The Ferrari. It's every child's dream to own one. Ever since I was a kid, Ferraris have always been the quintessential sports cars to me. Lamborghinis didn't appeal to me nearly as much as a red prancing pony did. I remember falling in love with my first Ferrari, it was a Testarossa, a car I still love very much to this day. Where I live, I see Ferraris on a daily basis, unusually many of them F430s, and I gawk and stare the same way every time no matter how often I see them.
So when a developer picks up the rights to the Ferrari license, I get on my knees and pray they do the brand justice. The last time we had a proper Ferrari game was Sega's Ferrari 355 Challenge, a game that only boasted one car…the F355. Acclaim would then pick up the license for a Ferrari Challenge game of their own, one which would feature an extensive list of Ferraris. The game was practically finished before it was canceled, and Acclaim shut down. No one missed much, though, as Acclaim's game was utter rubbish. Fast forward many years later and System 3 has now secured the license, and here we have the most comprehensive Ferrari offering ever.
When I previewed Ferrari Challenge last year, I had a very good feeling that the end result would be a game that's full of greatness. After all, System 3's CEO, Mark Cale, is the owner of many Ferraris and competes in challenge events himself, so it'd have been a cold day in hell before an experienced driver and Ferrari owner would have his babies desecrated with an inferior product. Ferrari Challenge is precisely the type of product you expect to come out of a house of developers who are passionate about the subject matter…this is a truly great racer, full of features, solid gameplay mechanics, and an extremely addictive experience.
The game starts off about as barebones as can be. You have a few of the game's tracks to choose from, and only one F430 to race with. Enter the game's Challenge/Trofeo Pirelli career mode and start winning races, and you'll begin to accumulate new cars and tracks. What makes Ferrari Challenge the most complete Ferrari game is that…well, its ultimate goal is to feature every single Ferrari ever made, including various concept cars. If that doesn't make for a complete experience, not much will. A total of 16 tracks exist to challenge your Ferraris every which way, including Ferrari's own test track Fiorano.
Piloting a car on Fiorano features Tiff Needell as your instructor. Tiff will guide you around the course, telling you how you should take certain turns and then give you a report of your performance at the end of two laps, including how well you control the throttle and brakes, how well you keep the driving line, and more. The test track is a solid place to gain experience with your Ferraris, especially the F430, which is the car you'll use primarily throughout the career mode. My only complaint is that I wish System 3 used more of Tiff throughout the game…he's an automotive hero of mine.
Tiff, who many car enthusiasts should kow as the host of Fifth Gear, also helped oversee the development of Ferrari Challenge's physics and gameplay, ensuring that authenticity prevails. I can say with full confidence that Ferrari Challenge boasts a superb physics engine that really comes to life when you've got the Logitech G25 wheel attached to your PlayStation 3. Playing Ferrari Challenge with the G25 wheel brings the experience to a whole new level, especially if you've disabled aids such as stability and traction control. While we're on the subject of controls, I'm a little annoyed that the game doesn't have the option to fully customize controls to your liking. Fortunately, one of the three configurations was what I needed, but not everyone may be as lucky.
But be forewarned, disabling aids completely makes for an extremely grueling and unforgiving experience, so only purists will be able to tolerate doing so. But with that said, driving and winning without the help of driving aids makes the game feel that much more rewarding. If perhaps you find the game too hardcore without aids, you're free to toy around with the physics settings mid-game from the pause menu, so worry not.
Ferrari Challenge's super tight physics give the game a very appealing and addictive feel. From the moment I first popped the disc into the PS3 to the moment I realized I should turn the game off, a good four and a half hours passed by. I've since played the game more, obviously, and I love it more and more with every run.
As far as the artificial intelligence goes, they're as good as you want them to be. Ferrari Challenge offers a variety of A.I. difficulties you can play with, from beginner, to professional, to dynamic. Dynamic is a constantly adjusting A.I. level where your opponents will be only as good as you are, and I found that it worked far better than just choosing a pre-determined difficulty. Ferrari Challenge definitely earns points for going this route with the A.I. I should also mention that penalties will prevent you from trying to outsmart the A.I. by cutting through corners; drive through a chunk of grass or go off-road to cut off your opponents, and you'll be hit with a speed penalty, limiting you to 40MPH for a certain amount of seconds. This is a simulation game, so keep your racing clean.
When you're not in the mood to race against A.I., you'll take this game online and race against up to 15 others. We've gone online with Ferrari Challenge and so far our experience has been smooth. The races weren't jerky, and there aren't any visible compromises to be seen. The framerate remains as consistent online, as it is offline. There isn't a whole lot to the online, other than straightforward races and battles, but it's still good stuff. Beyond online gameplay, there is also the collection of Challenge cards, which can be used in a card game mini-game that the game has. And of course, you'll have your additional pick of Arcade, Trophy, Time Trial and Quick Race modes. So on top of spending time with the core Challenge mode, you'll also spend a good deal of time in the Arcade and Trophy mode – two modes which also allow for gradual progression.
Visually, it may not be Gran Turismo 5 with 60 frames at 1080p, but there's still a very pleasing picture that runs at a mostly constant 30 frames per second, boasting a terrific sense of speed, in addition to a bunch of processing effects such as anti-aliasing. Details on the cars are super smooth and practically picture perfect. Additionally, you'll have a hard time spotting any ugly jaggies in the game, as Ferrari Challenge features an incredibly clean picture. Moreover, Ferrari Challenge's lighting effects are superb, as the cars reflect everything around them, in addition to having that perfect sparkle bounce from the sunlight. The tracks display great texture work on the ground, as the asphalt never looks washed out or flat.
Furthermore, despite how detailed and gorgeous the rain effects are, they rarely take a toll on the framerate, and I liked that. Framerate hiccups happen very infrequently, and when they do, you may not even notice them – so only a keen observer will see this. With a total of 16 cars on screen, there's a lot of action going on, and the potential for pile-ups to happen is high. In the event of a pile-up, you can bet that you'll see the damage translate onto each car, including yours. While the damage engine is purely aesthetic and not extreme, it still encourages you to not play bumper cars and race clean.
Ferrari Challenge is the type of game where the audio has to be nearly as powerful as the rest of the game is. After all, you're dealing with Ferraris here…cars that aren't exactly quiet and sound like an orchestra of angels performing an Iron Maiden song, with Bruce Dickinson's voice multiplied by ten as the cars approach their redline. Something like that, at least. So you can rest assured that Ferrari Challenge sounds massive, and if you've got a nice little audio setup going, you're going to find yourself in an aural heaven. Yes, there is music in the game, but in all honesty, I turned it off to listen to the wail of the prancing ponies, instead. My only complaint with the audio is that I wished the crashes sounded a bit more brutal.
All in all, if you're looking for a great racing sim, Ferrari Challenge should be on your map. With a promise to feature every Ferrari ever made via downloadable updates, on top of a proper physics engine, you're getting one of the most complete licensed products out there. This isn't just a quick cash-in attempt, this is the work of a team, and their boss, who are genuinely sharing their passion with us. The graphics engine runs very well, demonstrating good lighting, solid picture clarity, and beautiful car models. Ferrari Challenge is definitely worthy of the Ferrari namesake, and is one of the racers I'll be holding onto for many years to come.