Electronics Arts – F1 Challenge ’99-’02 review

realistic Grand Prix racing
Photo of Electronics Arts – F1 Challenge ’99-’02

Riddle us this – what’s the difference between “F1 Career Challenge” and “F1 Challenge”. Not much of a riddle we know, no doubt a certain fictional green-suited fop is spinning ‘neath his enigmatic epitaph, but it’s a pertinent one for this review. Stumped? Well in actual fact they’re the same EA game, but the added “Career” bit is slapped on all the console versions of this F1 racing sim, while it’s conspicuously absent from the PC game’s title.

Why? Simply because there’s no career mode in the PC version. In any of the console variants you get to race as a rookie driver, qualify to drive for a lesser team and then work your way up to the Ferraris of the world, hopefully winning the championship over a four year period. But us PC gamers merely get the option to race over any of these four seasons in a one-off, one year career. This seems like a pretty unforgivable omission on EA’s part.

That major disappointment aside, this is undeniably an impressive simulation. It’s certainly easy on the eyes, boasting some very accurately modelled race tracks and lovingly crafted cars, with quality wet weather graphics and minutiae such as working pit lane lights. This all flies along even on an averagely powered PC, too, as long as the visual detail sliders aren’t cranked up too far.

But it’s the extremely customisable gameplay where F1 Challenge scores its big points. There are plenty of options to tinker with, such as a suite of driving aids which can make life so much easier for learner racing drivers. The game can be awfully forgiving or as punishing as you want – it’s very realistic with all the aids turned off and with the computer AI turned up in both the skill and aggression departments, it really is a challenge and three quarters.

Often in these driving sims vehicle setup can be a pain for novices, and while there is a typically super-techie set of car tweaking options, there’s also a basic setup screen in which you can play with four simple sliders to adjust your gears, down-force and so forth. You can get decent results with these too, trimming your lap times down nicely, although obviously those who know what they’re doing on the advanced screens will fare better still.

Authenticity is the watchword when it comes to race day, as it’s presented in TV style with a run-down of the track and grid positions before the big start and typical furore of the first corner. Realistic pit stop strategies and mechanical failures are all simulated; even the specific race rules from the particular year you’re playing in are applied. What’s more, the cars’ handling feels appropriate and gives you plenty of feedback on when you’re losing grip.

On the multiplayer front, an in-game server browser is incorporated and it’s pretty easy to locate a game. Online play proved highly entertaining on the whole (if a touch lagged at times), with one major caveat – occasionally the collision detection appeared to be completely snafu’ed and we hit opponents only to ghost through them with no impact. Then again, it could just be that the opposition was lagged on our screen and wasn’t actually in that location on the server, but either way this was a nagging problem which detracted considerably from the race’s realism.

Company: Electronics Arts

If you already have F1 2002 then you'll find the core gameplay the same here, and it's still highly customisable, playable and beginner friendly. Improvements have been made with tweaks to the visuals, overall race day ambience and, of course, the added appeal of multiple seasons. The potential of a proper career mode has been missed, though, and we can't help feel that this is a real let-down when you look at the console versions. There are niggling problems with the multiplayer code, too.