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F-1 Pole Postition Review

Publisher - Ubi Soft
Developer - Human
Platform - N64
Type - Racing
Score - 5/10

Formula One racing has appeared on the Nintendo 64 in the form of F1 Pole Position 64. F1 Pole Position distinguishes itself from the rest of the racers on the Nintendo 64 by going for a highly realistic game and downplaying the arcade elements so prevalent in N64 racers. Unfortunately, F1 Pole Position sabotages itself with flaws in both design and execution.

The game starts on a good note. There are 16 courses and 22 drivers. A Formula One license is well used, resulting in real courses and drivers. In a race, you choose to be one of the drivers, acquiring both the driving abilities of the person you select and the handling characteristics of his car. Your driver races against 21 other drivers, more than any other Nintendo racer. You can customize your car, including simply changing tires based on weather conditions and details such as wing angle. During the race, the game keeps track of damage to six components of the car and fuel level, requiring strategic pit stops. If you or the other drivers take too much damage, the car will be eliminated from the race. All of these are good features and separate F1 Pole Position from the other N64 racing games.

Unfortunately, that's where it falls apart. The World Grand Prix mode requires 10 lap races. World Grand Prix is the basic play mode. You race against all 22 opponents on all sixteen tracks, accumulating points based on how you finish. After all 16 courses are run, the game awards the world champion. By normal racing standards, 10 laps is a very long time, and it's difficult to find the patience to run one course for that long. On the other hand, for a true F1 fan, the race has just begun after 10 laps, and at least having the option of running full length races would be appreciated. This is the principle design problem. F1 Pole Position tries to straddle arcade racing and simulation, and it just falls between them instead.

The other design flaw comes in shifting gears. In most racing games, gear shifting is a fairly painless operation, with either a standard or automatic transition. The engine speed changes, and you're done. In F1 Pole Position, the car hiccups and spews sparks out the rear. It doesn't do that if you do things badly; it does it all the time. Shifting gears feels totally unnatural and disrupts the flow of the game.

The other gameplay modes are Battle and Time Trials. Time Trials is your typical record setting experience. You're alone on the track and racing for speed. Battle is a single race with as many of the 22 drivers as you want, for as many laps as you want (up to 10). This is handy for those quick three lap races, so you can turn the machine on, run a race, and turn it off again whenever you have a spare moment. Notice that neither of those is multiplayer. This is a one player racing game. Who thought that up? Sure, I play racing games by myself, but days disappear when I'm racing with someone else. The lack of even two player support is a major weakness.

Let's get on with the problems with the execution, starting with the graphics. On the plus side, F1 Pole Position can handle as many racers on screen as can fit. On the minus side, the cars are really bland. They may look like F1 racers, but they don't look very interesting. But that's not nearly as bad as the draw-in. As you race, the track magically appears in front of you. It's not so bad that it's actively distracting, a la Cruis'n USA, but there's a definite problem when you're looking at the edge where the track is appearing to figure out what the track does next. There are some nasty surprises that just appear before you can react to them. This game clearly fails to use the N64's graphics capabilities. In the "I don't know what to think" category, there is a small amount of FMV in the game, for victory celebrations at the end of races. The images are so compressed that they turn into a blurry mess, but it almost becomes stylized as a result.

The sound pretty well lives down to the graphics' level. Evidently, it's much harder to get a good motor sound in a racing game than I would expect, based on the way that one game after another fails. The engine sounds like a nasty whine, except when you're shifting gears, of course. Then it just sounds like it's skipping. There's also no music during the game. Something's definitely missing. One feature that I think works reasonably well is the voice pit communication. Your pit crew makes comments about the race and your performance throughout the race. They don't have a lot to say, but they don't say very much, so it balances out. It sounds like it's coming over a radio headset, so it's low quality, but appropriate. If you're allergic to voices in racing games, (I don't blame you) you can turn it off.

The control is definitely the best part of the game. It behaves well, which doesn't mean it's easy. This game requires a lot more braking than most racers, because the cars don't corner very well at high speeds, like in real life. All the vehicle settings that can be changed will keep most people satisfied, assume that they bother to change the settings. The game has changing weather, which is pretty smoothly done, but rain doesn't change the control as much as I would expect. It reduces visibility pretty well, although you can still see the draw-in, but I don't get a strong sense of cornering worse.

This may have the dubious honor of being the last N64 racer not to support the Rumble Pak. Every other racer without Rumble Pak support was released before the Rumble Pak, so at least they have an excuse. It's not like Rumble Pak support would have saved F1 Pole Position, just that it's worth noting that it doesn't have it.

Even if you're desperate for a N64 F1 racer, you'll be disappointed by F1 Pole Position. Develop an appreciation for arcade racers, and hope that something better comes along.