Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Living The Life: Australia

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event.]

Ah Australia, my home Grand Prix. Ever since signing that contract with the Virgin Racing team I was finding it hard to contain my excitement about racing around this circuit, performing in front of my fellow countrymen and fans and enjoying a circuit that, previously, I had only watched from the comfortable surrounds of my home, or whenever I attended the street circuit as a spectator. Sure, my racing career and knowledge that comes with it means that I knew, roughly, how the track faired in terms of actually driving it, but even so I suspect that I will be quite surprised when I have my first few laps around the Albert Park circuit. To say I’m looking forward to it is an understatement, even if I’m once again severely nervous about not only partaking in my second ever Grand Prix, but to do so in front of my own people. It can’t be as bad as Bahrain though, can it?

Friday Morning, Practice 1

Well here goes nothing, my first attempt at a circuit I’m familiar with -- which by the way is instilling some confidence in me that I wasn’t expecting -- yet remains foreign given the fact I’ve never driven around it; the simulator back at the team’s headquarters doesn’t count, nor do the many videogames I play in the interim. The team has put a set of Prime tires on so I guess I’ll go out and give Albert Park a crack before it gets too populated by the other drivers.

Well… If I’m to be honest, I really don’t know what to say about the Melbourne circuit. My familiarity paid off as I got up to speed with the track rather quickly, and I had confidence to boot which helped me get into a nice rhythm as I did lap after lap. The circuit is certainly a different beast to that of Bahrain, its corners much faster and the lap over much quicker than that dusty, desert-based track. I really like how the a lot of the corners are sweeping around here, speed able to be maintained as the walls and grandstands, grass and gravel traps fly on by. It’s quite the picturesque venue too, the lake in the middle a nice -- if brief -- sight around some parts of the track, while the overhanging trees and tall buildings in the distance providing a nice, quaint contrast to the sheer speed of the circuit and surrounding tire walls, grandstands and run off areas. It also seemed to be slipperier than Bahrain which was surprising given the relatively clean tarmac of Melbourne against the dusty, sandy bitumen of Sakhir. I had to venture into the pits a fair bit during the session to try and find a setup that suited not only my driving style but the track conditions too; after a few visits I eventually found one that worked. Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, I made a few mistakes, mostly run offs as I went wide on turns by missing the apex or dipped a tire into the grass making the wheels spin and slowly me down, but otherwise the session was a good, enjoyable and calm one that was both a blast -- to finally be on the circuit -- and a bit bland, with the other drivers not running that many laps. I took the opportunity to run as many laps as I could, to not only practice the circuit but also because I kind of had no choice thanks to the difficulty in finding a setup. I need to work on that final turn, managing the throttle around it being quite hard as the wheels want to spin and I want to reach full acceleration as quickly as possible. Perhaps playing with the setup will help with that issue. Last notable thing about the session was my surprise at just how much grip these cars have, the speeds that can be achieved through these long sweeping corners quite awe-inspiring. I can only imagine what it’d be like in one of the front-running cars, though don’t tell my team that… I also realised just how deep you can brake into a lot of the corners, my confidence in braking later and later growing as the session went on. Where before I was braking early to ensure I could hit the apex accurately (something I still didn’t achieve consistently), now I can brake really late and use the gears and technical grip of the car to help me still hit the apex and get through. It’s really quite remarkable and perhaps even astonishing at just how well these cars can perform and I look forward to enjoying more of it in the following sessions. If it means anything, I finished the session in 12th position.

Friday Afternoon, Practice 2

This session was also reasonably decent, with me deciding to put in as many laps as I could in the allocated 90 minutes just to ensure I got acquainted with the track and ironed out any issues I may have been having. As soon as I went out I noticed that it was quite overcast and quite darker too due to the late afternoon time that the session was scheduled, conditions that both worked together to change the ambiance and general appearance of the Albert Park circuit. It posed a slight challenge too as I had to find new braking markers and points as the shadows I was using before had moved or disappeared altogether. That final turn is still proving troublesome and I accidentally cut turn 6 a few times when trying to do some relatively fast laps. I was bewildered at just how fast this track is, too; not only do each lap go by very quickly, your sense of place on the circuit is confusing sometimes -- one minute you’re at turn 3, the next exiting turn 2 approaching the same corner again… it’s really quite insane! Unfortunately I caught the curbing wrong on the exit of turn 8/9 and spun into the inside wall in my second run, requiring a visit to the pits and some lost time as I received repairs. I also cut turn 12 unintentionally -- I need to stop doing this. I also picked up on the fact that the curb on the exit of turn 4 is something to be mindful of as I caught it and got thrown into the wall on my third run. The fourth run wasn’t as bad though with some good, clean laps occurring in quick succession leaving me with the feeling that I had made some progress. I also seemed to have improved with my approach, control and exiting of that final turn, leaving me even more confident as the weekend progresses. Despite a forecast of no rain I had to laugh when it started to lightly sprinkle, it didn’t last long though dissipating very quickly. I got a warning in the session for colliding (gently) with Adrian Sutil who had just came out of the pits and was slow while I had just started a hot lap. I was a little annoyed with the warning because he was holding me up (not the other way around) and blocked multiple times, not showing anywhere near enough courtesy and certainly not respectful like the other drivers. All up I did around 20 laps, managing a lap time of 1:30.153 in the process which put me as high as 9th.

Saturday Morning, Practice 3

I quite enjoyed this session as it was a clear, sunny one with some light fog that vanished as the session progressed. It just looked really nice around this beautiful track. I caught turn 4’s exit curb again and spun but managed to avoid the wall this time, thankfully. I had to come into the pits briefly to go to the toilet which, in hindsight, is quite amusing -- lesson learned: go before a session starts next time! I had a horrible second run, coming out of the pits right in front of Felipe Massa and Liuzzi who were close to each other, blocking both unintentionally as I was warming up. Massa even connected with the back of my car, giving us both damage. Then, on the final turn, I spun (guess I haven’t mastered it yet) and hit the wall, dislodging my front wing in the process. Naturally I went back to the pits for repairs before going out again for more laps. Each and every time I started a flying lap on my third run, someone came out of the pits, impeding my progress and slowing me down. First it was fellow countrymen Mark Webber so I slowed and aborted the lap, then again with Kamui Kobayashi. To his credit he moved aside to let me through but by then it was too late and I once again aborted the lap. The fourth run was good as I passed any cars I came across and did my own thing until the in lap on the way back to the pits where I bounced off the curb of turn 12 wrong and got thrown into the wall. I ended up with front wing damage yet again, meaning yet another venture to the pits and more time lost. Overall I finished Practice 3 in 9th position with a 1:29.785 lap time, my best time so far around the Albert Park circuit. I’m happy with my performance despite the odd mistake, and I look forward to Qualifying later in the afternoon.

I had an interview after P3 where I was asked about my feelings driving at my home Grand Prix, how I think my car is handling a full fuel load and how I will be approaching each race. I answered by suggesting I’d be cautious but optimistic about driving around Melbourne, content with how the car handles a full tank of fuel and that I wasn’t thinking about the next race or any future ones, just the current one. The interview seemed to go okay though I wish I’d get asked easier questions.

Saturday Afternoon, Qualifying

I’m approaching this session casually, not expecting too much other than to meet my team’s expectation which is to qualify 15th or higher. Given my times in the practice sessions I think that’s realistic and achievable.

So Q1 went quite well as, once again, I made it through to Q2, this time with a 1:30.422 which put me in 15th exactly. Option tires really grip up when it’s bright and sunny, I noticed, making it a pleasure to push the car and work on improving my lap times. I stuffed up my second flying lap (the first of my second run) on the last corner (again) by getting some oversteer and having to correct it, then accidentally cut turn 6 (again) on my way back to the pits for fresh tires. Old habits creeping back in under qualifying pressure, perhaps?

In Quali 2 I had to abort two flying laps, first getting sideways out of turn 2, then on the second lap I went wide at turn 3. My third lap, however, was better so it wasn’t too bad. My second run in Q2 was though as Alonso came out of the pits and blocked my flying lap so I aborted. Going again on the next lap, I dipped my tire too much over the inside (apex) curb of turn 1 which was deemed to be cutting the corner (Jesus I need to work on this!) and thus, it invalidated my lap. As time had expired for Q2 and I didn’t have a good lap, I was eliminated with a final position of 17th, below both the team’s and my expectations. Needless to say, I’m quite disappointed given that it’s my home Grand Prix and that circumstances seemed to be against me, either due to my opponent’s or my own silly mistakes.

Sunday Afternoon, Race

Despite my poor qualifying position the team expects me to finish in 12th or higher, and after the mixed session yesterday I’m not sure if I can meet that requirement. Are they expecting the adrenalin of my home Grand Prix and the atmosphere of my supporters to lift me and ensure that I perform well, or are they seeing where I’ve managed to put myself in the practice sessions and basing their expectations on that? Whatever it is I will give it a red-hot go, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt the expectation was a little on the unrealistic side. Personally, I think 15th would be a more adequate goal. In a way though, I don’t think it matters -- this is my home Grand Prix. Finally, after months of waiting and anticipation, I am given the opportunity to race at my home track, in front of my home crowd. If that’s not something to be excited about, something to celebrate, I don’t know what is so I’m going to try and enjoy this as much as possible. If I have a good race and perform nicely, fantastic, even better! If not, well, surely I can leave Melbourne satisfied that I achieved a dream of mine and raced in the pinnacle of Motorsport, right on my back door-step.

Wow, terrible race. Like, I want to rewind Sunday and attempt that again because that was just abysmal. My start was good as I managed to minimize wheelspin and maintain my starting position of 17th. I passed Kobayashi on lap 2 for 16th, and then proceeded to have a great battle with Rubens Barrichello for around seven laps, eventually passing him for 15th on lap 9. Unfortunately I accelerated too early out of turn 3 and lost it, clipping the wall and damaging the front wing (again), leaving me in 24th place. Last. Out of the pits and fully repaired, I went off at turn 3 on lap 12 and spun on the grass because I was too busy concentrating on staying out of the way of the front-running drivers who, already, were lapping me and shortly afterwards, the other backmarkers. Rather surprising how quickly they’re able to catch us at the back but that’s why they are at the front and we’re not, I suppose. On lap 15 I caught and passed my teammate Lucas Di Grassi as he visited the pits, then on lap 21 was surprised to hear that he had retired (yet again), leaving me back in last. On lap 22 I was overlapped by Barrichello which rubbed salt in the wound knowing that just a little while earlier, I had a great battle with him that I eventually won. On the same lap I cut turn 1 again, accidentally, receiving yet another warning. On lap 25 I went wide onto the grass at turn 8 though thankfully it was nothing drastic and I was able to recover quite quickly. The leaders had also caught me again, putting me down two laps instead of just the one. Thirteen laps later, on lap 38, I went wide at turn 8 yet again, this time because of a locked wheel. Again though it was nothing too bad and I could recover. At turn 3 I ran off, again due to concentrating on a front-runner who was passing from behind. This happened on lap 42 and then again at 15 (second last corner) as I missed my braking point. My tires began to go off at lap 45 which resulted in a half spin off turn 1’s curb during lap 47. I caught it and proceeded, though was getting quite frustrated with all the mistakes that I was making. From lap 47 onwards I managed to find a good rhythm and posted some good, consistent laps, calming down in the process thinking that I’d finish the race with this momentum. I was wrong, however, as I once again ran off at turn 8 due to a leader passing a slower car, both of whom had just passed me. This gave me a puncture on my left front tire, seeing yet another visit to the pits to get it replaced. By this time I was furious, really dejected with how the race was going and wishing that it was over. This only continued as I once again went off at turn 3, due to outbraking myself on lap 50. On the same lap I misjudged my braking again at turn 15, going wide but recovering thanks in part to the run off area. On lap 52 I went from 23rd, last, to 20th position as those immediately ahead of me (though over two laps ahead) had retired. It didn’t mean much given the woeful race but thanks to Pedro De La Rosa, Karun Chandok and Jarno Trulli for the free positions! On the same lap the race was finished as Webber had won, three whole laps ahead of me. Hamilton came second and Nico Rosberg managed third.

Overall I’m sorely disappointed with my effort and the race in general, the weekend feeling worse than Bahrain and honestly quite embarrassing. It hurt to know that I had such a bad performance in front of my home crowd, my mood afterwards wasn’t pleasant and I was left with a feeling that I wanted to pretend the race never happened and that I never participated. My agent put things into perspective though, highlighting my decent start and nice little battle as positives, as well as my improved general consistency over the entire weekend. When she said this I became a little happier but I still can’t take any consolation from what was an abysmal first home Grand Prix, something that will probably stick with me and my career forever even if, by chance, any future attempts at the circuit -- if I’m lucky enough to get that far -- are remarkably better. All I can do now is hope that Malaysia is a lot better because if it’s not, I’m not sure how I can take three poor races in a row.

Note: Sorry about the repetition of that second image, as well as the poor map. Finding images for this game isn't easy, unfortunately.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Columbia's Call

Yeah, you knew this was coming.

With the gameplay footage for BioShock: Infinite finally revealed for all to see, it was only natural that I’d have some things to say about it. But surprisingly, for me at least, it didn’t inspire as strong a reaction as I was expecting, instead piquing my interest for what is to come but leaving me satisfied that I can forget about the game until its release in 2012 -- I don’t think I have ever had that feeling about a game that I’m highly anticipating.

When the footage starts and it seamlessly transitions from what appears to be a picture into the perspective of player character Booker De Witt looking at a banner, I couldn’t help but sit back and just watch the footage on its own terms, letting whatever was demonstrated occur and not caring too much about what I may or may not think. Approaching the footage so casually was a smart thing to do as it meant I could just enjoy it for what it was rather than analyse it for what it could be -- something I won’t know until the final product hits. I chuckled when I saw the mechanical horse trotting down the path; watched in awe at the large, looming tower in front of us, clearly damaged and about to collapse, the birds chirping in the background an amusingly cheery contrast to the destruction. I pondered quite why someone would be sweeping while the surrounding building was on fire; I viewed with interest as I saw various posters, features and elements of Columbia pass by as the demonstration continued, curious as to what they could mean in the context of the game. I smiled with delight as I realised that the characters seemed to not only be more varied than in previous BioShocks, but also a lot more disturbed and insane, reminding me -- strangely -- of Zeno Clash’s unique inhabitants. And I didn’t know what to think when the Skyline was used for transportation in pursuit of an enemy, though was happy to know that it wouldn’t be a passive ride from one place to another and that combat could take place during momentum. I appreciated the fact that upon entering the bar, the denizens weren’t hostile, and then laughed when the shotgun was turned against its original owner. I recognized the strong BioShock elements in the combat scenarios that occurred afterwards, seeing Infinite’s interpretations of everything from Telekinesis to Electro Bolt and beyond, curious about the new dynamics that would be offered by the cooperation with Elizabeth. I was reminded of the Brute Splicer when the Big Daddy-esque figure appeared, then the Big Sister when the cry of Elizabeth’s pursuer, Him, was heard.

It was there the trailer ended. I was impressed to be sure -- how could I not be with such a fascinating and intriguing idea for a game setting -- but also quite nonplussed: here is a game with a city that is the complete opposite of my beloved Rapture, contains familiar elements from the two previous games, and appears to be trying new things both in narrative terms and with the characters that drive it. It’s a game that should and does appeal to my tastes supremely well, but still seems so vague that I just can’t get on board the hype train yet. Perhaps its distant release date correlates with this feeling but either way, my response to the footage was positive yet subdued.

But enough about my response, what did the trailer show that I’m personally interested in?

The first and perhaps predictable aspect is the game’s space, Columbia. I spoke briefly about my thoughts towards it when the game was first announced but now that I have seen it, I’m excited. It still appears to be quite linear, with each building and surrounding areas seemingly limited by the fact that something can only be so big when it is floating in the sky. The fact it’s amongst the clouds, though, gives it a sense of openness that the confines of the Pacific Ocean couldn’t, despite Rapture’s sprawling metropolis always plainly in sight. The aforementioned Skylines open Columbia up even more, traversal around the city seemingly interactive rather than segregated by Rapture’s districts and its bathyspheres or the Atlantic Express. Whether these are interactive or not, whether combat takes place during travel or not, is almost irrelevant: instead of exploring room by room as you would in Rapture, in Columbia, you can do that and go and visit that building in the distance. Instead of being teased by what could be, you can instead go and investigate at will (seemingly) and for someone who really likes exploring and just being in a space, that’s extremely enticing.

Another thing I noticed was the way the sky got darker as the footage progressed. Sure, that was aided in part by storm clouds Elizabeth summoned to help Booker in combat, but even so I thought it was getting darker which suggests to me that Infinite will have a day/night cycle. It’s a small thing and probably won’t mean much for the game other than the opportunity to view Columbia in a new light (literally), but it’s a welcome and appreciated feature after the artificial light that permeated Rapture. As an extension to this, the fact that Columbia exists amongst the clouds leads me to speculate that it’s also quite plausible that there would be some kind of weather system in the game, either scripted or dynamic. If I’m right then that is also awesome as I think it’d be great to be overlooking the city as the sun slowly disappears and a thunderstorm rolls in. Aesthetically, the setting opens up a lot of possibilities that Rapture just couldn’t have: a nice contrast to the ubiquitous but beautiful ocean surrounds.

It also comes across as more natural, the aforementioned birds just a small example of what we might be able to see. It did seem odd to see a horse up there, as well as hear the sounds of a barking dog -- though if humans can live up there why can’t animals? -- but plateaus littered with trees, fountain displays and visible farmland below will provide a nice ambiance that, again, Rapture couldn’t have.

Last but not least, I’m intrigued by the game’s narrative. Obviously the footage doesn’t reveal much other than particular hints towards how characters might be or why they may behave the way they do, but even so I’m interested in the game’s story because of the new dynamic the duo of Booker and Elizabeth will bring, as well as the fact it is set well before the rise and fall of Rapture. Columbia is clearly heavily influenced by American ideals and culture, its purpose to extol the virtues of the country internationally, but it’s not all that meets the eye, either, and I’m definitely eager to learn more. Combine that with the idea that the game is set around the same time that cars, film and other things were enjoying their infancy-- not to mention around the same time that Red Dead Redemption’s Wild West epic took place -- and you have a baffling but blissfully enticing set up for a story that, for now at least, really could go anywhere. Columbia, the residents who call it home, the ideals and emotions it’s based on and what our role within it will be, is a mysterious city with the same allure that Rapture once had before we entered it for the first time, and when you think about it, it’s rather amazing that Irrational Games have managed to captivate us like that not once, but twice.

So overall, BioShock Infinite is a game that is at once foreign and familiar, mysterious and mesmerizing, and something to get excited about, just like Rapture and the original BioShock was way back in 2007. The wait may be long and arduous, the many other amazing games that will release during that time will be quite the distraction, but when it’s time to enter Columbia I’ll be ready. Will you?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Living The Life: Bahrain

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event.]

I’m trying something new here, experimenting with my writing using F1 2010 as my inspiration. It’s no secret that I am absolutely smitten with the game and as such, I thought I could use that enthusiasm to attempt something different. So, with this in mind, the ‘Living The Life’ series will elucidate on everything that happens during the 19 race season, ranging from my own mistakes to thoughts on my rivals and the tracks we visit; it begins in the Middle East with the first track and event of the season: Bahrain.

Friday, Practice Session 1

My first Formula 1 race. Wow. I never thought I’d see this day, officially a part of the pinnacle of Motorsport. Formula 1. I owe everything to the Virgin Racing Team for giving me the drive, really. Without their faith in me I’d still be racing elsewhere. I can’t wait to finally get out on the track and start experiencing the reality of my situation -- but I must not revel in it too much, I have a job to do here, a job I’m confident I can do but, being new to all of this, one I’m also anxious about. What if I make too many mistakes and disappoint my new team? What if I cause unnecessary frustrations with my rivals? What if I… No, I must not think about that. Practice is about to begin.

*glances at the clock*

Well, this is it. My first ever practice session. No more excitement, no more anticipation. It’s time to concentrate. Oh shit! My crew are getting ready to send me out. Waiting for the signal. Go…

Whoa, I’m finally on track. I think I will take this first lap slow, get used to things and start learning Bahrain, a circuit I’ve never been to. Wow, that first corner is much tighter than anticipated! And this complex is absolutely massive! This is daunting. What’s that? Sounds like someone else is on the track too, better pick up the pace a little.

Alright, final turn, off we go for our first proper lap. Ah damn it! I knew I’d go wide on that first turn!

Well this isn’t so bad. Three laps and I’m starting to get a grip on this circuit. It’s a lot bigger than I was expecting and a light tighter too. That first sector after the first straight is rather tricky but I’m slowly getting the hang of it. I quite like the long sweeping turns heading up the hill too, nice and fast -- it’s amazing how easily the car grips around those corners. Makes it feel like a rollercoaster that’s going sideways rather than up or down. I’m going to enjoy that section over the weekend.

End Of Practice 1

That was incredible! I guess I underestimated just what it would be like to drive an F1 car, though to my credit, it’s not something that can really be quantified. The intensity is insane, I really need to concentrate to keep my car on the track and not veer off into the dirt or Astroturf. Overall I’m quite pleased with those initial laps even if they were incredibly daunting. Not only did I have to learn the track, get a sense of my car’s performance and settle down my nerves, I went out first meaning I had the huge, vast track to myself for a little while. You really feel the emptiness around here, vast stretches of land and large run off areas really highlighting just how big the Bahrain complex is, not to mention the fact we’re in the desert. Leaving the pits and exiting that first corner, I really felt like I was venturing out on a journey, uncertain as to where it would take me. It wasn’t until I got to the final turn that I felt comfortable again, the pit area’s close proximity easing my stress. Interestingly, I noticed that a similar feeling of adventure occurs with each lap, but I became more comfortable with it. It must be a byproduct of our location. I made a few mistakes unfortunately, partly because I was unfamiliar with the track but also because I was getting accustomed to the car. I ran wide a lot more than I’d like and almost spun a few times thanks to wheelspin, but it wasn’t too bad. I’m disappointed in myself for cutting the final corner a few times, I didn’t mean to but I understand why I was warned about it. It’s quite a deceptive corner that one, easily visible but hard to find the apex due to its quick speed and strange angle. I’ll get the hang of it over the weekend I’m sure. Whenever other cars were close by I intentionally stayed out of their way: I didn’t want to impede their progress as I learned the track and got acquainted with everything. There’s no need to bother anyone else. I’m quite pleased with myself for beating my teammate too; Lucas Di Grassi is also new to F1 this year so that should be an interesting, fun mini-rivalry as we progress through the season.

Friday, Practice Session 2

Alright! Practice 2 was much better! I managed to set some nice, clean lap times and I’ve got a better handle on the circuit now, making fewer mistakes. I even managed to reach as high as 12th position at one stage! Interestingly I begun to understand my opponents’ approach to practice as I observed their driving styles and found my own spot and rhythm within. They don’t go for fast lap times necessarily, more just putting some times in to get a feel for the track and maybe experiment with some settings -- they ventured in and out of the pits a fair bit. The session was good because I started to find the limits of the track, including ideal braking points and just how hard I could push the car around the corners. Using this to my advantage I attempted some fast times which saw mixed success: I accidentally cut the final corner again and ran wide a few more times, but otherwise it was good to give it a go and get much closer to the track’s real speed. It was quite cloudy though so no doubt that helped with the track conditions. Boy am I exhausted though! I definitely underestimated things and need to really focus to get the best out of the car. I’m going to bed early so I can recuperate for tomorrow.

Saturday, Practice Session 3

I had an interview before starting practice 3, my first ever conversation with the press. Their questions were a little strange though and I wasn’t quite sure how to answer them. How can I judge where I stand amongst my rivals, and indeed for the entire season, so early into my first event? And how can I nominate who my closest opponent will be when I haven’t even raced yet? Hopefully future interviews are a little easier to deal with. Practice 3 was the best of the bunch, for sure. I focused hard and ensured some more clean laps, even improving my lap times along the way. I learned more about how my opponents approach the session -- some of those lap times are absolutely amazing! -- as well as what I could and couldn’t do on the circuit. I’ve got a good handle on Bahrain now, I think, which gives me confidence heading into my first ever qualifying session. I just wish I didn’t spin twice as it felt silly and a stark contrast to my otherwise clean performance. I suppose some mistakes are to be expected, though. At least I made it to 10th!

Saturday, Qualifying

Alright, this is it. No more experimentation or learning, this is the business end of the weekend. I need to focus, try not to make any mistakes and set a good lap time. My first ever grid position will depend on it and I don’t want to disappoint my team nor myself. Wish me luck!

Oh man that was insane! I’m ecstatic that I made it through Quali 1 and into Quali 2 -- that’s way better than my own expectations! Honestly I don’t care that I didn’t make Quali 3, the top ten. That was such a rush! I can’t believe how busy it all was though, especially in Q1. I think everyone was on the track at one point, all trying not to get eliminated as they vied to progress into Q2. I still tried to stay out of the way of the others whenever I could as I just wanted to do my own thing and focus on my own qualifying session, but it can be hard to judge when I need to move over sometimes. Hopefully I didn’t annoy anyone. I also backed away whenever I caught up to someone too as I didn’t have the confidence to attempt a pass -- even if they were slow due to warming up or calming down -- in case I stuffed it up and ruined my lap time. The lap I set to move on into Q2 was good, my best around Bahrain so far. I can’t believe the pace some of these other guys are setting though. As soon as Q2 began the difference in times was staggering! I’d say it picked up a further two seconds over Q2, especially the frontrunners. Lucas was eliminated from Q1 so that must be disappointing for him but hopefully he doesn’t let it get to him too much, this is his first race after all. He should be celebrating the fact that he’s in Formula 1, I know I am! All up I ended my first qualifying session in 13th position, way further up the grid than I expected and, perhaps more importantly, exceeding my team’s expectations too. All in all a really great, satisfying performance with hardly any mistakes at all! I’m buzzing for the race tomorrow.

Sunday, Race Day

Oh god I’m so nervous! I can’t believe that in just an hour I’ll be partaking in my first race. This feels like a dream -- it is a dream, I’ve been wanting to do this forever -- and it’s all a bit surreal. The atmosphere today is through the roof, crowds are everywhere and they’re excited to get the season underway. I echo their feelings but goddamn I’m anxious. I keep moving my knee really fast whenever I sit down. This is so daunting!

Holy crap that was amazing! Not only did I finish my first ever race (!), I can’t believe how intense and fast it was! I’ll be riding this high for a few days I think. Anyway, my start was pretty good. A little slow but acceptable in my eyes as I managed to overtake some cars heading into turn 1, but was also overtaken by a few behind me. I approached the corner cautiously as I didn’t want to out-brake myself and crash into anyone ahead -- in a way I kind of wish I started further down the order so I wouldn’t get in anyone else’s way, but oh well. Unfortunately accelerating onto the first straight out of turn 2 I was involved in an accident, perhaps expected for a rookie driver like myself. I don’t know. I was spun by Hulkenburg I think though I can’t be sure as it came from behind. Thankfully I only received minor damage so I was able to continue on. I didn’t even need to visit the pits as the team were confident that they could wait until my first pit stop to fix things. After settling into a rhythm I was able to catch and pass a few people but unfortunately I threw it away with a silly mistake that caused me to spin. I don’t even know what happened: one minute I was maintaining my pace and the next I was in the dirt facing the wrong way. It’s amazing how quickly things can change! I gathered everything back up and continued on, eventually having my first pit stop. It went okay I thought, could have been better though, and I was a little slow out of the box. Something to work on in the future, then. The guys ahead of me must have made mistakes themselves or something because I managed to catch up and pass a few again, but I screwed up and made another mistake, resulting in yet another spin. This one left me feeling quite dejected and disappointed with myself -- I remember thinking to myself: “two spins in reasonably quick succession, in the race? This is worse than the practice sessions!” -- but I casted that aside and continued on, perhaps in spite of the fact that upon recovering, I did something wrong (not sure what) and copped a black flag penalty, meaning a visit to the pits for a drive through. Once this happened I just decided to settle down and focus on finishing the race, not really trying to achieve anything other than the chance to see that chequered flag. For the rest of the race I was alone, not catching anyone and moving aside whenever the frontrunners came up behind to lap me. Even at this relaxed pace I still made a few errors such as cutting that last corner again. It’s a lot harder than it appears. In the final few laps I was surprised when my team told me over the radio that Lucas had retired -- that must have been disheartening. It certainly made my own race and its problems easier to deal with; at least I was still on the track! The last five laps or so were good, I picked up my pace again and before I knew it, there was the chequered flag -- I had just finished my first ever race. Despite the dramas within it I was quite satisfied overall with my performance and happy that I didn’t retire. I’m absolutely exhausted though -- that took a lot more effort than I was expecting and it really takes it out of you. No doubt I’ll get used to it as the season progresses but I definitely wasn’t expecting to be so tired. The mistakes I made disappointed my team, understandably, and I personally felt like the rookie driver that I am with all those mistakes I made. I really need to work on my consistency and ensure I stop cutting corners. I had fun though, an enjoyable start to my F1 career. Felipe Massa took the win (it sounded like a close race at the front because my team informed me of about four different lead changes) and the press asked me a few more silly questions afterwards. I couldn’t really answer them so I just summed up my thoughts on the race and went back to my truck to debrief with the team. Overall it was an amazing, enjoyable first race that was unfortunately marred by some mistakes. Hopefully the next race in Australia, my home Grand Prix, will be even better.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Brief Impressions: F1 2010

When it comes to a first attempt at something, most games play the safe card and try to provide the most serviceable, coherent experience possible, letting future sequels -- if successful -- take care of necessary refinement and new additions. These games nail the core experience but do so without the bells and whistles, all in an attempt to prove that they can achieve what was intended. Race Pro, way back at the beginning of 2009, is a great example of this: its driving model is almost on par with the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo; its car selection and track variety decent enough to be enjoyable but nothing spectacular; and its impact on the market subtle but significant.

F1 2010, the newly released game based on the current Formula 1 season, is a game that should do as described above: it should be a decent enough first attempt that isn’t amazing, but is alluring for those interested in the sport, its spectacle or just racing games in general. Instead, F1 2010 is quite possibly one of the best racing games I have played in a long time, and this is after just a few hours with it.

Before I get into why it is so amazing, let me quickly explain its status within the market. F1 2010 is not the most beautiful racing game around but its visuals are solid. The expected mundane appearance of most tracks (as in real life) means that for the most part, everything looks decent but the reality is, when you’re playing the game proper it is something you are not going to notice. Anything that may stand out visually -- birds flying above you, a nearby lake, etc. -- is largely ignored as you hurtle on by and focus on what you need to be doing. Character models -- what few there are -- are average at best and animation is adequate but inconsistent. Aurally, the soundtrack is minimal (though the inclusion of Pendulum is welcome) and the voice acting is moderate. That’s a good thing though given that the engine note of a Formula 1 car is a better tune to be listening to anyway, and it’s here that the game does a pretty remarkable job. Everything from the different rev ranges an F1 car can hit to the sounds of the other cars as they race at different points of a track, drive down the pit lane or change gears too late and over rev the car, is featured in the game, the sound playing an integral part in forming the experience. Lastly, the physics engine is astonishing for a first attempt, but perhaps not as nuanced as something like Forza.

It doesn’t have to be, though. Why? Because driving a Formula 1 vehicle is unique and certainly isn’t like driving anything found in that game, or its closest rivals. The best thing I have enjoyed about the game so far is how nicely Codemasters have nailed everything that I have heard, everything I knew from watching the sport for years, with their physics engine. Things like how an F1 car becomes easier to turn, easier to steer, the faster it is going; or how late you can brake into a corner, still hit the apex and accelerate out of it early, all in a matter of seconds and yet still smoothly and efficiently. Gas up the car too early out of a corner and you’ll spin out; accelerate too slowly and you don’t get to take full advantage of the car’s power, force and speed. Enter a corner casually and you take it slowly -- despite being cautious -- because the tires aren’t running at their maximum grip levels; enter it too fast and you’ll meet the grass, the gravel or worse, the barrier, hampering your progress if not halting it completely. Racing in this game and indeed, the sport in general, is a different beast to most other forms of racing or racing games and it shows. Your approach needs to be different, your mind needs to consider completely different things than you may expect, and your consistency? That needs to be earned, not delivered, through practice, understanding and confidence.

More amazing, potentially, is how faithful the game’s atmosphere is. The first time I drove out of my pit garage I had a giant grin on my face. Not because I was playing an F1 game, not because I was driving on a track I hadn’t done so before, and not because this was a new game -- I had a smile because instantly, at that very moment, I felt like I was in Formula 1 and that’s the kind of thing that can’t be replicated easily. The tracks looked like they do on TV, with the width, barrier placement and general aesthetic of the locations (I’ve tried so far, at least) seeming like an exact replica; the sound of my car bouncing off the walls as I sped past was exactly as I imagined it would sound were I in the cockpit in real life; and as explained above the feel was unbelievable. Throw in the 23 other vehicles and I was -- as a Motorsport fanatic in real life -- in heaven. The AI seems to be quite good (this is on the hardest difficulty setting) and their approach to the various sessions seems to mimic those seen in real life, exactly as it should be. In Practice they take short stints, exiting the pits for a couple laps before returning, running at a reasonably fast pace but nowhere near maximum and backing off or moving to the side if you are near. In Qualifying they go for the three lap stint I’ve explained before, using the first lap to get warmed up and prepared to set a flying lap, the second to achieve their lap time and the third to either calm down again to return to the pits, or have another attempt at a time. And in races, they duck and weave as they try to get past, slipstream behind you to gain a slight speed advantage and take risky dives down the inside. They also make mistakes such as dipping a wheel in the grass or going too wide around a corner, meaning that they are competitive but not unbeatable. When you consider that this all occurs with a great sense of speed that is really intense and requires a lot of concentration (more on this soon), you have a game that can really take you for a ride, should you let it, and the end result can leave you exhausted. But you know what? It’s all worth it, because if you put the effort in you will be rewarded with a game that doesn’t just simulate Formula 1 superbly, it gives you a racing experience that is arguably unmatched.

High praises to be sure but entirely justified. Codemasters haven’t just brought us an F1 game; they’ve delivered the F1 experience. There can be no better use of a licence than that.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Preview Power: Formula 1 2010

[Part of a series of smaller posts that I'll be doing about various upcoming games. I don't jump on board the hype train too often, but when I do I like to think that there's a pretty significant reason for why, and in this series I will attempt to explain my anticipation for each game.]

F1 2010, the newest Formula 1 game (the last being released early in the PlayStation 3's life cycle) from racing game experts Codemasters is perhaps a strange title to be excited for, its limited offerings seemingly nowhere near as exciting nor important as other, bigger and more well-known games like the just released Halo: Reach, or something like Mafia II or Metroid: Other M. But then, this is me we are talking about here, an avid Motorsport enthusiast who absolutely adores Formula 1 in real life. My love for all things racing has been documented here before -- that won't stop any time soon -- but despite that, there's something different about this F1 game, something that I'm eager to get my hands on later this week.

I'm excited about it because, well, it will be the first Formula 1 game I have played in over a decade. Yes, despite reasonably frequent releases whilst Sony held the licence, I haven't played an F1 game since the Nintendo 64 days, with F-1 World Grand Prix II the last title to satisfy my F1 needs. Such a long time between drinks has been a product of circumstance, with finances preventing me from access to more recent titles, and Sony's ownership of the licence restricting not only games based on the sport to their platforms, but competition from entering the marketplace, particularly on the other consoles. Their exclusivity rights is understandable and I don't feel any disappointment towards them for holding the licence for so long, but it did mean an even more limited audience than the niche licence already attains, particularly with the PS3 release as it came at a time when the PS3 was struggling to find its feet. Having the licence obtained by Codemasters -- a multiplatform developer -- was wonderful news not just because it meant I could play an F1 game again (I own all three consoles now anyway so I wouldn't have missed out anyway) but because it opens the potential userbase for the game, an enticing prospect for a sport that is, while largely considered as the pinnacle of Motorsport, a restrictive brand. Motorsport is incredibly popular on a general, global scale but in the context of Formula 1 alone the potential for success is varied. In Europe and Australasia, Formula 1 is massively popular but in North America, the sport has always had limited appeal and it would be very easy to argue that the majority of Americans don't even know about the sport. Factor in that, as a game, one of F1 2010's biggest markets could be (has to be?) America and you have an intriguing issue pop up: will the game see some success over there?

On a personal level, I'm excited for the game because of the different breed of racing that it will provide. Instead of big, heavy sedans and touring cars that are found in most racing games -- rally games, Nascar, Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo, etc. -- Formula 1's vehicles are open-wheeled, extremely close to the ground, fragile instruments, and they rely on technical performance as much as, if not more than driver skill. This key difference will require a different approach to playing a racing game, as braking points and cornering speeds will be quite different to what I am used to. I've played previous F1 games and others that feature open-wheeled cars, but as a simulation F1 2010 may take some getting used to -- a challenge I embrace with open arms. I actually look forward to pushing the absolute limit of a braking point, braking at the absolute last second and still entering the corner perfectly. Likewise, I'm eager to push the cornering limit by finding the ideal places to accelerate early (but not too much lest I spin the wheels and lose control), taking advantage of a Formula 1 car's technical grip to assist my precision and accuracy rather than judicial use of the accelerator as in most other circuit based racing games. It might not sound exciting or something worth caring about, but for someone who has a mentality like drivers do, the change of pace will scratch an itch that has been with me for years.

As far as the actual game is concerned, I'm quite happy to see a dynamic weather system that sounds like it will be unpredictable. As most racing games rely on scripted weather instead -- this race is going to be sunny, that one rainy -- the execution of this could go either way, but I remain optimistic until I see it in action. Even if it isn't well done, just driving in the wet -- also something rarely seen in other games -- is an enticing enough feature to hold my interest, the dynamics a wet track will add to a race hopefully making way for some engrossing moments. Participating in practise and qualifying events will also be nice, the focus of performing over an entire race weekend a nice contrast to the 3-lap, singular affairs that I'm used to. Last but not least, I'm just looking forward to racing on some tracks that I either haven't been able to for years, or have never raced on before. It may only be a small thing but the different tracks will provide some variety that I've lacked in recent years, racing on the same bunch of tracks that have become common in other recent titles.

Overall, I'm excited to play F1 2010 for exactly that: it's a game about Formula 1, in 2010 -- not only does it have the potential to simulate some of my favourite elements from the real sport, it allows me to continue to revel in what has easily been the best season of Formula 1 I have ever seen.

Bring it on.

Friday, September 17, 2010


They say a picture tells a thousand words. If that’s the case then what do the following images have to say?

Donkey Kong Country (SNES)

Oddworld: Abe's Odyssey (PlayStation)

Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)

Rez (Dreamcast)

Shadow Of The Colossus (PlayStation 2)

Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox)

The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker (GameCube)

BioShock (Xbox 360)

LittleBigPlanet (PlayStation 3)

Wii Sports (Wii)

Limbo (Xbox Live Arcade)

PixelJunk Eden (PlayStation Network)

LostWinds (WiiWare)

Portal (PC)


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Weapon Overload

Like it or not, guns are a significant part of the medium of videogames, as are other weapons like swords and hammers. As a result, fighting, combat and gunplay are also prevalent, allowing anyone and everyone the ability to enact violence and experience gore in the comfort of their own home. It has already been discussed at length as to whether this is a good thing or not, and whether such content in games has a strong impact on those who play them, but that’s not the issue I’m concerned with here. Instead, I’m concerned by the glorification and general “killing is cool” ideology that exists as a result of the oversaturated genre of first-person shooters, as well as brawlers and any other game that uses combat in any shape or form as a main mechanic. Allow me to explain.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while may remember that earlier in the year, I was playing through Yakuza on the PS2. I firmly intended to play it in its entirety, to see what kind of story the game would tell me, whether I’d be interested in the cultural elements it portrays, and the way it used Tokyo as its game space. At first, I found the game to be quite compelling, the story piquing my interest for a variety of reasons while exploring Tokyo was also great fun. I was even surprised by the accessibility and complexity of the combat, enjoying the fisticuff fighting a lot more than I expected. But that enjoyment didn’t last long and, once I realised that practically all I was doing in the game was fighting over and over again, I quickly found myself exhausted by the constant combat and disappointed each and every time a new fight began. The game is a brawler to be sure, but from what I had heard and saw it seemed like so much more than that. Of course, being a game focused on the Yakuza you expect violence to play an integral part, but I also expected a lot more given the emphasis on detail and atmosphere, not to mention the game’s generally positive reception both in Japan and abroad. The combat itself was fine -- as I said, I actually found it to be quite enjoyable -- but the repetition of each fight and the frequency with which they occurred -- it felt like every thirty seconds or so I was in a new one, the notion of simply walking down the street taking far longer than I believed it should -- grated, and the end result is an unfinished game that I am reluctant to return to because I know what awaits.

This combat fatigue isn’t Yakuza’s fault, necessarily; the fact that nearly every single game I play features combat of some sort -- be it by using weapons or shooting various guns -- has culminated in an exhaustion that I don’t think I can recover from any time soon. I mean, it’s obvious when you play a first-person shooter that you will be shooting things the majority of the time, but when it exists in my open-world games (Red Dead Redemption; GTA IV), my narrative focused games (Alan Wake; Heavy Rain) and even games centralized around Parkour (Mirror’s Edge; even Assassin’s Creed), you know there is something wrong. Why is the industry so obsessed with shooting, fighting and with violence? Why must games that have nothing to do with murder or melee contain weapons or the ability to inflict pain upon those you come across in your travels? Why does a game about Parkour even have useable guns in the first place?

It seems silly but really, it’s not surprising. Shooting things (particularly in the face) is fun, as is the ability to punch someone with a brute force that we just can’t imagine in the reality of our own lives. The violence we get to inflict upon our foes or even friends (in the case of multiplayer) -- sadistic or otherwise -- is extremely satisfying, and more importantly, it’s empowering. Part of the appeal of playing games is the fact that they can take us to places we can’t visit in real life, and allow us to do activities that are either impossible or unlikely. When faced against insurmountable odds, a few button pushes here and a well-timed reaction there can immediately give us the upper-hand, changing up the odds and pace of the gameplay and motivating us to keep on fighting back through adrenalin and intensity, not stopping until we are triumphant and subsequently rewarded with a new weapon, ability, item or just the fact that we defeated our enemies. This reliance on combat and the violence that stems from it is understandable, not just because of its ability to entertain us with fun situations but also because it’s a mechanic that is accessible, exciting and something the medium as a whole has experience with. From Wolfenstein 3D and Doom right up to the imminent Halo: Reach and Call Of Duty: Black Ops, we have been shooting things, and our ability to make the ideal headshot is something that has been refined and reformed with each and every game in between. Likewise, we’ve been punching and kicking our way through classics like Final Fight and Double Dragon up to modern titles like Tekken and Soul Calibur, perfecting our combos and maneuvers along the way.

Like it or not violence is here to stay in videogames and so it should, but while the aggressive and brutal actions may have their place, the glorification and endless justifications for it do not, as exemplified by GamePro’s recent “Shooter issue”, and Kotaku’s “gun week” currently taking place. The timing is poignant: the start of September means the start of the silly Christmas rush period the industry has each year and as a consequence of that, it means we also enter shooter season. It’s a time where all the big boys release their key franchise installments, and the aforementioned Halo and Call Of Duty titles are leading the charge. Each game will be vying to steal every consumer dollar possible, and somewhat ironically these titles will be fighting for the attention of the masses, hopefully at the expense of the competition. But I digress.

By centering a body of content -- in GamePro’s case an entire issue* and in Kotaku’s, a decently sized chunk of their posts this week -- around shooting games and the guns that we use within, the genre and thus the violence it revels in is emphasized, highlighted as something significant and more important than, say, the themes or morals trying to be explored. It implies that killing and the way in which we do it is to be celebrated, to be underlined as a crucial part of videogames, and that nothing else matters. It glorifies the act by suggesting that it’s worthy of our unabashed praise and reverence, and suggests to observers that the medium really is as juvenile as it is oft-claimed to be. And therein lies the problem: viewed from the outside, this lavish tribute and admiration is overwhelming and misleads the uninformed into believing that all we as gamers care about is our ability -- our right -- to shoot things in the face. It reflects on our medium by creating the perception that it’s juvenile, and it reflects on us by reinforcing the notion that people who play games are kids -- young, predominantly male teenagers who take immense pleasure in the violence, gore and absurdity -- when, in reality, this just isn’t true. Most unfortunate of all, it says to everyone who hasn’t played a videogame or doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about that we are immature, and that we are just not interested in spending our time with anything more meaningful than the amount of enemies we’ve killed, and the remaining bullets we have left in our guns.

While it’s true that gaming is only in its adolescence, the progress it has made over the years, particularly recently, has been amazing. We have gone beyond violence for the sake of violence, shooting for the sake of shooting, and we will continue to advance as we continue to explore not only the possibilities of the medium, but the potential that each game has to take us to unknown places and to do unforeseen things. It’s not about the perfect headshot or the sheer brutality of our kill anymore; it’s about the limitless freedom that can be gained from the fact that unlike other mediums, we’re not passive: we don’t just hear or see, we do, and that’s a power with force stronger than any violent punch or kick can achieve.

We wonder all the time why so many people don’t understand us and our favourite hobby, and we’re confused when we see yet another strange misconception about the medium, but really, when our own media decides to celebrate guns, shooters and combat instead of report on more important, more meaningful matters, we only have ourselves -- as a unified industry -- to blame. And so, as Kotaku’s gun week continues and gamers the world over mark the beginning of shooter season as they prepare for Halo: Reach’s imminent release, I sit back and wonder: is this just a gun club I forgot to sign up to, or are the bullets of progression yet to be fired?

*Note: I haven’t actually read the issue, living in Australia and all, so I’m unaware of what actually resides within.