Racing simulations don't seem like an ideal fit for Nintendo's Wii. The audience appears to be more casual in its tastes and the console's lack of horsepower sometimes results in games seriously lacking detail compared to the likes of Forza 3 and Gran Turismo 5. So, F1 2009, the only F1 game to arrive on a home console this year, is surprising. If Codemasters' decision to use the Wii as the platform for its debut F1-licensed game isn't surprising enough for you, the fact that it's good should be.
It's worth making something clear about F1 2009 that is likely to turn away some racing fans: it's not a full-on simulation. Yes, it's got the official licence for the 2009 season, complete with all the drivers, events and race structure, but on the track the cars have an arcade-style slant to their handling model. It's not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination. Skill is required to put in good laps while driving with the key racing assists turned off, but it's also more accessible than the previous F1 game that hit the PlayStation 3 back in 2007.
Core to the F1 2009 experience is your career, a three-season long mode that sees you trying to climb the ranks as you race in all the events featured in the recently concluded championship. The career mode is as complicated as you want it to be; full three-stage qualifying is included, but can be skipped if you want to jump straight into the race. All the rules, regulations and punishments seem to be in effect, but not being obsessive F1 fans, we can't guarantee every single rule is being enforced. If you're an armchair fan the re-creation is good, even if the hardcore might spot a few discrepancies.
Racing in an F1 car should feel fast, dangerous and put you on the edge of your seat with eyes alert as you try to take it all in. This Wii simulation captures that feeling superbly, with a sense of speed that even genre rivals on more powerful hardware can't better. Using an in-car view, with the bundled Wii Remote F1 wheel accessory held out in front of you, it's hard not to be taken into the virtual world. But plastic peripherals aren't always best: no matter how hard I tried to become au fait with this control method, simply because it felt more immersive, the more traditional Nunchuck analogue stick controls resulted in better on-track performances.
Sadly there's no online multiplayer, but there is a decent two-player split-screen mode that lets you compete against a friend. It's a shame that four-player couldn't be squeezed out of the console, but the two-player mode runs well and is preferable to no multiplayer functionality at all. You can at least play through an entire F1 season with a friend, either together in the same team or on rival teams. With the ability for novices to race once all the assists have been activated, anyone should be able to put up a decent show while pretending to be Lewis Hamilton.
Something that might make up for this bare-bones multiplayer is the Challenge mode, which throws more than 70 one-off tasks at you. It's still all in the realms of F1, but trying to get a podium finish while racing in the wet and from a losing position suddenly seems more fun when you're being challenged to do so. Aside from these scenarios, you'll have to race in one-on-one events, overtake challenges, drive through gates and much more.
As fun as the racing in F1 2009 is, and with as many "remember it's running on the Wii" get out of jail cards played as possible, it's impossible not to be mildly disappointed by the presentation. From the menus through to the in-game graphics, the game has a rough appearance that lacks the glamour usually associated with F1. The biggest offender is the jaggy in-game visuals, the sporadic frame rate and the low quality textures.
Yes, it's a Wii game, but the constant jumping around with the frame rate (which developer Sumo Digital admirably tried to get running at a smooth 60fps) really hurts the game and will make you question why the visuals on display don't look better. Even the damage model isn't anything special, coming across as merely functional. Audio work is also pretty poor, with the engine sounds being more annoying than they are realistic, and there's no commentary to be heard at all - all you get is the odd bit of info over the team radio. We're hopeful, and pretty confident, that next year's EGO engine (DIRT 2, GRID) powered next-gen effort will be an altogether more polished product.
That is the crux of my problem with F1 2009 on the Wii. It's a fun game, with an impressive sense of speed and the official licence fans want, but there's undoubtedly something better coming next year, on platforms that can do the sport justice. This is a perfectly competent racer, one of the best on the Wii, but it's not a classic by any stretch of the imagination.