Prior to the release of Formula 1 on the Playstation, the license to replicate the likeness of F1 within a video game was issued on a relatively sporadic basis, and games were often of mixed quality. Game publishers Psygnosis were offered the chance to take on the F1 franchise in the mid-90s, and hired developers Bizarre Creations to put together a game based on the 1995 season for release the following year. Formula 1, which showcased accurate circuits, impressive graphics and plenty of features, was a success (a phenomenal turnaround for a team of five people!). Its successor Formula 1 97 built on that success by adding more mechanics such as flags and failures, and with Martin Brundle joining Murray Walker on commentary it pushed the immersiveness of the game further.
Sadly, Bizarre declined the opportunity to make a third game, and this left Psygnosis with the quandary of finding a new developer. Having worked long-term with Reflections Interactive on a number of games, Psygnosis offered them the opportunity to pick up the F1 license; although Reflections were initially receptive, they eventually declined in favour of producing the critically-acclaimed Driver. Instead, the development work would be done by Dundee-based Visual Sciences.
Bizarre were happy for their game engine and codes to be given to Visual Sciences, but the new developer wanted to do the new game their way. This meant that VS would have to build pretty much everything from scratch to get Formula 1 98 finished, and due to time constraints the finished product was rushed to meet the October 30th release date in Europe, two days before the final race of the 1998 F1 season.
Was the game worth the wait? GPRejects.com sat down to play through and assess its merits, comparing F1 ’98 to its Psygnosis forebears.
After the introductions, the first comparison to make is that main menu presents a more low-key affair compared to F1 and F1 97, and you won’t find the crunching guitar tracks from the previous two offerings here (the original game featuring serial string-botherer Joe Satriani). Instead, F1 98’s soundtrack choice is muted and doesn’t create quite the same atmosphere. Flicking through the menu, it becomes apparent that the driver selection screen is similar to that seen in F1 97’s arcade mode in which each car’s rotating in-game models are shown. Largely, the replications look relatively good for the time and the shapes are as accurate as can be expected, but some of the cars’ paintwork appears to be a little rushed. It can be argued that the PS1’s capabilities restrict the detail that can be included, but the previous games managed to include the smaller sponsor logos.
The general functionality could certainly be a little more intuitive; certain functions feel slightly hidden away, and it’s a little curious that the developers chose to lead with the arcade option for races rather than the “Grand Prix” mode. That all being said, it’s just a menu screen, and this is all easily forgiven if the actual gameplay turns out to be good. Unfortunately, going into a race weekend just adds further problems to the list.
It must be said that some of the circuits look reasonably fine, but none quite reach the level of the previous pair of games; as Visual Sciences decided not to use the bulk of Bizarre’s assets, there are some problems with accurate replication. Bizarre had managed to get their hands on some topographical data for each circuit (some allegedly sourced from F1 engineers) and this yielded a truly immersive experience. F1 98 just feels slightly off in this department, and there are numerous examples where the corner profiles and lengths of straights aren’t quite right. One of the biggest disappointments is the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, which fails to recapture the atmosphere from the previous two games; in F1 and F1 97, the dark sky and thickness of the Ardennes forest gave an expectation of mizzling rain and a tough, hard-fought race. In ’98, the circuit feels almost sterile and areas such as the downhill run to Bruxelles are not nearly pronounced enough. At times, the lack of trees in the distance makes it look like the circuit’s been subject to mass deforestation, and this leads onto another of the principal issues with this game: draw distance.
Draw distance, for the uninitiated, is the maximum distance at which objects in-game appear, and contributes to the depth of the player’s vision in-game. As F1 and F1 97 were born nearer to the start of 3D polygon graphics in games, the draw distances were perhaps one of their larger shortcomings, but this seldom affected the overall gameplay. Despite coming later in the Playstation’s lifespan, F1 98 manages to be worse, and one of the biggest challenges comes from trying to anticipate when a corner would appear before starting to brake for it. Without knowledge of the circuits, somebody new to F1 would need the perception of a clairvoyant to have any chance of making the corners. The poor draw distance also contributes to a lack of immersion to the point where it’s sometimes easy to forget which circuit you’re on.
The cars themselves don’t really handle particularly well either; although the 1998 cars had less grip compared to those the previous year owing to changes in track length and the switch to grooved tyres, that cannot excuse the permanent understeer that is experienced in any of the cars available. It feels like a constant fight to get the car to turn in, and most corners are very difficult to navigate without ending up in the gravel. Monaco is particularly frustrating, and you’ll end up hitting a lot of walls whilst you’re there.
When starting a race, all of these problems are joined by limitations in the graphical output of the game. F1 98 struggles to cope with multiple cars, defaulting to the low-resolution models far too readily and leads to grids of brightly-coloured Lego bricks. Furthermore, the driver AI is quite poor and race starts often descend into a messy affair; the opposition resort to some questionable defensive tactics, resorting to running the player off-track or cutting them up. This leads to an often-frustrating racing experience.
One of the biggest disappointments in comparison to the previous game is the commentary. Psygnosis kept the Walker-Brundle dream-team, which had been able to translate its real-world chemistry to the Playstation in F1 97. Unfortunately, their appearance on ’98 falls flat thanks in part to some poor scripting; the lines are neither memorable nor insightful, and select phrases are repeated ad infinitum to mask over the lack of content. Moreover, the engine noises (which sound like the lovechild of a Dyson and a Depeche Mode album) drown out Murray and Martin’s voices, and turning up the commentary volume reveals a lo-fi recording with more crackles and pops than a bowl of Rice Krispies.
There is some nit-pickery at times in this review, and the game is still playable for anyone with the patience to learn how the game responds to inputs; it’s possible to have a bit of fun with the game after becoming more familiar with the AI’s inconsistencies. Although the replication of the 1998 F1 season is reasonable, the game was a serious disappointment overall in comparison to F1 and F1 97, which are still discussed today as two of the best F1 games.
F1 98 is a relatively capable game with some decent aspects, but glaring errors and misjudgements really cut down on the enjoyment that this game has to offer. Unfortunately, ’98 is nowhere near to delivering the promise of the previous games in the series.