Formula One is a strange beast. Over the years the hugely popular motorsport has evolved into something quite different from the 'must see' Sunday TV it most certainly was during my younger years. Today the sport suffers from a lack of on-track excitement, is far too focussed on qualifying performances and generally lacks the spark it had when Nigel Mansell was flying the flag for Great Britain. Still, if you're an F1 fan, this PlayStation 3 debut for the sport should be high on your wanted list.
If you are one of the many F1 fans you'll probably have played last year's PS2 effort; if so, you'll feel a real sense of déjà vu when you fire up Formula One Championship Edition on the PlayStation 3. In fact, other than the obvious and huge increase in visual and audio quality, much of what I said last year remains true. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Sony's Liverpool Studio has enhanced the PS2 game with some lovely next-gen shininess.
If you're not an avid follower of Formula One, Championship Edition will seem pretty overwhelming at first. You can set a number of driving aids to help you out (with everything set to 'on' a chimp could probably set a decent lap time), but to get any sense of actual racing you need to go in head first, and turn the driving aids off. Until you've got the tracks memorised it's a good idea to leave the racing line on, as this gives you an idea of when to brake and the correct line to take a corner. Even with this turned on to help, to get to a level even approaching good will take a lot of work, but it's surprisingly addictive.
Racing an F1 car is so unforgiving that simply making it around a circuit without going off the track brings a sense of achievement. Once you can do this with regularity, you can then move on to shaving seconds and then tenths of a second from your best time. If you get into the groove you'll fall into something similar to a hypnotic state, with laps flying by and times all falling within an almost unbelievably close range. You have to be dedicated though, and get used to the rather twitchy controls. Some effort has been made to solve this by introducing tilt steering with the Sixaxis but, as much as I tried, it never gelled.
Racing itself is a totally different skill, with the presence of other drivers on the track forcing you to focus even more intently than when hot lapping. AI drivers show signs of realism, but even on the hardest difficulty you can unrealistically move through the field, particularly on the first lap - crashing is always a worry though, even if the damage model is well worth seeing over and over again. It's certainly an area that hurts the overall racing experience, but thankfully online play for up to eight players has made it into the next-gen release. Real racers are less likely to let you fly by them and, other than some slight lag, performance was more than acceptable.
The career mode, which lets you work from the bottom, through the different racing teams until you're the best driver in the world, is where most players will get their money's worth, but a number of other modes are available. You can jump straight into a race, go for a new best lap time or attempt a standalone World Championship. Races can be set to be as long as you like, so players who wish to race for a few hours can do so, and you can save mid race and come back to it later - a very handy feature.
Many players who aren't really prepared for the depth the game offers may well find the seemingly basic task of qualifying a little too much to take. You get all the practice and qualifying sessions that you would in real life, plus something called Race Car Evolution. This mode allows your race team to set up the car to best suit the circuit. Performing a number of laps while settings are tweaked gives you a good race setup, without you having to tinker with settings yourself. It's far easier than manually setting up your car, but can take a long time and is probably far too much work for many players.
The big area of improvement over the PlayStation 2 game is presentation. As soon as the camera pans across the racers on the starting grid you know you're playing a game on a next-gen system and these fancy visuals are for more than show. The most striking improvement over previous games in the series is in the sense of speed. On the PS3 this sensation is practically unrivalled and the way your car reacts to each and every bump on the road is superb - when you drive over a curb it sounds right too, but the lack of rumble does hurt your overall immersion.
If you've been following the development of Formula One for PS3 you'll have no doubt already seen the quite wonderful rain effects that the development team have managed to create on the new hardware. In wet weather the game really does look superb, although it still looks great during plain old sun. To round things off, it moves at a nice solid frame rate too, even when numerous cars are filling the screen. Formula One in general might lack some of the spark of other motorsports, but it's hard to pick out any single area of presentation that lets the side down.
Formula One fans don't have a better console alternative to Sony's debut PlayStation 3 effort, and while it's by no means a perfect recreation of the sport, it does a lot of things very well. Casual fans might be best advised to stay away though, unless prepared to invest a lot of time into learning circuits and how to drive the incredibly powerful cars. Online play also adds some much needed human competition and it's hard not to be impressed by the work gone into the visuals. Formula One Championship Edition may well fall behind big hitters Resistance and MotorStorm in terms of launch hype, but it's well worth the attention of all motorsport fans.