It drives good, very good. So all the people who are only interested in the driving part (everyone who thinks PS2 is better than PC), can stop reading and go buy the game. The rest can continue.
Apart from a few glitches like compatibility problems with Geforce and the fact that you need a hefty computer to see all the beautiful graphics, F1 2001 is a superb simulation. But it lacks the immersion. You hardly ever get the impression that you are part of the Formula 1 circus, driving around in a 800 plus HP car, fighting for victory. Why? Because Electronic Arts only gives us a driving simulation, not a ‘real’ Formula One simulation.
Well, Electronic Arts is bragging about the fact that they have the official FIA license for the year 2001, including all the latest changes (except a few things). Unfortunately they forget that such a license is more than just a list of drivers, teams and circuits along with all their colors and advertising. There are also a lot of rules involved, which are not at all or not correctly implemented in the game. One of the most important rules concerns the tires. For each grand prix, there are 7 sets of tires available for the driver and on Saturday, he has to decide what compound to use, hard or soft. But in F1 2001, the player can have as much tires sets as he wants. Even better, he can do the qualifying session with the soft compound for maximum performance and swap over to the hard compound for the race.
Another rule comes into play when a driver gets lapped. The slower car is shown 3 times a blue flag to move over. If he doesn’t, he will be penalized. This rule is in fact implemented in the game (so EA knows there are rules), but the penalty is wrong. FIA will give the driver a Stop&Go, resulting in some time loss, but Electronic Arts finds this to lenient and just disqualifies the driver altogether. End of race. And speaking of flags, in F1 2001 those flags are represented by a set of LED’s in the cockpit. In Grand Prix 3, Geoff Crammond is able to show marshals waving flags on the edge of the track. So why can’t EA do the same? And I can go on. Cars remain in the sand traps during the entire race, Traction Control is not really implemented in the setup of the car (only in the controller help features), there is no telemetry, and so on. Can you now understand why F1 2001 doesn’t give you the feeling of really being part of Formula 1.
The graphics. If you have a powerful computer, you can admire the fantastic graphics. People with a lower spec computer on the other hand can enjoy all the tricks programmers use to cut down CPU overload : lower quality textures, less objects around the tracks and cars that lose detail very quick (more resemblance to a Formula 3) and even just vanish into thin air if they are more than 100 m in front or behind (you can hear them but not see them). One of the advertising slogans vanishes even for slower PC’s : the full animated pitstop with all mechanics changing tires and refueling the car turns into an empty pitbox with only one guy holding the lolypop.
The sound in the game is top level. The noise of the engine is fantastic, at high speed you hear the air rushing by, at low speed you hear the tires searching for grip. Of course you hear also the engines of the other cars, not only those just in front or behind, but also the cars on other parts of the track. In Sepang e.g. when you’re on the small back-straight, you can hear the cars that are driving on the long straights. The sound of the tires give you enough feedback to know how the car is behaving. For the moment there is no Force Feedback, but you don’t really need it. The only sound that disappoints me is the sound when you hit something.
The tracks are really bumpy. Very realistic. The grass on the other hand is very smooth, just like a golf course, no bumps but very slippery. Normally you would expect that also the grass would show some bumps. The sand traps are a joke. It’s the same as grass but with another sound. They hardly slow down the car and it’s very easy to get out of them, as long as you don’t spin around. I prefer the way it was done in GP3 : you could drive out of a sand trap but it took some time and effort. The tracks are very well represented, although there are some small details that are wrong. On Silverstone and Spa e.g. there are some sand traps in the game which are in fact in reality replaced by asphalt. But nothing dramatic.
The Setups. It is here that F1 2001 shows its real face : it’s a PS2 game! For starters the user interface is a joke (still) and the way EA is handling setups is a disaster. Granted, all elements to setup a car are there. So far so good. But they are spread out over 7 different pages! I prefer the way Papyrus did it with GPL or N4 and sticking all setup features on one clear page. Of course there is the possibility to save those setups, but they are all stored in the same directory with no possibility to filter. So you always get a list of all your setups for every circuit. If you know that there are 17 tracks and you need a minimum of 4 setups per track (dry race, wet race, dry qual and wet qual), this will give you a total of 52 setups (files). And if you know that each team has a distinct car (specific performance and behavier), you know that you will have to change setup slightly if you change team. Or another setup for different strategies, for different race lengths, etc. It’s clear that you will end up with over a 100 setups easily. And you’ll see them in one big list.
But that’s not all. Suppose you have a setup, e.g. Melbourne Race Dry. You load the setup, go to the setup screens and change something. Next is testing if your adjustment is an improvement. When you leave the setup screen, it will inform you that you didn’t save the setup and that your adjustments will be lost if you continue. So you cancel your exit and go back, click the Save icon. Normally you would expect a question to overwrite the previous version of your setting. Not for the programmers of EA. They just ask for a name. You have to type in the complete name again, in my example Melbourne Race Dry, accept the warning to overwrite, then exit the setup screen before you can test it. Didn’t they learn anything from GP3? And like I already mentioned before, there is no telemetry available! Clearly F1 2001 is Playstation material!
Talking about GP3. One of the best options that Geoff Crammond offers us and seems to be very difficult for the others to implement, is the possibility to save a session. If you are in the middle of a qualification run, in the middle of a full race, in the middle of a corner, just pause the game and save it. You can finish the job on another time, another day. But for EA (and also for Papyrus) this is too difficult. If you start a practice or qualifying session and you abort, it will restart from the beginning the next time. If you abort a race, you’ll get a DNF.
Another thing where GP3 excels is the changing weather conditions. It’s now also available in F1 2001 but not as good. The water spray behind cars is not dense enough and the track lacks the reflective surface from water puddles. And although the Artificial Intelligence has improved over the previous versions (certainly compared to the lack of Intelligence in F1 2000), it is not yet on the same level as GP3. They have now learned not to crash into the players car, succeed in avoiding collisions and can perform a successful overtaking. But when you lower the level/difficulty under 100%, the AI tend to slow down on the straights but their cornering speed remains high. It’s also fairly easy to force the AI into an error by applying some pressure.
F1 2001 is surely an improvement over it’s predecessors, the physics model is good and comes close to the one from Papyrus. But F1 2001 is clearly a game that was designed in the first place for Playstation 2. The clumsy user interface, the ridicules way to organize the car setups, the errors and absence of some FIA Formula 1 rules shows that the emphasis was focused on the driving and nothing but the driving. But this driving is surely top level. I hope that Electronic Arts is not planning to do the same thing with their F1 game as they are doing with their soccer, hockey or basketball games : each year a new version with some improvements but at the full purchase price.
It’s now waiting for a Formula 1 game with all the elements of Grand Prix 3, but with the driving model and graphics of F1 2001.