Paolo Cattani’s Virtual GP (VGP) has been a long time coming, and I’m sure many of you have eagerly been awaiting its arrival. And since pretty much everyone knows how much I like F1, it’s probably no surprise that I was asked to help with VGP, or that AF would ask me to review it.
VGP is a simulation based on the 1998 F1 season, featuring authentic renditions of the 16 circuits that were used that year, and all 11 championship teams (including 22 drivers) including life-like representations of the car liveries.
However, it’s not an officially FIA licensed game, which is understandable (would have cost big bucks). This means that the drivers and teams have been renamed, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out who they are, and you can change them if you wish. The same applies to the sponsor names on the billboards and cars, but you only really notice if you look closely, which you don’t have time to do when you’re playing unless you like crashing into walls. Certainly, the imaginary names don’t really detract from the simulation.
START YOUR ENGINES
Upon loading the game, you are greeted by a rather nice 3D rendered intro, not dissimilar to the kind found in F1 racers on the PlayStation. One glaring inaccuracy is the 3D car model – it’s not what I would describe as a modern F1 car. However, best not worry too much about that, as it’s the game itself that counts.
Starting a new game, you’re given the option of racing in either a full 16 race championship season or a single race on the circuit of your choice. Each race weekend consists of a free practice session, a qualifying session (limited to 12 laps, as in real life), a race warm-up session and the race itself.
Before each session you’re presented with a detailed overhead map of the circuit, which includes the names of all the corners and the recommended gear that you should use at various positions. It also shows basic statistics, like the circuit length, number of race laps, fuel used per lap, maximum speed and car setup pointers. It is accompanied by an introduction and some tips, spoken in true (Martin) Brundlesque style, which is a nice touch.
The rest of the game revolves around your "VirtualPits", where you can adjust the game options, the car setup and, of course, you can get in the car to start driving. By default, you have to drive a Ferrari, which is not surprising with the author being Italian. However, you can change this by editing a configuration file using a text editor.
The car defaults to mouse control, but you can also use a normal (digital) joystick or some kind of analogue device (joystick, steering wheel, etc.). I found it best to begin with a digital joystick, although using a mouse or analog device allows far more control over the car. Additionally, there are various settings which allow you to customise how much control you have over the car.
You're automatically given a Ferrari to drive which is not surprising as the author is Italian but you can change this if you want
Generally speaking, the "physics model" implemented in a F1 game influences how accurately the simulation of a real F1 car is conveyed. Put simply, the physics odel affects the way your car reacts to your input (the joystick) and to its surroundings (the track, obstacles, other cars, etc).
In many existing F1 games, the physics model is over simplified, resulting in cars that do not handle in exactly the same way as real F1 cars. VGP is not one of those – its physics model and car dynamics are actually very realistic. Fascinatingly, VGP considers each wheel independently in all calculations, which helps ensure that the car reacts in an authentic manner.
Chances are you will be unable to stay on track for a single lap when you first play VGP, but help is at hand. A number of help options allow the computer to take on some of your work including automatic gears, invincible cars, fake downforce and best line help. A real F1 driver learns to understand which adjustments the car requires in order for him to get the best out of it.
This is where the car setup comes in (see boxout), but you may wonder how on earth you work out how to set the car up for your driving style. Fortunately, VGP provides a sophisticated telemetry system to assist you. Over the duration of a lap, it will record your speed, rpm, g-force, tyre wear, amount of skidding, brake and accelerator reactions. All of which can be viewed as graphs back in the pits, which can be analysed in order to make your car setup better.
Graphically, VGP sets a relatively high standard using a texture-mapped 3D engine – a marked improvement on previous Amiga games of this type – even though it only uses a 64 colour display. The graphics are not up to the standard of console F1 games – it would be unrealistic to expect that and frankly it doesn’t matter as the atmosphere generated due to the emphasis on realism is more important.
If I have one gripe, it is the rather cartoony looking cars. This style doesn’t really fit with the rest of the game. It may be an attempt to introduce a fun element into, what is, a serious simulation, but I’d rather see the cars looked more realistic. Have no fear though – Paolo has promised to release some more detailed looking car objects.
Sound-wise, simply envisage the wailing engines, screeching tyres, booming crashes, and throw in lots of speech for extra effect. The in-game speech (essentially a pits-to-car radio), allows your team to contact you if they need to. Sadly, the information can be quite vague at times.
The manual comprises of a single text file on the CD, some of which is repeated on the CD inlay. It’s quite brief and to the point and more content and insight into car setup would not have gone amiss. Having said that, the manual does cover most aspects of the game, and it’s definitely worth reading.
THE FINAL LAP
I would be lying if I said that VGP was perfect. It’s obvious that a lot of effort has been put on implementing a realistic physics model, but at the expense of the quality of other areas of the game. Perhaps the most important being the front-end – while the menu system does its job, it can be very annoying to navigate and it’s not very intuitive.
More specifically, it’s hard to tell whether certain options are enabled or not. And then there’s the young Essex lady’s voice that somewhat pointlessly informs you which menu you’re looking at when a decent tune in the background would have sufficed.
Furthermore, there’s no wet weather simulation, the speeds are measured in km/h (no mph option) and there is some dodgy pronunciation. These minor oversights do take the shine off what is otherwise a good product.
VGP should certainly not be viewed as MicroProse F1 Grand Prix with better graphics - VGP offers a pleasantly different driving experience to any die-hard F1GP player.
Admittedly, VGP will not appeal to everyone – a certain level of patience is required while you learn how to get the best out of the car but keep practising and you’ll soon experience the immense satisfaction of mastering an F1 car. A must buy for dedicated F1 simulation fans.