We gave the 3DS version of F1 2011 a bit of a kicking when it arrived a few months ago, mainly down to technical issues brought on by the game asking so much of the diminutive Nintendo machine. While this Vita version is essentially the same game, the extra oomph offered by the Vita’s beefier processors means our kicking boots are getting a rest. This makes more sense and is actually very good. Not perfect, mind, but not at all bad for a launch day racer.
Above: This is running on a handheld? Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!
It’s worth noting that this isn’t a port of the ‘big’ version that wowed us on 360. This handheld version is developed by Sumo, who you may remember from the remarkable job they did on OutRun 2’s home console conversion and also the rather ace Sonic & Sega Superstars Racing.
Not that you’d know it when you first load it up. The same intro video plays (showing footage from the 360/PC version – naughty naughty) and the music and the presentation style are recognisable too. It's also got the same modes, with Quick Race, Championship, Career and Time Attack all present, but bolstered by a Challenge Mode that gives you plenty of small driving challenges for a more arcadey quick fix on your handheld.
Above: There are five different camera views. Get on-board to feel the grip levels
Whether using the left stick to steer or the trusty old D-pad, the game feels good to drive. Unlike the 3DS version, the screen resolution is through the roof, meaning you can spot the apex of a corner in the distance and have time to prepare for it before you're on top of it. The result is a smooth, flowing drive, that's pleasantly responsive under your thumb – especially if you do the old 'hold the stick forward' technique to get the most out of the analogue sensitivity.
Above: Track detail isn't incredible, but it's smooth, glossy and fast
But the same can’t be said for the face buttons. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to use ‘hold’ instead of ‘toggle’ for the KERS and DRS go-faster buttons? From a videogame perspective, both of these features are basically equivalents of the boost button in Burnout, although they're more complex than that. They each have to be held down here in order to work, as well as holding the accelerator down to actually move. Your thumb was not designed to do all this on its own. Add in a gear shift on the rear touch panel or the right bumper and it gets ridiculous.
Less fiddly is the cut and thrust of working your way through the field. The other cars don't seem to be as aggressive here as they were on 3DS, nor as tentative on corners, allowing you to follow close behind without bumping into someone as often. And when you do, more often than not, you'll receive a warning instead of a drive-through penalty, as the game is more forgiving with minor scrapes. Much better.
Track and field
We wouldn't say 'much better' applies to the AI drivers' cornering, however. There does seem to be an improvement in the number of times they crash on most circuits, but some patches of inexplicable idiocy remain. The first Lesmo at Monza often sees every single car drive off the track and back on, like they're expecting the corner to straighten out 10 degrees sooner than it actually does.
Above: Five cars driving off the same corner on the same lap. Not really good enough
Likewise with Monaco, the computer-controlled cars simply can't drive the narrow circuit properly, crashing into each other and the walls so often, even in qualifying on expert, we managed to go 12 seconds faster on our hot lap. It's such a shame, as it undoes so much of the good work seen in the rest of the game.
Above: 12 seconds faster? On expert? Q3? We wish such success made us happy...
Not that novice drivers will mind. If you've no idea what line you need to get through Eau Rouge flat out, but like the sound of the words 'flat out', you'll probably enjoy this game very much. But if you do know what I'm talking about, you should know that it's too easy to qualify first on expert with a backmarker team and that only poor management of tyre degradation really threatens your lead. That, coupled with the wonky AI in some races, means I can't recommend this as a hardcore racing game.
If you can accept that, you'll enjoy this a whole lot more because once you're over the few disappointments, there's a lot to like. I mean, look at the trailer and imagine that running in glorious high resolution in your very hands:
It's a fun racing game and the best-looking handheld racer yet seen, but while fans of the sport will love it for being so pretty and carrying all the tracks and drivers from last year's season, fans of Codies' other racing games may feel a little disappointed at the lack of premium-quality high-level racing action.
Gamers with more interest in the spectacle of F1 than actually being good at driving will probably like this very much. And at least the good points bode very well for the next one.