Formula One is epitomised by one section of track in Belgium, known as Eau Rouge. It's one of the fastest and most dangerous corners in the world thanks to its dramatic elevation and 'dare you take it flat out?' reputation. With that in mind, why are there four AI cars trying to work out how to get out of the tiny cul-de-sac on the hill on its approach? Are they that scared they can't bring themselves to even attempt it? This is the sad reality of F1 2011 on 3DS.
Yup - broken is the word I'd use. The PSP version of F1 2009 (also by Sumo) may have had a few barrier-rubbing AI mishaps, but the cars in F1 2011 just can't stay on the road. Not on every track, mind, as some circuits are glitch-free and a glimpse of what could have been. But round the Parabolica at Monza, after the tunnel at Monaco or many times a pit lane is involved, the 3DS drivers seem to forget how to drive. It's shocking.
Above: The AI cars are driving into each other and Vettel's set a 1:24 around Monaco. Riiiiight...
When this happens, all the good work the game does is undone in an instant. A shame, really, as features of the 'big' version are still just about visible despite the 3DS' comparatively low power. The cockpit cam, 'advance time' option in full qualifying sessions and expected performance targets are all straight out of the game we know and love, and while the 'live the life' presentation is absent, this is set up as a simulation of the world's most glamourous motorsport.
Take the car out on the circuit with all the assists off and the 3D on and you start to believe you can have a 3D simulation of F1 in the palm of your hand. The car feels great as it rides over kerbs and struggles for grip on the exit of slow corners - and the 'steer to slow down' phenomenon of 2009's PSP game is gone (but comes back if you switch on anti-skid).
And look at that!
However, even in terms of 3DS racers, this is quite a bad-looking game, especially in races. The biggest problem is the frame-rate, which can really cut up. Wet weather is one culprit, although some tracks do run smoothly even with the lovely reflective track effect in full swing. But as soon as you set the 3D slider to 'on', the frame rate takes a big hit and stays very choppy for a lot of the time.
Above: Low-res textures can't quite save the frame-rate, although some tracks are slick enough
The sound is alright, although the engine effects can get too whiny to listen to for long periods. Tyre squeals are good and the pit radio is exemplary, telling you not only when to come in for tyres but analysing your lap times, right down to how you're driving individual sectors of the track compared to your rivals.
Nothing I'd call a career
Career mode is almost as full-fleshed as the 360/PS3/PC version, with team contracts, full race weekends and even full-length GPs - something we were told at preview stage would not be included. But two-hour races aren't for everyone, of course (especially with the control layout as uncomfortable as it is), so there are shorter options including a very neat 'randomise quick race' on the touch screen at the main menu.
Above: Best bit of the game this. Touch the screen to randomise driver or track, then go. Perfect
Sadly, the racing itself is undone completely by the AI behaviour - and not just its drunken behaviour on a few key tracks. Even on the tracks where it doesn't get stuck, such as Hungary or Suzuka, the initial 'crocodile' of cars (as Murray Walker would describe it) often doesn't settle into the racing line until well into the second lap. The result? A screen full of rear wings to avoid, right across the road ahead of you.
Penalty? Aw, c'mon, ref!
Avoiding contact with the computer-driven cars is the main challenge, to be honest. Penalties are way too easy to pick up, thanks to the AI drivers breaking unexpectedly while you're right on their tails, or going off the track then driving back onto it at right-angles to the road. Make any kind of contact with the front half of your car and it's deemed to be your fault. You can also pick up drive-throughs for simply running over a kerb on the exit of a corner, which is ridiculous.
Worse still, any damage you pick up can't be fixed in the same lap you serve a penalty – and you always serve your penalty first. Even real drivers get to choose when they serve their drive-through, so long as it's within a set number of laps. Not here. Instead, you'll have to crawl round with your wheel hanging off for another lap, during which you'll likely pick up another penalty from being unable to stop for corners. You can turn off penalties, of course, but then this ceases being a sim.
The damage system is actually commendable, but only in terms of how it affects the gameplay. Tyres degrade over time and I even suffered an engine blowout (and there's an in-game 'achievement' for finishing a race with a smoking engine). But aesthetically, it's practically non-existent. The front wheels do buckle, but that's all. No flying bodywork or wheels, making the game look very clean and civilised. And dull.
Above: That's the extent of the damage system. The left wheel is buckled. No, honestly!
The challenge mode is reasonably long and provides some solid game variants to try your hand at. One challenge sees you having to maintain a lead at Silverstone in the wet while on slick tyres. But, of course, with assists switched on, the chances of actually spinning out are low, making the challenge pretty redundant. It should specify 'no assists' - that would be a challenge.
Chain - keep us together
So that's that, really. A flaky game with bad AI, unsatisfying damage and frustrating penalties. You might think 'well, it's only 3DS so why expect it to emulate the 360/PS3?', but consider this: PSP's F1 '06 was delivering a brilliant handheld version of PS3's Formula One: Championship Edition some five years ago. F1 sims can work on handheld.
Somewhere along the line, the ambition might have just gone a step too far for 3DS' first F1 game. When you're the only car on the track, it's fun - and Formula One fans will probably still get their kicks out of time attacking all 19 courses on the train/loo/wherever. But when you take those skills to a full grid only to find the AI drivers just can't seem to use the pit road, resulting in a traffic jam of almost the entire field (which never disperses), there's not much you can do say to defend it.
Above: Low quality screen thanks to my phone's camera - but you need to see it
There is some fun to be had from time trial, challenges and the tracks that work properly. And with the penalties switched off, it almost passes as some crazy, incident-filled version of F1. But if you're after an authentic racing sim on 3DS, best wait a little longer, cos this most certainly ain't it.