F355 Challenge: Passione Rossa
Bar none, the best driving sim on the Dreamcast - Review By Holy Hand Grenade
In a time when a console simulation racer's worth is sometimes determined by the sheer number of cars that it offers, along comes a strikingly different take on the genre packing the credentials to redefine what constitutes a "racing sim." One car, one viewpoint, one purpose -- F355 Challenge was legendary game designer Yu Suzuki's pet project, in which he set out to create the most realistic racing simulation ever seen. Upon arriving in the arcades, F355 came sporting an awesome 3-screen setup powered by multiple Naomi arcade boards and a true driver's seat configuration, complete with a clutch. The lucky few in North America whose local arcade had one of these expensive units came to appreciate just how remarkably well Yu Suzuki's vision had been realized.
The good news for those of us who never had the experience of playing this game in the arcade is that AM2, the creators of the original arcade game, has ported it over to our beloved Dreamcast. In the port, obviously, the 2 side screens and the clutch had to be dropped. Further, licensing issues deemed that Sega itself would not be able to publish F355 in North America, but Sega was able to ink a deal with Acclaim (the holders of the Ferrari license at the time) to release it under the Acclaim label. Thankfully, the only apparent effect of Acclaim getting its grubby hands on the title is the name change, from F355 Challenge to F355 Challenge: Passione Rossa. So, with that out of the way, is the Dreamcast version of F355 Challenge an example of realistic gaming bliss, or simply an exercise in frustration? Let's dive in.
The most defining characteristic of F355 is definitely its control. If there is one word in the English language that sums it up perfectly, it would have to be connected! You see those hands on the wheel? Those are your hands, driving your F355! I can honestly tell you that I've never played a game of any type that possesses more feel. You can feel when you're traveling too fast to navigate that corner up ahead. You can feel when you've applied too much throttle and started to break the rear end lose. You can feel when your tires have started to regain traction, telling you it's time to get back on the throttle. You can feel... well, I could go on and on with examples here, but I think you're starting to catch my (4 wheel anyone?) drift. Needless to say, after spending countless hours with those other "sim" racers and their typically floaty control, upon my first lap around Suzuka Short, I was simply amazed at how tight everything felt. And it's important to note that this perfect control is equally attainable with either the standard Dreamcast pad, or a (preferred) high quality racing wheel. Although I've never had the pleasure of driving a real F355 (my girlfriend's Saturn is pretty close though, right?), I can say that after spending an extended amount of time with this game I feel confident that I'd be able to take the genuine article out for a spin and still retain my current insurance rates upon returning to the garage. According to Sega, a professional F355 driver has claimed that "training" with F355 Challenge in the off season has actually improved his real life lap times at Long Beach! Now that's saying quite a bit about what Yu Suzuki and his AM2 team have accomplished here!
Yep, it's first person view only.
Along with all this unrelenting realism comes a rather lengthy learning curve. Strict Daytona and Ridge Racer fans beware, this is NOT going to be an easy game to get into. Keeping your car on the track will be most every player's #1 priority for at least the first 2 to 3 hours of play, and thoughts of placing first on any track will seem pretty hopeless. This may sound like gloomy, boring gameplay but don't fret, no matter what your skill level, the sheer delight of playing this game will keep you glued to your Dreamcast until all biological urges inform you that it's probably a good idea that you get up, and SOON! Besides the perfect control, the constantly intense racing action is the other factor that really adds to the enjoyment.
This intensity stems from the assurance that, since there is only one type of car, every car on the track is just about an equal in terms of performance. This leads to a tight pack of racers traveling around the track, in which every passing opportunity has to be weighed in terms of how risks and rewards. Even a single misstep by overestimating you or your car's ability in successfully overtaking an opponent can squash your hopes of ending up in victory lane. Fortunately, the AI also makes some mistakes along the way, allowing you to make up a few seconds of lost time if need be. Also, choosing to restart a race while in the middle of a current one results in absolutely zero loading time (Thank you!). This may seem like a small trinket (that's sorely lacking in Sega GT, mind you) but it's an element that you'll begin to understand the significance of the more you play.
The detail in the cars is unreal.
For those inexperienced players who need some training wheels firmly bolted onto the sides of their Ferraris, AM2 has provided some relief. Assistance comes in the form of 4 selectable driving aids; "Stability Control" improves corner handling, "Traction Control" helps prevent wheel spin, the "Anti Lock Brake System" allows breaking and turning at the same time, and the "Intelligent Brake System" automatically breaks before turns allowing players to concentrate on steering. One of the really cool things about these aids is the ability to turn them on and off individually while racing without the need for a pause/menu system. It's also important to keep in mind that the two levels of driving difficulty do mandate which of these driving aids are available for use, so choose wisely. Selecting "Beginner" difficulty engages an automatic transmission and the ability to enable all 4 driving aids, if desired. "Intermediate" difficulty switches over to manual transmission and disables the ability to use the Intelligent Braking System. And the last but probably most useful learning assistant offered is the option of running a few "Training" laps around each track, in which a voice actor coach along with a visual driving line displayed on the road surface tell you exactly how you should be handling your car at every step of the way. I found this to be a really useful tool, and I encourage all new players to head directly for this option upon first boot up to familiarize yourself with the handling and the layout of the courses.
Next: More Goodness