The development team at UK-based Sumo Digital have carved themselves quite a niche in the handheld arena; they've been porting racing games to portables for a variety of publishers since 2005. It's the portfolio of Codemasters, however, that forms Sumo's bread-and-butter, from TOCA Race Driver 2 for PSP back in 2005 to F1 2011 for 3DSat the tail end of last year. Now Sumo has been tasked with bringing F1 2011 to the PS Vita.
In many ways it's actually a little better than expected, particularly after the largely underwhelming 3DS port. You'll never confuse it for the home console version but it looks very good on the Vita's enormous screen, and stands up well beside other portable racing games.
To its credit, this is very much the full F1 2011 experience too, give or take. There are quick races for instant action and time trials for the committed. There are complete Grand Prix events (featuring practice runs, multiple qualifying sessions and the main event) plus an equally intimidating three-season, 60-race career mode. It features all the drivers and tracks of the admittedly dated 2011 F1 season. Wet weather effects and animated pit stops are part of the package, although they're a little visually simplistic. The KERS and DRS systems are here and functioning, as are the suite of driving aids you'll recall kept the less experienced on the track in the home console version.
There's multiplayer too, although both Ad Hoc mode and network play tap out at a maximum of four players.
The Vita version also includes a challenge mode which features a series of brief, quick-fire events, like overtaking challenges and slightly odd autocross-style slaloms. Some of these are more fun than others, but each tier of challenges ends with a bonus one. This could be a one-on-one head-to-head race against a current F1 driver, or the game might throw down a gauntlet and demand something special of you. In one challenge, for instance, you'll be dropped into a GP with two laps to go. You're leading, but you're running on slicks and it's just started bucketing down with rain. The rest of the field is already on wets and they're closing in on you. You need to get your car to the finish line and remain in the points.
Success in each of these challenges earns you a rank, but here's where the main problem with these challenges lies. The game doesn't give you any indication of what 'score' you need to earn each 'award'. You need a C or higher to progress, but you can only ever guess what you need to do to earn a higher award than the one you just received. Nab a B for the points you accumulated for your slipstreaming challenge and you'll find there's no indication of how many more points you need to earn to get an A. 10? 100? 1526? It's a little ill-thought out, and it's not the game's only problem.
One of the most notable omissions, beyond the handy rewind feature, is the live the life presentation that gave F1 2011 on console its zest. F1 2011 on Vita's intro movie, with all its fist-pumping, high-fiving, out-of-car atmosphere, may get you all a quiver at the prospect of slipping into the skin of future F1 legend – but it's pulled directly from the console version. All those little celebratory scenes and such are missing from the Vita version, and the Vita version's graphics are a bit flatter and noticeably less detailed than the intro movie wants you to believe. Unfortunately the cosmetic damage model has been dumbed down considerably too, and there isn't exactly a lot of crunch to the collisions.
It doesn't pack much of a punch in the sound department either; it doesn't feel like there's quite enough meat to the audio. It doesn't seem to quite express the assault on the senses we'd expect from helmet view at high speed; it should sound violent, and it doesn't (especially if you venture off track).
F1 2011's handling, which is the most crucial aspect of any racing game, is quite good – but it's more forgiving and lacks a bit of the nuance of the console versions. That said it probably needs to be in order to be playable with the Vita's small stick. Also, you aren't able to control the throttle as delicately on Vita as you can with a console control pad, so a more forgiving model is probably a necessity. Still, the cars feel a little light and off-track there's not really much loss of grip – a sim this isn't.
The AI has improved considerably since the disappointing F1 2011 on 3DS, but it isn't perfect. They do their best to filter through tricky corners in large packs but it's rarely without contact, and they're quite robotic.
However, while Sumo has successfully wrestled most of the F1 2011 console experience onto a thumbnail-sized Vita card, F1 2011 on Vita is ultimately a game that doesn't really embrace all the capabilities of the console it's on. This is perhaps its biggest sin; instead of a game cleverly tailored to the PS Vita we get a good but standard port. It's a token effort, really. The front touch screen, for instance, is used simply to change views. That's it. You can also use the rear touch pad as a substitute for a few of the buttons in some of the preset configurations, including the throttle and braking buttons, but it doesn't really add anything to the experience. It feels like a configuration added out of obligation rather than the impression it might work better than buttons, which it doesn't.
It's the little things. With smartphones so ubiquitous these days the first thing I did when presented with an onscreen keyboard was try to stab in my name with my thumbs. It didn't work. Why do we have to use the D-pad to enter our names into the game when there's a touchscreen right next to it? Isn't that a little backwards? Isn't that a little akin to, perhaps, changing TV channels by throwing your remote at the buttons on your television set? Why are we using old methods when the new way of doing things is right here in our hands?F1 2011 doesn't embrace touch controls at all. Why can't we navigate and explore the menus by swiping? Why was the behind-the-scenes garage component from the console versions ditched when it could have been made all the more interactive on the Vita? Tiny stuff like this isn't a deal breaker but it all mounts to build this impression of a game that hasn't exactly been built to exploit the real potential of the Vita.
F1 2011 isn't quite up to the excellent standard of the console version, but it's still far, far better than the 3DS instalment. Gripes aside, this is still a good sign of things to come for racing games on PS Vita. We just wish it felt more at home on Vita. As it stands it's just not all the game it could have been.