There are racing games, and then there are racing games. Sony's brand new Formula One Championship Edition is a pure racing simulator, focused exclusively on the F1 series – wildly popular in Europe, but virtually ignored in favor of NASCAR here in the States. This ain't no arcade driver, not by a longshot, but no matter how you look at it, it's simply beautiful to behold. The cars, tracks, and surroundings are all lovingly rendered, from the heat waves emanating from the track at the start of the race to the flying debris when you smash up your ride. Rest assured that there's more than enough happening in F1 to keep you busy for months, provided you can handle the amazing level of difficulty and dedication that it will take to become a champion on the circuit - if you can't, F1 will simply kick your ass.
If you're a newbie to the genre, at least the Easy settings are remarkably forgiving, as the game virtually handles all of the car's requirements for you. It's not that different than the vehicles in The Minority Report, automatically hurtling down pre-programmed tracks and occasionally accepting input from the driver to turn or otherwise maneuver. You have to really try to do something wrong, as your open-wheeled racer will magically downshift and brake into turns, recover quickly when accelerating out of a curve, and otherwise behave very much unlike a Formula One automobile.
This ain't no arcade driver, not by a longshot, but no matter how you look at it, it's simply beautiful to behold.
Ah, but once you strip off any of the driving aids, life becomes much more difficult. Depending upon which way you go, you'll wrestle and fight with the controller, often wondering if you actually have anything resembling racing skills. Drop the braking assist? The next thing you know, your fuel-injected behemoth will respond only to the most accurately pressed button mash at just the right time; anything less will result in a quick visit with the wall, grass, or unwitting opponent. Feel like checking out how these bad boys handle without the steering aids? Good lord, man, you're in for a lesson in frustration and pain. That's not to say that the controls don't work – they do, and quite well at that. It's just that learning and implementing them properly is seemingly designed for only the most gearhead-friendly gamers with extra doses of patience.
The heart of the game, as you'd expect, is the career mode. You'll start out as an unknown racer on the F1 circuit, and a friendly agent will arrange some trials for you with a handful of sponsors. This is, of course, a nice and relatively easy way to start learning some of the tracks and cars, as each potential benefactor will have different tasks for you to accomplish before they deign to sign you up. By the time you've taken care of the trials laid before you, a choice to race with any of them awaits. Naturally, the ones you blow off don't take it very well (and may even opt to go out of business), but that's not really your problem, is it?
Once affiliated with a team and a car, racing against the Schumachers and Montoyas of the world doesn't just happen. Before finally tearing it up wheel-to-wheel with the world's best, your team will want to tune up the ride by putting you through some paces. This process is called Evolution, and it serves more than one purpose. While their stated goals are to get the right tire, downforce, fuel, and other miscellaneous settings just right for the big race, in reality it's terrific training on the track that will help you immensely during qualifying as well as on race day. What's better is that there's plenty of time (although it's not unlimited) to make a few runs for each of the Evolution configuration points, so that if you happen to take a few turns the wrong way – and you will if not on the easiest settings – it's not the end of the world.
Next up comes qualifying, which is a drastically different process than NASCAR fans would be used to. There are three separate qualifying events, all to set the positions for the bottom third, middle tier, and, lastly, the top ten. Each of these lasts for awhile, and make no mistake that they are incredibly important if you wish to have any success once you get around to finally, you know, racing. If you qualify at or near the back of the pack, it's just about impossible to catch up to the middle group, much less make a run for the lead. Getting pole position, on the other hand, far from guarantees you a spot in Victory Lane – but failing a favorable spot in the grid, you'll be resigned to a less than successful race result.