly completed and even raced and enjoyed a full 24-hour race (it took me ten or so days!).

Zaphs unofficial Grand Prix Challenge Page

Dry Setups

Common: Soft tyres, Brake Balance 7

A1 Ring: Downforce 9. Gear Box Ratio 2, Suspension 10
Barcelona: Downforce 7, Gear Box Ratio 3, Suspension 9
Hockenheim: Downforce 9. Gear Box Ratio 2, Suspension 10
Imola: Downforce 11, Gear Box Ratio 1, Suspension 9
Magny Cours: Downforce 6, Gear Box Ratio 3, Suspension 9
Monte Carlo: Downfroce 11, Gear Box Ratio 1, Suspension 8
Montreal: Downforce 7, Gear Box Ratio 3, Suspension 9
Monza: Donwforce 4, Gear Box Ratio 9, Suspension 9 (not good setup)
Nurburgring: Downforce 9, Gear Box Ratio 2, Suspension 10

Wet Setups

Common: Wet tyres, Brake Balance 7

Sepang: Downforce 11, Gear Box Ratio 3, Suspension 8
Silverstone: Downforce 11, Gear Box Ratio 2, Suspension 8

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