Written by: Rik

Date posted: April 5, 2010


Get used to starting here if you insist on choosing the Arrows team.

It seems that no review of a Formula One game these days can start without some mention being made of the ‘boring procession’ that the real-life sport has become in the eyes of many observers. To be honest, though, I’m not sure that any form of televised motor racing has ever been elevated above “will watch on a Sunday while nursing a hangover” on my personal viewing interest-o-meter, regardless of how much overtaking takes place. And of those available, there’s no doubt that F1’s high profile, big crowds and glamorous environments certainly make each race feel like more of an event than, say, observing the latest round of the Touring Car Championship at a sparse and soggy Donington Park.

If the real thing has plenty to offer the casual observer, though, unfortunately the same can’t be said for F1 games, especially on the PC, which seem to uniformly live up to many of the criticisms levelled at the sport itself – dry, difficult to get into, and obsessed with technical details at the expense of entertainment. Buoyed by enthusiasm for the latest race observed on television, many a gamer has rushed to the shops to part with cash for an F1 game, pausing only to excitedly glance at the screenshots on the back of the box, before getting it home only to realise that they’re forever destined to never make it past the first corner of the opening race.

Okay, so many of these games come with idiot-proof features installed, which allow the computer to take control of all of the hard bits – even braking and steering – if the player so wishes. But no self-respecting gamer wants to admit to such levels of incompetence, and even if they did have such a moment of weakness, they’d soon question whether they were actually playing a game or simply stabbing mindlessly at the keyboard while their computer daddy did the actual driving.

A white label is visible when you have new tyres fitted - a nice touch.

What the casual F1 fan really wants is a game where getting around the track itself is simple enough with a bare minimum amount of practice, but where they also feel in total control of the car, enough to push things a bit harder and improve a lap time, or to mess up a corner and plough into a gravel trap. In other words, to ‘play’ at being a real-life racing driver without having to worry about gear ratios or spending a few hundred quid on a racing wheel. Oh, and it still has to look and sound authentic too.

It was with similar thoughts in mind that Psygnosis released Formula 1 on the PlayStation back in 1996. Aided by a high-profile ad campaign, it sold by the bucketload, bringing a technical and highly skilled motor sport within easy grasp of the simple-minded, console-owning chimp. And, perhaps recognising that not everyone with a PC necessarily wanted to play Geoff Crammond’s Formula One Grand Prix 2, it was ported to the dull beige box so that those with high-powered machines and short attention spans could enjoy it too. The psuedo-sequel/seasonal update, Formula 1 ’97 (ie this game – yes, I’m finally going to talk about it now, put your paper down) followed later, with the requisite delay for the PC version meaning it didn’t arrive until 1998.

Formula 1 ’97 sets out with a simple mission – to bring a reasonably authentic F1 experience within reach of the kind of people who normally play Need for Speed without being too patronising with it. Actually, having said that, there is an ‘Arcade’ game mode, where the ‘realism’ is set to zero, races have a countdown timer, engine noise is accompanied by wacky drum-and-bass music and hitting the gravel involves no noticeable loss of speed – but I can’t for the life of me imagine who this would appeal to. Ignoring that, the main event is ‘Grand Prix’, where you can experience a semi-realistic single race or an entire championship, with adjustable options to suit.

Taste my Teutonic superiority, Willams Numberone!

Now let me give you a hint: if you end up playing this game, the first thing you should do when fiddling around with the options is turn the damage setting to ‘off’. I know, it sounds like a bit of a wussy option akin to ‘auto-braking’, but trust me – it’s necessary. If I hadn’t been so stubborn myself, I’d probably have had a lot more fun with this game when I first bought it more than ten years ago. Put simply, the other drivers can’t help themselves when it comes to bashing your car, no matter how careful you try to be. With damage on, you’re not even going to make it round the first lap. Be assured: it’s definitely not you, it’s them.

The rest of the options relate to the usual variables: race length, difficulty, tyre wear and so on. You can tinker with these until you find a level to suit, and beyond that, you should bear in mind that the performance of each car broadly mirrors their real-life abilities, so if you find life easy in a Williams, McLaren or Ferrari, you can always opt for the Arrows or the Sauber car for more of a challenge without having to adjust any of the other race options. While there is the option to do a full-length race with all other options maxed-out, it’s likely that those looking for the full sim experience aren’t going to find it here. This game isn’t for you, friend – but there’s billions of others out there that are.

Out on the track, F1 ’97 largely delivers what it promises. You get a good sense of speed, responsive handling, and after spending a couple of laps getting used to each track, you’ll be flying round with relative ease. All of which, I might add, is perfectly achievable with either a digital joypad or the keyboard as your controller of choice – and there’s no jerking around the track like a madman because the game prefers analogue input, either. There is one slight glitch with the automatic gearbox, though: when you slow down sufficiently for the game to shift you into first gear, subsequent acceleration results in a wheelspin and a slight loss of control. Once you’re used to it, it’s no big deal, but it does jar from the sense of authenticity that the game otherwise does well to maintain, particularly on courses with more tighter, low-speed corners such as Monaco.

The races themselves provide plenty of excitement. Even on the easiest of difficulty settings you’ll be punished for any wild off-track excursions, and although one mistake doesn’t mean the end of the race, it could put paid to your chances of victory. As we hinted at when talking about turning off the damage model, the AI drivers aren’t exactly geniuses, and they largely stick to the racing line without necessarily responding to your overtaking manoeuvres, but they’ll still overtake you if you don’t lap as well as they do. Needless to say, your lapses are punished more ruthlessly as the difficulty levels increase, particularly when it comes to just edging a tyre onto the grass while accelerating out of a corner – relatively easy to get away with on a lower difficulty setting, but more and more of a major problem as you increase it.

Just because you can turn the damage model off doesn't mean you have to resort to such drastic measures. Although it is kind of fun.

In terms of aesthetics, the graphics are, you know, old, but they’ve aged pretty well overall. Unfortunately you can’t adjust the resolution, so you’re stuck with 640×480, and the colour palette seems a little on the dull side (this is the Direct3D version we’re talking about, unless my memory is faulty I’m sure the 3dfx version was slightly brighter – and smoother, come to think of it) but otherwise it’s all pleasant enough, with the hallmark graphical tricks of the era, particularly lens flare, being employed to good effect. The sound is a little disappointing, with engine noises not as meaty as they should be and occasionally veering into bumblebee territory.

Like many modern sports games, the presentation seeks to replicate the experience of watching on television, so the general look of the timers and information bars at the bottom of the screen mirrors whatever was the standard around that time. The game also features commentary from TV stalwarts Murray Walker and Martin Brundle, who were once undoubtedly the ultimate commentator/expert summariser team available. On the positive side, Murray certainly summons enough enthusiasm to utter trademark Murray-isms such as “And it’s GO, GO, GO!” and “Look at that! LOOK AT THAT!” without sounding too much like he’s sitting in a sound booth on his own not looking at anything apart from a list of things he’s supposed to say, but in general the commentary is light on reactive speech and too heavily reliant on a handful of dry statements about the cars or changes to the rules which quickly become repetitive.

Of course, this kind of thing is Brundle’s trademark, but after you’ve heard him droning on about the innovations in the Stewart car design for the hundredth time, you’ll start to wish he wasn’t there at all. There’s occasional interplay between the two, but it generally only extends to Murray shouting, “I THINK HE HIT FISICHELLA THERE!” with Brundle adding, two seconds later, “You’re right there, Murray”. Criminally, Murray is also given technical nonsense to spout out at random intervals, which can mean that he neglects to comment on what’s actually happening on the track. For example, upon clinching the championship at Estoril, I was hoping for some kind of acknowledgement from the game, but as I crossed the finish line, Murray was harping on about how we’d be seeing a lot of drivers “struggling with cramp” during the season.

You can choose the cockpit view, but this kind of thing tends to happen.

In fact, having won the championship, there didn’t seem to be a lot to show for it, other than seeing my name at the top of the standings, and I’d have to say that in places F1 ’97 does lack in this regard. You rarely get that ‘race weekend’ feeling that makes each one feel like a significant event, with very little post-race analysis and not even the odd cut-scene to represent a podium finish or a victory. And while we’re being generally complain-y, it’s also worth mentioning the terrible menu system, which seems to have been designed to confuse and cause you to accidentally overwrite your part-completed championship with a blank save, all the while distracting you with some frankly terrible music spooled from the CD that you can’t turn off.

There’s also the point that the relative ease with which you get used to the game means that it could be said to lack depth and longevity, and given that there’s only a set number of tracks, that few will bother to go back and play through a championship again once they’ve managed to win it at a sufficiently challenging level. Certainly, I’ll be leaving it alone for a while, and possibly forever. But on the plus side, the very fact I bothered to play through a whole season puts it ahead of quite a few racing games (and all other F1 games) I’ve played. It’s a little rough around the edges, and it certainly isn’t the perfect Formula One experience, but as an attempt at reducing the sport down to its base elements to make it enjoyable for the arcade racing fan, it’s a pretty decent effort.