Of all of the countless racing games that have been released over the last few years, only a small few have managed to be true pioneers in what is possibly the most over-saturated genre in video games. There has been a substantial lack of true racing simulators, such as the popular PlayStation game Gran Turismo, since most racing games have relied on the arcade-style formula of pedal-to-the-metal aggression. Ferrari F355 Challenge, Sega's newest offering in this tried-and-true genre from master designer Yu Suzuki, is a groundbreaking game that brings the speed and sensation of racing to life in an amazing new way. Its combination of simple controls and complex racing physics make it stand out as one of the most innovative racers to come around in a long, long time.
I should make it clear at this point that F355 Challenge is not a game everyone will enjoy. It truly is a Ferrari simulator, and the driving is exceptionally detailed and precision oriented. The result is a game that is incredibly difficult, and is probably best suited to somewhat older players. The physics engine is meticulously designed so that even the most simply designed tracks can be extraordinarily challenging. Additionally, even the slightest mistake can easily result in a loss, making the game potentially frustrating for some.
F335 Challenge features all the modes of play one would expect in a top-tier racing game. Arcade mode is a conventional time and checkpoint-based race in which the car settings are predetermined and can't be altered. In Championship mode, you compete for the highest cumulative score over six races, and you are allowed to make alterations to the car. There is also a single play mode which allows you to chose between training (which I strongly recommend), driving and racing. For you social gamers, there is the standard spit-screen versus mode as well. Finally, the game offers a rather odd "network" race, not to be confused with online play, in which you can download other players' lap times from the Internet, then watch your car go head-to-head with theirs (in the form of ghost cars) in a replay. It's an interesting concoction, but it is unfortunate that full-blown online play wasn't implemented.
The training level is an absolute must for any beginning player, since the game physics are just too complex to simply pick up and play. A somewhat generic-sounding announcer walks you through the race curve by curve, telling you when to brake, speed up, slow down, or shift gears. As you become more confident with a track, you can step up to a driving mode that allows you to continuously circle the track in order to improve your timing. I found this to be a very addictive mode of play, as shaving even a second or two off of your time can be quite a challenge. Finally, the game allows you to participate in a real race, giving you good practice for the ultra-challenging championship mode. It all adds up to make the game very accessible to novice players despite its overall difficulty.
On a technical level, F355 Challenge performs, well, like the car it's named after. The graphics are absolutely breathtaking. Every car is rendered in almost eerie realism, complete with reflective surfaces, real-time brake lights, and even hundreds of tiny holes on the surface above the bumper which carries the Ferrari insignia. The tracks aren't too shabby either; every track is meticulously rendered down to the smallest detail, with virtually no pop-up whatsoever and an amazingly far draw distance. Some of the hidden, unlockable tracks, most notably the Atlanta track, are stunning in their detail. As if that wasn't enough, there is also a randomly used assortment of stunningly realistic skies, from bright, billowing clouds to spectacular sunsets, all of which cast real-time lighting on the cars.
In order to record the soundtrack for this game, the developers apparently traveled back in time to 1984 and kidnapped some Quiet Riot soundalikes. It's well done and certainly original, but the cheesy music does a better job of generating a laugh than adding to the thrill of the race. Fortunately, you can turn the background music off. Engine sounds are great, and are utilized effectively. You can use the sound of the engine to gauge when you need to shift gears without taking your eyes off of the road, or hear another car approaching from either side. Subtle sounds such as the engines backfiring are present as well. Generally, racing games are not known for stellar sound given the limited scope of the genre, but F355 Challenge manages to capture the roaring intensity of the race quite effectively.
A large part of what makes F355 Challenge unique is that you have complete freedom to customize the car to suit your style and ability. Every technical detail of the car's function is covered. If you don't like the way the car controls, a slight adjustment here or there could solve the problem. The adjustments you make will often make or break your success in a race; even a slight alteration in the car could add or subtract seconds from your best time. Additionally, the game features four "assist functions," such as the aptly named "intelligent braking system" and traction control, which are designed to help new players become acclimated to the game's realistic physics and learn the skills of the game such as break timing and shift changing. As you become more comfortable with the game, you can wean yourself from the assist functions and begin altering the car settings to your desired specifications.
The races themselves are a total blast, assuming you've taken the time to learn the nuances of the car in the training mode. The sensation of speed is first rate. There's something almost indescribably exciting about blazing around the Atlanta bowl at 180 miles per hour as you try to remember when to shift gears or let off the gas. The variety of tracks adds to the experience as well; some rely on raw speed, while others are slower and will require hours of practice to master a series of complex turns. Adding even more to the experience is the aggressive computer AI; cars will go out of their way to ram you or pressure you to one side of the track, and they will seize every opportunity to capitalize on your mistakes. Since the computer-controlled cars are just as fast as you are, you must rely only on your skill and knowledge of the track to win the race.
F355 Challenge stands out from other racers in that it is exactly what the title suggests. Players expecting the options of Sega GT or Gran Turismo will be disappointed in the game's relatively narrow focus. However, F355 Challenge sets out to accomplish only one thing: to put you, the gamer, in the driver's seat of a Ferrari in the most realistic way possible. In this respect it succeeds remarkably, with a flawless balance of ease-of-use and depth that is unprecedented for the racing genre. Most importantly though, F355 Challenge, despite its difficulty and complexity, remains fast-paced and incredibly addictive. I have spent hours upon hours simply trying to shave second or two off of a race or figuring out how to thwart the computer-controlled cars, experimenting with every subtle detail of the car's function and reveling in the sweet smell of victory when those hours of "work" pay off. If you want a quick thrill, look elsewhere. But if you are looking for a complex, challenging and ultimately rewarding game, this is the game for you. It is arguably the best racing simulator ever, easily the best racing game for the Dreamcast, and a must-buy for any racing fan.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Dreamcast version of the game.