9th Sep 2007 | 09:00
Usually, this is the point when you might expect us to say this is the nearest we're ever going to get to spanking around in a Ferrari, but System 3 took us to Italy to drive real Ferraris so that one's out the window.
System 3 has high hopes for Ferrari Challenge, the company CEO, Mark Cale, determined to create the best racing game yet for PS3. Surrounded by lush Ferrari 360s in the garages of Mugello race course in Italy, CVG got stuck into an early build of the PS3 and DS versions of the game.
The agenda of the day was to have a bit of a thrash around in the real car, then play the PS3 game to see how well it replicates the handling. Our conclusion? We can confirm that playing a racing game - any racing game - feels nothing like being thrown around corners at silly speeds in a 500bhp super car. You're not afraid of dying, and your eyes don't feel like they're about to pop right out of your head. On a more serious note though, FC is coming along nicely.
Dreamcast or arcade fans may remember Sega's Ferrari 355 Challenge; an ultra-realistic racing sim that tried to be so real its extreme difficulty made it a notoriously tough game to play. It was great for complete petrol heads, but not much fun for anyone else. Despite System 3's game being a spiritual successor to Sega's effort, it's nothing like that.
Striking a balance
FC goes for a more playable, fun approach. It maintains a reasonable level of realism without being overly punishing or technical. Sitting somewhere between PGR and Gran Turismo, it's easy to play but feels more on the realistic side than Bizarre's all-out arcade racer, with GT-like technical options such as traction control, ABS, and other such things that PGR refuses to deal with.
System 3 is taking the handling very seriously, and has even gone to the effort of drafting in the help of race driver Bruno Senna (F1 driver Ayrton Senna's nephew) to help them genuinely nail the true feel of a Ferrari.
"I have a lot of experience with the real cars," Senna told CVG. "I help to make the game feel as real as possible without losing the enjoyment. The real objective is to make a game that everyone can play, but still represent how the physics really are."
He seems to be doing a great job. The cars have a convincing feeling of weight - they feel heavier than the cars in PGR, which can be thrown around at ridiculous speeds. Just like in real life, balancing this weight is necessary for the best cornering, and you can see the cars leaning as they're thrown into turns and chicanes at high speed.
This heaviness means you have to break far earlier than you think. This can be deceiving; just like in Forza, FC doesn't use any optical tricks to amplify the illusion of speed (most racers stretch the edges of your view to achieve this), so you feel like you're going a lot slower than you really are. It takes some getting used to.
Technicalities aside, FC succeeds on feeling convincing enough while maintaining a level of forgiveness. So, you won't spin out instantly for putting one wheel on the grass (as you would in real life), you won't have to fight with stubborn handling as you turn corners (we're looking at you, Forza) and even though there's visual damage (a first for Ferrari), there's no technical crash damage, so no totalling your car after one crash.
The fact that there are 16 cars on the course is also a bonus in the fun stakes. Eight cars in Forza is cool enough, but with twice that number these races feel like a proper grand prix battles. The AI-controlled cars are competitive and convincing enough to actually make mistakes from time to time. But we did find them occasionally frustrating when they would pull in front of us on a long, high-speed straight and slam on their breaks to slow us down which, of course, slows them down, too. That's just cheap.
But this number of opponents is carried over to both LAN and online play, which will surely be awesome. Unfortunately a technical fault with the demo units meant we couldn't get stuck into a multiplayer game. Online tournaments and extra download content is also planned, and well as full support for PS3 Home.
Outside of the multiplayer, the full game will pack the usual arcade, quick race and time trial modes, as well as a the main Ferrari Challenge Season mode, which gets you playing challenge weekends in different venues.
In these weekends you set times in qualifying rounds then hit the course to claim victory and earn new Ferrari Battle Cards. These card, most importantly, unlock a new car for you to drive, but they also double up as part of a quirky little battle card mini-game, which is basically a multiplayer top trumps game.
A right looker
Just like the real cars, presentation is clearly a priority of the game, too. Even from the title screen, high-res renders of the shiny red cars whoosh around in the background, before kicking you into in-game visuals, which are equally as slick. The cars are, as you'd expect, absolutely spot-on, with acute detail in the car interiors and wheel arches, and that shiny red paint with the over exaggerated shine common in the current generation of racers.
It's impressive to see the game render 16 of those bad boys on the track, maintaining 30 frames per second even if you're at the back of the pack and all the cars are on the screen at once.
The courses look great, too. The cars in Forza look excellent, but these are offset with bland, boring-looking environments that are clearly sacrificed to allow the game to run at that silky 60 frames-per-second rate. But FC's lower (but still sufficiently smooth) frame rate means it frees up the PS3's processors to churn out far more environmental prettiness, and it does, with a considerable number realistic trees lining the course, leaves falling onto the track and spectator stands filled with cheering people.
The DS version of the game, which took a bit of backseat to the shiny PS3 version on the day, was just as impressive given the hardware. Games that try to look too realistic on DS usually end up blocky and running at CCTV-like frame rates, but FC DS looks just as good if not better than Codemaster's Race Driver: Create and Race, runs silky smooth, and handles pretty well, too.
The feeling of weight from the PS3 version isn't there on the DS - in fact it feels more like go-kart racing with breaks that stop you almost immediately and punchy, sometimes over reactive steering. But that seems to be the ethos with racing games on a screen so small - the philosophy being that you can't see too far into the distance so you need to be able to make quick adjustments to your car.
As for gameplay modes, much of the PS3 game has been carried over to the portable, although the multiplayer racing, which includes both on and offline, is cut down to four players, like in Mario Kart DS. We've got no arguments with that.
So that's impressive turnouts for both versions of the game, but they're not without stiff competition in the run up to Christmas. Race Driver and its brilliant track editor will be gunning for top spot on DS, while Sony is expected to unleash the mighty Gran Turismo 5 Prologue before the end of the year, too.
While you contemplate where your money's going, check out our videos of both the PS3 and DS games below. The off-screen camera footage will give you a suitable enough peak at the goods until we get direct-feed videos, which should be with us very soon, so sit tight for that.