F1 2009 – hands-on

As has become the way with Nintendo’s little white box, when you think of racing games on the Wii, you think Mario Kart, MySims Racing or ExciteTruck. Or, any other bobble-headed, cutesy racer. The one thing you don’t think is motorsport simulation – Need for Speed: Undercover is about as close as you can get and the less we say about that, the better.

So, it came as quite a pleasant surprise (not without a degree of trepidation) when we heard that the first official Formula One game from Codemasters would be on the Wii. Now, for you PS3 and 360 owners – fear not. These versions are still being worked on but have quite a lot of work still to be done under the hood. We’ll see the fruits of their labour later on in the year, for release in 2010. F1 2009, then, serves two purposes; first – to give the baying Formula One fans something to satisfy their thirst for the pinnacle of motor racing as soon as possible. Secondly, to prove that red shells and banana skins aren’t a prerequisite of a Wii racing game and that it can do ‘serious’.

You don’t need us to tell you that Formula One is big news again. Even before the introduction of the latest car designs, racing rules and new teams, Bernie Ecclestone’s four-wheeled extravaganza has drawn in 5 million more viewers than two years ago. Codemasters couldn’t have picked a better time to own the gaming rights.

While understandably boasting excellent simulation credentials (such as a damage and weather system, a full range of driver assists, pit stops and multiple control systems that can take advantage of the up-until-now sort of pointless Logitech wheel), F1 2009 is aiming to also remain thoroughly accessible to all gamers.

Ideally, Codemasters want to cater to what they’re calling ‘Father and Son’ gaming. Thanks to adjustable driver assistances and skill balancing, in theory two players with different levels of capability should still be able to take advantage of the two-player split-screen mode and blast round the Monaco circuit or the night-based Singapore track on an even footing. It should hopefully be enough to keep Little Billy happy until bed time, when Pops can then get stuck into a full, three season career mode that uses all 19 tracks and features the officially licensed cars and drivers.

Of course, the full race weekend experience could be as comprehensive as the Wii can handle (which, from what we have seen so far, it is), but that would mean nothing if the actual driving itself was the speed of crawling across a carpet of sandpaper. We can quite confidently tell you that this isn’t the case at all. Even though the game isn’t due for release until late this year, our races around Monaco and Singapore showed no juddering or slowdown (even when 20 cars piled into the first corner) and a framerate locked at an impressive speed. And, while it isn’t going to knock Gran Turismo 5 or Forza 2 off their simulation pedestals the racing is certainly a challenge for even veteran driving fans when all the assists are turned off.

F1 junkies may be disappointed that the 360 and PS3 versions are still a way off, but F1 2009 is still a worthy fix, proving there is more to the Wii than pretend exercising and minigame collections.

May 6, 2009