When Sony took over the F1 licence exclusively until 2007 there was a little bit of disappointment. Sony had proven in the past that they could make quality Formula 1 games but rather than go for the ultimate simulation like Geoff Crammond did, they went for the mainstream with an arcade style game and this is what they have stuck with in their new licensing agreement. However this has given the developers an unprecedented level of access to all the teams, drivers and tracks and basically everything to do with Formula 1. So while it may not be the most hardcore simulation, F1 2004 is the most complete package of an F1 game to date.
There are a few notable additions to the game for 2004 with one of those being the career mode. This mode joins the stalwarts such as World Championship, Arcade and single race but it is the career mode which gives it the depth required to keep it running on your console longer then previous titles. World Championship allows you to take control of one of the official drivers and fight for the title across all the tracks while arcade is very much a Daytona style game where you get congratulated for passing moves and its more dodgem' cars then proper racing. However its not as easy as it sounds due to the fact that points must be scored at each race or the game ends.
The Career mode is something that the developers have put a large focus on this year and it is very much a welcome addition to the franchise. Basically it tasks you with beginning as a test driver and working you way slowly up the ranks to be challenging drivers like Schumacher for the title. Don't expect to be racing a Ferrari or BMW quickly as you begin with either Jordan Minardi or Toyota and have to impress the big boys in a few races before being even considered. The career mode is incredibly tough and just like in the real sport, getting a break out of the back end teams can prove to be the toughest area of the game. However the career mode is not without its problems.
The main problem is consistency in the physics between the career mode and the world championship. In the world championship the cars handle like a breeze and you seem to be in control, whereas in the career mode you are forever fighting with the car and it is very hard to get an impressive position to move up the food chain of F1 when this is happening. Perhaps the developers did this for realism but that doesn't lessen the frustration you will feel, ultimately resulting in a probable preference for the world championship mode rather than the career mode.
Some people will also frown at the fact that Sony have once again gone with arcade style physics. You can run into cars and not get penalized other than damage if it occurs but generally it feels closer to something like Daytona rather than Grand Prix from Crammond. Sony have also endeavored to introduce the new rules such as the qualifying one after the other but other rules which are much older such as no overtaking under yellow flags are not enforced. It is clear that this is a game for the mainstream and there is nothing particularly wrong with that other than the fact hardcore fans of the sport really won't get their fix with this game.
The presentation of the game is incredibly slick and as expected it contains all the real world, teams drivers and tracks from the 2004 season. The developers also appear to have built the power of the teams based on their early 2004 performance so McLaren is not up there with Ferrari and BMW like they have been in the past. After each race there is a podium in engine cinematic including the traditional champaigne spray. One nice touch is that during hot lap qualifying you can watch the AI drivers on their laps complete with full commentary.
However the other major addition to the game along with the career mode is the two brand new tracks which have been added for the 2004 season. This is the first opportunity to see the Chinese track with cars on it and also the first to drive it in a virtual format. The tracks like all the others have been constructed well and along with Spa Francorchamps which returns for this season are a welcome addition to the career mode and championship.
In terms of the graphics the game is fairly decent but don't expect Gran Turismo level graphics. The frame rate remains constantly stable throughout but the sense of speed is a mixed bag. If you are driving alone the car can feel like a snail but add a few high powered machines around you and it appears that you are flying. All the cars are individual modeled right down to the steering wheel and there is a fantastic camera angle which gives you a view from the visor of a race and the drivers head bobbing up and down due to the g-forces under heavy braking. The developers have also included a TV mode where you can set the grid how you want and watch the race play out like during a broadcast.
Sound effects sound fairly close to the real cars and commentary is provided by James Allen and Martin Brundle. Their contribution appears limited to announcing retirements and places during races but they talk more during the hotlap qualifying about sector times.
For the multiplayer the game offers both online and offline options. Unfortunately you still can not have live races online against other players but rather aim to beat the best times being set by the players in the session. Offline the game offers split screen multiplayer.
Formula One 2004 is the most recommendable F1 game from Sony for quite sometime for two factors. One caused by the developers the other by the FIA and those being the addition of an in depth career mode and the two new tracks to the circuit. F1 fans should be happy with this till 2005 but others with no interest in the sport won't find much to like here.