A Journey From All-Assist To No-Assist – F1 2012 Video Game Guide

I love Formula One the sport.  And I love F1 2012 the video game.  I don’t think there exists another road racing game that has a speed as fast as a F1 simulation.  Recently, I have crossed the 100 hours play time.  One friend asked me, “What do you get out of this game with so much time put in?  Do you grind for experience points or currency to unlock faster cars?”  He is from a FPS and MMO background whereby unlocking gears is part of the game.  I chuckled and replied, “Not at all.  F1 is a skill game.  The only thing you need to unlock is your talent in playing a racing game”.

What a lovely racing game!

I am not a hardcore racer.  Fortunately, with the assist features this video game has offered, F1 2012 is accessible even to the most casual racer.  All-assist function is good.  It makes the game a lot less frustrating for some and the game play emphasizes on steering, a little bit of braking, sticking to the racing line, and making the most out of DRS and KERS technologies.  On top of that, it is a good introduction to the format of a F1 race.  The practice and qualifying sessions, yellow flag, pit stop, tire wear management, tire choices, penalty system, championship point system, racing rules, and more.

All-assist is good.  But as one gains proficiency on racing with the assist features, one may crave for deeper challenges.  F1 2012 offers a great depth to just that.  Turning off the assist features one by one rewards achievements or trophies, much faster lap time, predictability, and general satisfaction.

We love to stay in our comfort zone.  But if you decide to have a little adventure to see how far you can go with no-assist, I hope this article may inspire.

#1 Turn Off Brake Assist

Brake assist is the number one pace killer.  That is true.  By turning this one feature off, I have gained 3 to 5 seconds per lap.

Brake assist works best when you stick to the racing line accurately.  The moment you deviate from the racing line, brake assist kicks in.  This feature also slows down the car cautiously during corning.  It kills pace.

Turning off brake assist requires you to observe the brake markers on the side.  Depending on the turns, some have markers all the way from 400 meter ahead of the turn.  Finding the correct braking point for each turn (and each circuit) is important.  You may start with the very first sign you see.  And if you over brake, you may adjust accordingly.

Don’t over train on this part of the journey.  Once you are comfortable with braking function for a couple of different circuits, it is time to progress to the next one.

#2 Turn Off ABS and Traction Control

Personally, I feel ABS and TC (traction control) go hands-in-hands.  Allow me to provide a bit of background here.

ABS, like in road car technology, helps to prevent wheel locking in a heavy braking situation.  In F1 2012 in-game racing, ABS increases braking distance and stop front wheels from locking.  Locked wheels have no grip and it makes the braking non-effective.

TC helps to prevent rear wheels spinning.  Rear wheels spin when the engine rev exceeds what the wheel’s grip can handle.  This happens in a couple of places: starting grid, during turning (such as exiting a corner too aggressively), and wet weather condition.  When rear wheels spin, the car loses control.

Because ABS increases braking distance and TC reduces aggressiveness on gear shifting, turning them off improves lap time.  I can decrease the lap time for up to 2 seconds by turning these off, which is substantial, when added onto the no-brake assist gain.

To drive without ABS and TC, you have to be aware of grip condition.  Also bear in mind that down force is proportional to the square of speed.  Hence, as your car slows down, you have to gradually release the brake pressure or else suffer front wheels lock-up.  As you accelerate out of a corner, you may need to be gentle with the throttle or else suffer rear wheels lock-up.

Again, don’t over train on this setting.

#3 Use Manual Gearbox

Losing that auto gearbox, believe it or not, is not as bad as it sounds.  If you are using a console controller, you may wish to remap the DRS button (on top) to gear-up button (on bottom).  The default setup is neither comfortable to the hand nor intuitive.

Using manual gearbox – in some circuits – may gain lap time.  Especially places like S-Curves in Japan, sector 3 of Korea, and turn 3 through 7 in USA whereby engine braking is more effective than wheel braking, less frustrating than the auto gear hunting that goes up and down through a turn.  In other circuits, I may struggle matching my previous best lap records.  That is OK because manual gearbox provides better predictability in corning speed. Also, once you go manual, you won’t go back to auto.

The best way to learn how to work that manual gearbox is to watch how F1 professional racers lap a circuit on YouTube.  The strategies are as follows.

For down shifting from say a long straight at 7th gear, first, apply brake at the correct braking point.  After a second, quickly drop down 3 gears to 4th.  As you approach the apex, further drop down the gear to 3rd while releasing the brake.  For sharp corners, drop the gear to 2nd, and if need to, 1st.  Observe any sign of wheel lockup so as to further adjust the brake release timing.

For up shifting, the best time is when the engine hits the rev limiter (purple).  Holding the gear for too long kills speed.  However, you may notice shifting the gear up at high rev during corner exit may cause rear wheel spin (with no TC).  Hence in this case, you have to be gentle with the throttle.  Or shift gear a little bit earlier to keep the engine rev at a manageable state.  It is also a good lesson on why you have to use every inch of the circuit in opening up the exit.  Because the sharper the turning, the harder for you to be aggressive.

Of course, during wet weather condition, you have to watch out for engine rev.

By turning off brake assist, ABC, TC, and gear assist, it is time to really learn each and every of the 20 F1 circuits.  Use the brake markers and banners as braking points.  Find out the best gear choice for each chicane.  This is the most rewarding journey for me.

One area that needs to address is race start.  It is not easy without traction control.  The trick is that before the 5-light goes out, gently hold the throttle to green zone.  As you see the car moves forward, step onto the throttle.  Hold 1st gear till the speed is beyond 90 kph.  Then shift gears up as and when the rev limiter hits the purple zone.  Put in KERS if need to.

#4 Turn Off Racing Line

This is a person choice, more for immersion.  I don’t believe that turning off racing line would greatly help with lap time.  Especially when it is raining cats and dogs on track and visibility is terrible.

For some circuits like Brazil, I am comfortable in turning off the racing line.  For others, I am still learning my way.  Turning off racing line also forces you to really learn the track, and perhaps find a better racing line than the game suggests.

#5 More Challenges Ahead

If you are into beating lap time, i.e. time trial mode, you can explore the detail car setup feature for each track and fine tune your vehicle.  If you are into racing, i.e. career or quick race, you can turn on full damage simulation (and have a chance to see safety car!) and turn off the flash point system.  That is to say, mistakes can cost a great deal.  This game does not have hardcore mode.  You may even discipline yourself not to use the race restart function and take what it comes.

That is part of F1 racing.

PS. First season of my amateur F1 racing career can be found here.  Next season, I am planning to play with no-assist.

Für Elise (And Formula One Racing Game)

When I was sixteen, maybe younger, I managed to convince my mother to buy a piano.  I had no idea if I could play one.  But I enjoy playing the wind instrument.  By my naive extrapolation and rudimentary research, I could see myself playing a piano.  When I was young, there was no such thing as cost benefit analysis, or risk assessment.  The question of whether or not I have the right talent did not come across in my mind either.  I had a desire to play the piano and the stubborn determination to get there.  That was all that it counted for me back then.

I did not engage a piano teacher at first.  I would practice the music scores on my own, deriving ways to articulate the music through this brand new instrument, which smelt divine by the way.  I would sit by the piano for hours practicing the same scale on my right hand, then my left, and finally together.  I would dissect a musical piece into segments, practice the melody, then the harmony, and finally put them together, with the foot petals all in.  It was a long and tedious process without a teacher.  But the joy of working things out all by myself is indescribable.

Of all the piano pieces I have practiced and self-taught, I enjoyed playing Für Elise the most.  It is a beautiful piece written by Beethoven in three parts.  Each part has its challenge.  The crescendo, the diminuendo, the change of tempo, the speed run of notes across multiple octaves, and the solemn harmonic chords that accentuate the mood – all while documented clinically as black and white in the form of a musical score is a sum of a unique interpretation by the pianist.

Für Elise is a rather short piece of music compares to say The Blue Danube that I self-taught later on.  It lasts only a couple of minutes and it can be therapeutic practicing  Für Elise on repeat.  I would try to run some of the faster segments as close to the original intend as possible.  And then I would hit a roadblock due to a lack of consistency.  To improve, I would slow the notes down and examine each closely, string the notes together aiming to keep them consistent while gradually increasing the tempo.  This might take hours, days, weeks, or not ever.

The bottom line is, back then, I believe that through persistence, nothing is impossible.

Recently, I have spent much of my limited gaming hours into a F1 racing game.  My blogging tempo to you may seem to have slowed down.  The truth is, I have been adding new content onto an old post as I journey further into the game.  That entry becomes a micro-blog by itself.

Now, how does a F1 racing game relate to Für Elise?  To me, it does.  Playing the game reminds me of my piano practicing days.

You may notice that quite a few classical pieces have a three-movement structure.  On every F1 track, there are three sectors with a distinct theme too.  To me, tackling a F1 track is like playing the piano.  There is a rhythm to the circuit.  While the circuit design defines the track’s characteristic, no two drivers tackles the track the same way.  Each driver articulates the track in a way that works for him or her, according to one’s interpretation.  To perfect the track, one needs to push the limit to see how far one could go.  It is all about understanding the track and to consolidate the maneuvers so as to bring consistency to the driving.  It feels extremely satisfying when a perfect lap is strung together, just like when Für Elise is played beautifully in one go.

One evening, as I spent hours going through the same F1 track in circle for the umpteenth time, I suddenly thought of Für Elise.  I was overwhelmed by the childhood sweet memory of my piano practicing sessions.

No wonder I find the game so enjoyable to play.

F1 2012 Video Game – A Brief Review As A Casual Racer And An Avid F1 Fan

Edit (Oct 4, 2012) – Bahrain race added.
Edit (Oct 7, 2012) – Spain race added.
Edit (Oct 9, 2012) – Monaco race added.
Edit (Oct 11, 2012) – Canada race added.
Edit (Oct 13, 2012) – Valencia race added.
Edit (Oct 21, 2012) – Silverstone race added.
Edit (Oct 23, 2012) – Germany race added.
Edit (Oct 25, 2012) – Hungary race added.
Edit (Oct 27, 2012) – Belgium race added.
Edit (Oct 31, 2012) – Italy race added.
Edit (Nov 3, 2012) – Singapore race added.
Edit (Nov 5, 2012) – Japan race added.
Edit (Nov 8, 2012) – Korea race added.
Edit (Nov 10, 2012) – India race added.
Edit (Nov 10, 2012) – Abu Dhabi race added.
Edit (Nov 11, 2012) – United States race added.
Edit (Nov 11, 2012) – Brazil race added. 

Onto its third generation, F1 2012 is a jolly good Formula One simulation game.  I am not a racer.  I am terrible in this type of games.  I have not played the last two installments so I have no bearing on what this year’s edition has done better or worse than previous years.  But as an avid F1 fan who has been watching almost all the races for the last few seasons, I would say that I am delighted by the experience thus far.  You can watch F1 on TV all these years, listen to the commentators, or read the articles online.  Nothing beats experiencing the tracks first hand, at the simulator.  This franchise may not be a perfect simulation yet.  However, it is good enough for me to better appreciate the sport.  The entire experience – or the majority of it – feels authentic from a spectator’s viewpoint.

I have written and rewritten this post for a couple of times.  Without making it sounds too technical (and hence boring), I have chosen a journal style in sharing with you my experience thus far.  It may sound depressing at first.  But there are some happy moments for sharing.

Young Drivers Test

Formula One is at the pinnacle of racing.  The technology involved in this sport is ever evolving.  To introduce F1 to the players who are new to the sport, Codemasters the game developer has set up a series of scenarios in the Young Drivers Test.  KERS, DRS, dry tires, wet tires, racing line, apex, and braking distance – all the essentials to get me started are covered in this mode.  Typically, this mode takes 1/2 to 1 hour to complete.  But I am slow.  I took 2 hours to complete.  It was eyeopening to see how corners are tackled.  I have seen so many F1 maneuvers on TV.  Nothing has prepared me for this.

I graduated with a pass, didn’t score a gold.  Perhaps that has affected my option later in my Career mode.

Quick Race

Because I bought the game over the Singapore GP weekend, the first thing I did was to try out the Singaporean track.  The wonderful thing about Quick Race is that I can pick any car, be any driver, and be on any track.  The default setup of a Quick Race is 3 laps with no pit stop.  That is around 6 minutes of game play.

Quick Race is exhilarating.  I live in the city and I can relate to every inch of the simulated track.  Lap one is the most exciting part of the race, as it is in the real F1.  So many cars jam packed into the first few corners.  Trying to find space without causing an incident is an art.

It is rather easy to win the race with one of the top teams on easy setting.  I managed to win with Red Bull Racing (Webber), Ferrari (Alonso), and McLaren (Button).  I have also tried Lotus (Kimi) and Mercedes (Schumacher).  All the top teams usually start at the front of the grid, between P6 to P11.  To see how realistic the race is, one time I picked a Williams car (Senna).  I started further back, pushed all that I could, and managed a point scoring result.  That was probably the best I could muscle out from that car, in that starting position, with my skill today.

Career – Australia

OK!  I was excited and ready to start the career mode.  I have three teams to choose from: Marussia, HRT, and Caterham.  Since I am in love with anything Spanish, I picked the Hispania Racing Team (HRT).  Using a Cosworth powered engine and as a relatively new F1 team, there is only that much the car can do.  In retrospect, I should have picked Caterham.  At least for the KERS technology.  But I am in for immersion.  I pick with my heart.

Instead of 3 practice sessions like in a real F1 weekend, F1 2012 the game only has 1 session that lasts for 1 hour.  I am new to the game so I took my time getting familiarize with the track.  The Australia track looks straightforward.  It is rather round.  But some of the kinks were giving me headache.  During the practice session, I have caused an accident.  So, I was given a 10 place penalty that could not be erased by a flashback (a feature to rewind time and undo a mistake).  Looking back I could have restarted the practice session.  Since I was among the bottom cars, that wouldn’t have mattered much anyway.  Besides, I am in for game immersion.

On round one qualifying, I couldn’t remember which tires I have used.  But the timing was not impressive.  Just like F1, there is a warm up lap to get the tires up to temperature and the clock starts at the end of the warm up lap.  In my overly enthusiastic state of mind, I was trying to do what real F1 drivers do towards the end of the warm up lap – create a gap from the cars in front.  Unfortunately, I slowed down too much and was given another penalty for illegal blocking.

Whatever.

So I started on P24 – the last car on the grid with a combined grid penalty of 20.  I chose a 25% duration setting so the race has a total of 15 laps.  I started well on option tires, gained 7 positions on lap one thanks to all the in-game assist settings.  My scheduled pit stop was on lap 7.  That is silly because even option tires can last longer than that.  But, rules are rules.  I have to use both sets of tires in one race.

I did not know what happened to the option tires.  But since my lap time was not improving, I dived into the pit 2 laps ahead of schedule and went for the more long lasting prime tires.

I got out of the pit, found myself at the back of the grid, and I struggled to get the tires to optimal temperature.  When the cars in front pitted, I was hoping to gain places but I did not.  I was at 23rd, lapped by the front runners.  To rub salt to the wound, even as I moved out of the racing line when I was blue flagged, I was handed a time penalty for blocking the faster cars.  That was not it.  Car 24 tailgated the train of faster cars, overtook me as I gave way.  I started at P24 and ended up at P24.

Overall, a forgettable race.

Career – Malaysia

For some strange reasons, I love the Malaysian circuit.  The flow is good.  The two long back-to-back straights are fun to drive.  The only thing confusing is the pit entrance.  It is at the end of a hairpin and is barely visible when making a tight left turn after a long straight.  It took me quite some time to get the angle right.

Throughout the practice session and qualifying round, I kept it clean.  I did not want another penalty.  I qualified P19.  Still at the back of the grid but higher than my team’s expectation.  Time to celebrate?

Race day was a frustration, due to a wet weather condition.  I have restarted the race a couple of times with different strategies but that did not matter.  I could blame the game (if indeed it was a bug on tires) or my lousy engineer or perhaps my driving and judgement skill.

It started off dry and I have raced my heart out, gained 10 positions by the end of lap one.  P10 is a point scoring position.  I was doing well until the rain started to fall.  I have tried different tire strategies but nothing seemed to work.  The rain looked pretty heavy but since the rest of the cars were still on prime, I stretched my option tires to as long as I could.  I put on the prime tires on my first overdue pit stop.  By then, the rain was too heavy.  I tried to crawl to the finishing line with the wrong tires but I have lost too many positions.  On the last lap, I dived in and got the wet tires on.  I finished one position down at P20.  A very disappointing weekend.

I wish that my engineer is more intelligent and react better to the climate condition.  I wish that calling for a tire in-game outside of scheduled pit stop does not involve getting my thumb off the steering stick and press a combination of 3 keystrokes using the directional pad.

Career – China

I thought Malaysian track was great, Chinese track is even better.  Some of the connecting apexes need to be attacked with a good precision and the result is a better carry through speed.  Very rewarding to drive.  Also, it has a pretty long straight that enables my Cosworth engine to be maxed at 314 km/h for quite a distance.  I really get this track.  I just love it!

During the practice session, I was given a tire wear R&D objective.  I needed to run 3 laps without exceeding a certain amount of tire wear and within a certain time target.  This was for my team to collect some data so as to reduce tire wear during a race.  There was light rain, I was on intermediate tires, and I nearly made it.  On lap 3, I was blocked by a slow moving car.  Not wanting to incur a penalty by causing a collision, I braked too soon and lost the objective.  As the sky opened up, I tried again with option tires.  Interestingly, the time target has revised accordingly because option tires are much faster than the intermediate tires.  I nailed the R&D objective with no problem this time.

Before the practice session expired, I put on the prime tires.  To my surprise, they worked better than the option tires.  By now, I can only conclude that as the track rubbered in, the lap time drops.  Unfortunately, I had to learn this during the qualifying session.

There was no rain during qualifying session.  I put on my option tires and I was fast.  At least I thought I was.  Before I came in for a refuel, I was outside the relegation zone.  My engineer recommended the option tires.  But I insisted on the prime.  Prime tires took a long time to warm up and the lap time was not fantastic.  I raced till the very end, until I ran out of fuel.  Now, why didn’t my engineer called me into the pit when I was running out of fuel?  No idea.  In my relief, I was not penalized as I crawled back into the pit.  P19 was the best I could qualify with.

On race day, I prayed for a sunny weather.  Codemasters answered my prayer and gave me just that.  The dry race was fantastic.  On start, I lost at least 4 places without KERS technology.  I gained up to P8 from P19 during the first few laps, which was pretty remarkable.  Button and I had some wheel banging moments as we overtook each other.  I even got to use the DRS at the DRS zone a couple of times!  For a few laps in this race, I was within 1 second to the car in front.  That was how close I was to the top teams.

By mid race, I lost a position.  KERS plus DRS were not easy to fight against, especially when I have picked one of the two teams that do not have KERS.  I pitted at the exact lap as planned.  I gained back a position from Webber.  But I made a few mistakes under pressure.  My prime tires were cold.  Vettel just zoomed past me.  I could not hold off from Button and Webber for long either.  It was a nail biting moment sitting on P10 – the last point scoring position.  I defended my position like mad because even 1 point in this championship means a lot to me.  At one point, the car behind tried to use a high fuel combination to catch up on me.  That did not last and as I put in some perfect laps, the gap has widen again.  I was relieved to see a breathing gap only to lose it due to a few mistakes I have made.  That turn 16 right before the pit entrance is my Achilles’ heel.  I still can’t get that right.

I was in tears when I saw the checker flag.  P10.  That is a rather good achievement on a HRT car.  I have scored one point, way beyond the expectation of my team.  More importantly so, I beat my own teammate, again.

Career – Bahrain

With my new found confidence, I was all hyped up for the fourth track of the season – Bahrain.  You know how it is like when you first land on a new track.  Either you feel great and love the flow.  Or you feel bad because you don’t get it.  Bahrain, to me, belongs to the latter.

Some of the kinks are hard to master.  If I miss the apex, I will overshoot at the exit and lose time.  Turn 2 is a good example.  It is a rather high speed corner at 158 km/h.  The worst part of the circuit to me is Turn 5, 6, and 7. At 190 km/h, any mistake on this set of three corners often ends badly.  Leading out of Turn 7 is the slowest corner of the track – Turn 8.  Entering the apex at 253 km/h with an exit speed of 79 km/h.  That corner is sharp and slow.  It is so easy to lose control at Turn 8.  My engineer often tells me that I am doing badly on sector 2.  I am not surprised.

On practice day, I started with prime tires.  My HRT did not do too bad, ended up somewhere at midfield.  On my first pit, I changed to option tires, clocked an impressive +0.081 seconds off Alonso’s first position.  That record stayed through the remaining practice session.  On my second garage refuel visit, I kept the tires.  What people say about option tires is true.  They don’t last.  My timing got worst.  I pitted and changed back to the prime tires, even boosted the fuel composition to rich.  Still no improvement.  I must have lost my concentration somehow.  Nonetheless, P2 for a practice session is a good result.

On qualifying session, my engineer asked me not to push too hard.  Looking at my practice result, he reminded me that I should nail Q1 with no problem.  You know what they say about practice results do not necessarily mean anything?  It is true.  I pushed hard on option tires.  By the fourth lap, I was at the relegation zone.  My fuel tank only allowed me to do one more lap.  I blew it.  On the 6th lap when I should have retired into the garage, I had a good feel that my timing was good (the car was lighter due to low fuel) . I decided not to pit and scored a P16.  I had to crawl back to the garage on second gear because there was little fuel left in the car.  Miraculously, I did not incur a penalty for blocking the traffic . I was careful on my crawling line.

Q2, I put on a new set of option tires.  The best I could do was a P17, which was pretty much the last car in round 2.  It was my first Q2 though, so I was happy.

As for the cloudy race day, the same happened.  On start, without KERS, I lost at least four positions.  Gained them back and more through my aggressive driving style (thanks to all assist setting).  As the race settled, I was sitting at P8, which was a pretty good position.  After my pit stop, I rejoined at P11, gradually worked my way back to P8 as other cars pitted.  At one point, Massa overtook me.  I tried to chase him down but I had made one too many mistakes.  He was two seconds ahead, pulling away from me.  And the car behind was two seconds away, gaining up towards me.  Toro Rosso’s Vergne tried to close up the gap with rich fuel setting.  Four more laps to go and my engineer informed me that if I made another mistake, Vergne would be within the one second DRS zone.  I have used up all my flashbacks.  I checked my fuel tank and it has three extra lap worth of fuel.  So I responded with a rich fuel setup, drove relatively flawless for four long laps.  The two seconds gap between Vergne and I was maintained.  I took the checker flag at P9, earned two championship points.  It was time for celebration!

Career – Spain

The Spain circuit, I just don’t get it.  Fans of this video game franchise are right.  We need three practice sessions to attempt in mastering a F1 track, not one.  I have restarted the 1 hour practice session three times and I still felt inadequate.

While this circuit does not have a straight long enough for my HRT car to attain a maximum speed, it does have a number of 90-degree chicanes.  Turn 9 is quite a monster with a corning speed of 230 km/p and a G-force of 3.57, which of course, in the comfort of my home and in front of my 42″ plasma TV, I don’t get to experience.  Leading up to turn 9 is a down slope 90-degree turn 7 and an up slope turn 8 that follows through.  Turn 3 is also my headache because once I am off the racing line and run wide at the entrance, it is extremely hard to hug the corner and race through it.

Weather forecast said that there would be heavy rain on practice day, sunny on qualifying, and light rain on race day.  I am not Michael Schumacher.  I really am not good at wet weather racing.  Why does the weather forecast always right in F1 2012 video game?

Practice day went from wet to dry and back to wet.  That gave me plenty of opportunities to experiment all four types of tires.  In fact, that helped me on my race day when I have to decide when to pit based on track condition.  The only noteworthy timing I have clocked was on the option tires.  I finished the practice with P13.

Qualifying was a sunny day.  Because I was so used to the slower speed on wet condition, I found the dry track speed rather overwhelming.  Throughout the weekend, the car felt twitchy.  I just did not like the setup of the car at all.  I used up both sets of option tires.  But the best I could get was P19.  Hence, I was relegated.  No Q2 for me.

Race day started with light rain.  I have restarted the game quite a number of times.  I noticed that while the race has to be wet as per the forecast, there were tiny random variances that Codemaster the game developer has introduced into each restart.  Like the choice of tires for the rest of the cars, start up speed, accidents, and etc.  On my first attempt, my engineer recommended the intermediate tires, which in retrospect was the dumbest idea.  I was the only one who ran on intermediate tires.  I was basically a sitting duck when the option tires outperform intermediate tires by 6 seconds per lap.  The rain only came in on lap 3.  That was a dumb choice.  I want to fire my engineer.

On my second attempt, I started on option at P19.  I worked my way up to the front and on lap 2, all the cars dived into the pit for the intermediate tires.  I stayed out one extra lap because the track did not look that bad.  It was a wise decision because after my pit stop, I have gained at least 2 positions.  As the track dried up and with 12 laps to go, I switched to option tires.  Unfortunately, the option tires did not last and I struggled a lot for grip towards the end of the race.  So I restarted the game again.

On my third attempt, I did everything exactly as my second attempt except when I switched back to dry tires, I picked the prime tires.  The problem with prime tires is that while they last, they are not known for speed.  I was P1 on lap 2.  When I rejoined after putting on the intermediate tires, I was at P8.  I should have dived into the pit one lap earlier when the track dried up but I was one lap long (such is the excitement of F1 when decisions like this matters).  I lost 4 positions after I put on the prime tires.  It was a nail biting experience at the pit.  P12 when I rejoined.  I lost 1 more position to Massa at pit exit because of a camera view bug (duh!).  I tried to hold off the cars behind me but they were on option, I was on prime.  Even with rich fuel mix, the prime tires are not competitive.  The good news was that the prime tires felt really right towards the end of the race when I was under immense pressure from the cars behind.  The wearing was low and the grip was perfect.  I finished at P15.  Not a point scoring position but I managed to exceed the expectation of the team.  Most importantly, I outraced my teammate Pedro de la Rosa.

Career – Monaco

If you are still undecided about F1 2012 the video game, trust me, being able to experience the Monaco track makes your money worth.  Cynthia and I have visited Monaco once.  We have driven on the road that is part of the F1 circuit.  What Codemasters the game developer does to the Monaco track is amazing.  So much details.  Such realism.  When I first took my HRT car out of the garage, I gasped.  The city is beautiful.  The track is breathtaking.  No wonder all the F1 drivers love this street circuit.  It is narrow and it commands respect.  The moment you make a slight mistake, you wreck the car onto the walls.  Cutting the chicane too fine?  Your rear wheels get tripped and your car spins to the opposite direction.  Some part of the circuit can be bumpy and it is so easy to lose control of the car.  However, once you master the track with millimeter precision, it is a rewarding drive.  All the turns, all the straights – they are memorable.  I simply adore the Monaco track.

I thought I would suck in a street circuit but surprisingly, I do not.  On the sunny practice day, as usual, I put on the prime tires (yellow – soft) saving the super soft tires for later.  Once the track gets rubbered in, my timing should improve.  I gave it my all on the first few laps and I clocked in an amazing lap time of 1.26.152.  No one could get close to this result.  I tried to best myself but somehow, I had problem with Beau Rivage leading up to Massnet as well as the slowest corner Turn 6 and the Turn 15/16.  Towards the end of the practice session, I put on the option tires (red – super soft).  No improvement even though I felt I have put in a few perfect laps.  Strange.

Does it mean that prime tires works better in Monaco?  No idea.  P1 on the practice session.  1.079 seconds ahead of Massa’s Ferrari.

Qualifying, I have a good feel about this track.  Could I replicate my success?  Q1, I put on the primes, clocked in a rather impressive 1.26.726 but only on P12.  0.507 seconds off the first position.  Maybe the yellow soft tires did not cut it.  I got into the next round nonetheless.

Q2, I went for the options.  When I saw my lap time at 1.25.282 on second lap, I knew my work was done.  So I sat at the garage waiting for the session to be over.  P1, I was at.  First time I would be on round three.

Q3, the rain started.  I put on fresh options like everyone did.  Got out of the garage as fast as possible.  I did a flying lap but the result was not impressive.  I stayed out on options for too long and when I changed for the intermediate tires, the track condition has worsen.  There was no point putting on wet tires because I would not be able to beat others.  So I retired at P7.  What a disappointment.

The scoreboard said that I was at P7.  But when I proceeded to the next stage, the game put me on P10.  I must have violated the time-space continuum a.k.a. PS3 bug.

On race day, I started on the super soft tires.  Rain has started falling from the sky but everyone was on options.  Lap 1, I made some aggressive overtaking on Turn 1, gained up to P6.  Then gained another position along Beau Rivage.  Round Turn 3, I followed the cars in front closely, managed to gain another position at Casino from the outside.  I held onto P4 through Tunnel.  Unfortunately at Chicane, I oversteered and was overtaken.  I lost a position but that was racing.  I was cool with it.  By then, the rain appeared to intensified but the track remained somewhat dry.  All the car in front dived into the pit and changed for intermediate tires.  I have decided to stay out and watched my lap time closely sitting at P1.

Lap 2, there was no significant drop of timing so I thought, perhaps the rain was not that bad.  I pushed onto lap 3 and my engineer told me that the Red Bull behind were pitting for intermediate tires.  I must have gained enough gap due to my tire decision because when I pitted for intermediate tires, I was still on P1.

As the track remained wet, Rosberg behind me was in fuel saving mode.  In retrospect, that was quite a good strategy.  Since the one behind me was not chasing, I was quite relaxed sitting at P1.  By lap 6, the rain has stopped.  Some cars have pitted for dry tires but I have decided to stay out for another 2 laps, again watching my lap time closely.

I was losing 3 seconds for lap 6 and 7 so I thought, now could be the right time for dry tires.  Options or primes?  There are still 13 laps to go.  It could be a challenge to make the super soft option tires last that many laps.  But what if it rained later?

Decision, decision.  I put on the faster option tires on lap 8 with Rosberg still behind my back not wanting to let go.  He switched to rich fuel mix now that he had saved enough fuel during the wet weather racing.  Uh oh.  At first there was a 7 seconds gap.  Then it was cut to 5 seconds.  I put in some flawless laps so as to maintain the gap.  That seemed to work until I met the black markers.

Black markers are the slower cars that let you overtake once you are near.  The challenge is, there aren’t many places on the track whereby you can comfortably overtake a black marker.  Any time spent behind a black marker is a lost in lap time.  Rosberg was closing in while I was patiently waiting for my overtaking opportunities.  Causing a collision incurs time penalty and I surely do not want that, especially in this race.

By lap 16, I started to feel the tire wear effect.  The grip was deteriorating rather dramatically.  I had to lengthen the braking distance and reduce the cornering speed.  Rosberg was only 3 seconds behind me!  I was losing more lap time than what Rosberg has gained.  So I thought, perhaps he was struggling with tire wear as well.

True enough, by lap 18, Rosberg trailed behind and was overtaken by Alonso who was on prime tires!  This time, Alonso was after me, potentially with better tires, maybe 2 laps older than mine.  2 more laps to go and my tires were in lousy condition.  There was no grip.  I had to put in a lot of focus and drove conservatively . I slowed down quite a bit so as to nurse the car to the finishing line.

I was in tear when I took the checker flag at P1.  At that very moment, I was mentally and physically exhausted.  A maximum of 25 championship points for the team and for me.  Alonso was P2, Rosberg P3.

Career – Canada

Life of a F1 driver as such.  Hero in one race, zero in another.  And people’s memory is as good as the last circuit you raced.

One look at the Canada circuit and I knew that my HRT would not be able to make it.  The track is wide, lots of straights, plenty of overtaking opportunity.  With no KERS and a humble Cosworth engine, I would be a sitting duck.

My guess was spot on.

It was yet another wet weekend.  Started the practice session on prime, then into intermediate and wet.  I struggled tremendously for pace.  Best timing was 1.23.231 at P7, which is 0.408 second off Kobayashi’s option tires.

Turn 13/14 continues to be my pain point.  At a maximum speed in excess of 300 km/h, the turns are sharp with a carry through speed of 135 km/h.  A tiny mistake my car would hit the white chicane and smash onto the wall at exit.  So hard to get that right.

Q1, P15 on intermediate.  That was the best I could squeeze out of the car.  Q2, P17 on option.  And I began to think that for this track, option is just not as good as prime.

On race day, first 4 laps on intermediate then the remaining 14 laps on prime.  Gained some positions on lap 1 but I slipped from P13 to P16 driving defensively most of the time.  The infamous Maldonado hit my car at Turn 13/14.  Even with 10 seconds penalty, he was still ahead of me.

How in the world did I lose 13 seconds over 2 laps?  That collision must have caused me much time.  Tire wear too.  In a real F1 race, causing an accident would have been handed with a drive-through penalty, which translates to 20+ seconds.

Ah, whatever.  Time to look forward to the next race.

Career – Europe (Valencia)

Valencia is a street circuit.  I knew I would do good in this one.  What a pity that we will not be seeing this track in the next year’s Formula One calendar.

Now, before we get to the race, let’s talk about my favorite topic: practice day.

Some of you may wonder, what is the fun in practice day when the results do not matter?  To me, I enjoy the 1 hour practice session because I get to compete against myself.

In this simulation, practice day consists of three stints.  Since prime tires last longer than options, I would reserve the option tires to the last stint when the track is rubbered in.

In each stint, my team puts in a fuel load of 10 laps.  Minus off the warm-up lap and out lap (pit entrance is before start-finish line hence out lap has no lap time record), depending on track length, there can be over 20 race laps in one practice session.

Lap time is recorded at the end of each of the three sectors.  When you better your best sector time, the timing is indicated in green, just like what you see on TV.  When you set the fastest sector or lap time among others, it is indicated in purple.  Otherwise, in red.  As you can imagine, every 40 seconds or so, I would take my eyes off the track and observe my sector and lap performance.

First stint is always better than second stint.  Because as tires are wearing off, the lap time lengthen.  The lap-by-lap comparison between the first two stints often gives me a good indicator on how tire wear works for a particular track (because fuel load is held constant).

At the beginning of each stint, the car is heavier due to high fuel load.  Towards the end of each stint, tire wear effect kicks in.  So the break even point is somewhere in the middle, when tire and brake temperature is at the optimal.

Of course, when done right, there is a good chance that the third stint sets the best personal record.  Again, that depends on the track layout.

Practice day is also one way to judge how competitive my car is with respect to the rest.  In Valencia, I clocked in a lap time of 1.53.795 on option tires. 0.598 second ahead of Vettel.  That is a pretty good result.

I love racing in Valencia (Spain).  There is no sudden change of direction.  I have sufficient time to slowly inch toward the wall.  Smooth driving is the key.  The last few sequences before the start-finish line is breathtaking, flowing through the turns at 295 km/h.  What I love about this track is that putting in a perfect lap is very doable.  And it does not require too high a concentration.

First round of qualifying, I scored a P1 with 1.53.341 on primes.  Maldonado was merely 0.049 second behind me, not sure what tires he used.  Q2, Alonso qualified 0.153 second ahead of my P4 result at 1.52.684 on options.  I did not have much hope for Q3 because I don’t usually qualify well.  When I saw my lap time of 1.52.074, I knew I nailed it.  Alonso was 0.199 second behind me.

So, first time in my F1 video gaming career, I was the pole sitter.  I did not have high hope on race day because without KERS, there is no way to have a good start.  I tried my best to block Alonso on start but Hamilton and Alonso shot pass me before Turn 1, one on each side.  Through the initial slow sequence, I followed the two cars closely but I did not manage to overtake Alonso until the second lap.  By then, Hamilton was well ahead and I have Alonso on my back.  With DRS enabled, it was nerve wrecking trying to drive defensively and at the same time, stay on the racing line.  That was quite impossible.

Then the rain came.  The official disabled DRS.  That got Alonso off my back.  My engineer asked me to pit in on lap 6 but again, with the changing weather condition, there was no point in making too many pit exits.

Because of the pit stop reshuffling, I was momentarily on P1.  Unfortunately I stayed out too long and the rain was getting too heavy.  I did not know how Hamilton did it but he managed to overtake me on dry tires.  I dived into the pit at the end of lap 8, switched to intermediate tires, and continued the race.

At one point, Webber tried to go full red and overtake me.  I responded with full red and drove as perfectly as I could.  At the end of lap 14, the track was too wet so I put on the wet tires.  Hamilton was 13 seconds ahead of me and Button was 3 seconds behind me.  Button managed to close the gap down to 1.7 seconds but I responded.  Hamilton was too far gone and my target was to bring home a P2.  Last couple of laps I put in some good timing.  I took the checker flag 3 seconds ahead of Button.

With all considered, P2 is a good result.  I am happy to bring home 18 championship points, for my HRT team and for me.

Career – Great Britain (Silverstone)

What a frustrating ‘weekend’.  Except this in-game weekend has lasted more than a week in real life.  I have tried hard.  I just cannot get the Silverstone track right.  Sector 1 involves a set of odd shaped slow corners.  Sector 1 is also consistently my worst performing sector throughout the ‘weekend’.  I could lose up to a second in sector 1.  What gives?

While my sector 1 performance is consistently bad, sector 2 ranges from spectacularly good to spectacularly disastrous.  Maggots and Becketts are tough.  These are high speed chicanes.  If I turn slightly too early or too late, the error would get accumulated through the turns and my car would overshot into the grass.

Sector 3 is my best sector.  It is rather straightforward except the sharp chicane Stowe.  I realize that so long as I go a bit easier on the gas petal as I exit the corner, it is possible to stay on the racing line.

Onto the 9th race of the in-game season 1, my standing is at 9th in the championship.  I do not quite understand how the AI in this game works.  After repeated the 1 hour practice session not less than 3 times, I managed to clock a best lap time of 1.44.461.  I was at P2 just 0.064 seconds behind Kimi.

So I thought I have finally nailed this track.  Q1 I clocked a 1.44.474 on option – very similar to my practice day result – but was at P16.  1.271 seconds off the pace of the leader.  Where did the AI cars find the sudden improvement?

In Q2, I pushed for another improvement at 1.44.031.  That only put me at P14 with a even larger gap of 1.863 seconds off P1.  Needless to say, I could not move into Q1.  More importantly, it was a shocking revelation on how bad the HRT car is and / or how bad my driving skill is.

I took a break from the career mode and headed over to quick race mode.  Same track but with a Lotus Renault.  I had no problem in winning while clocking a lap time of 1.40-ish.

Ah, whatever.  It is not like I can drive a Lotus any time soon.  My best memory of this game has to be stuck behind one of the worst, if not the worst car of the game.

On race day, starting at P16, I dropped below P20 at first corner.  But that was not news to me.  I fought hard for position and managed a P10 on prime.  Alonso was again behind me.  The problem with defensive driving is that I lose lap time against those who would have pitted and raced on a different part of the track.  I held Alonso off till he pitted.  Then I lost a position to Vergne of Toro Rosso but managed to regain it back.  Kobayashi was behind me and I fought him off too.  I was at P8 when I pitted.  But only rejoined at P12.  At pit exit, I lost track positions to 3 cars that sped pass me.  My tires were cold and I could not defend against Vergne.  So I dropped to P16.

Gosh.  I hate Vergne.  He is there to have a last laugh at me in every other race.

Once the option tires got up to temperature, the last 5 laps was rather uneventful.  I was not able to chase after the cars in front.  The cars behind were not able to catch up on me.  Quite possibly the most enjoyable stint of the race.

P16, no championship point.  Ironically, my team boss is happy with my progress.  And I am officially on equal status with my teammate Pedro de la Rosa who was the 1st driver of HRT.

Career – Germany

What a tiring but delightful race ‘weekend’.  Germany GP was the 10th race in the calendar, the halfway point of the season.  I have made a few discoveries on this game that are worth sharing.

First, is the Young Drivers Test.  When I started this game, I did not pay much attention to the test.  I have passed the test, good enough to obtain my super license and race.  Now that I am more comfortable with the game mechanic, I have attempted to complete all my objectives and managed to score a silver medal in the final evaluation.  Instead of 3 car teams for my picking, if I was to restart my F1 career today, I would have 5 teams to choose from.  That would, I guess, include Toro Rosso and Williams on top of the bottom 3 cars.

Now, why didn’t I do that?

Second, let’s talk about objectives.  The only way to gain XP and ranks is by meeting objectives.  It can be a frustrating business because the targets appear to be rather random.  They change every weekend.  I may be wrong.  But the qualifying objective seems to be an average between my current standing and my last race result.  Going into Germany GP, my standing was P10 and my last race was P16.  My qualifying target was P13.  Race day target appears to be one position above your qualifying result.

Because each track is different, I am finding it hard to be consistent in the progress.  This rule rewards graduate improvement over the season.  Not erratic results like mine.  Some weekends I would miss out on both objectives, even when I got into a point scoring position.  Most weekends I only got one.  This is certainly an aspect of the game I wish to see improvement come next year.

Third, I have finally nailed down on the reason why in some sectors I may lose up to 1 second in terms of lap time.  Turn 3 and 4 prior to Parabolika look rather harmless.  But through the heavy grilling of qualifying rounds as I was hell-bent in beating the target, I realize that because I am on the auto-gearbox mode, the gear shifting can be very sensitive to track condition.  Depending on the corning speed, a sharp steering may result in a gear down-shift or a delayed up-shift that affects the exit speed.  Those two turns alone may eat up 1 second of my sector time between my best and worst.  Sticking to race line does not seem to yield a desirable result.  I have to really ‘feel’ the car by listening to the engine while turning.

Now, back to the race weekend, Germany GP is a beautiful track.  Parabolika – quite possible the fastest and longest turn in F1 – is breathtaking.  It is a very memorable turn in my F1 career too as you will read later.  At the end of Parabolika is the 59 km/h Hairpin.  Sector 3 consists of 6 fast paced turns.  Also, from a driver’s point of view, the line-up of the colorful grandstands along these turns is an unusual eye candy.  As for the rest of the track, it is mostly trees on one side, buildings on the other.

I have struggled a lot on this track with my HRT.  Practice session saw changing weather condition.  I have used 4 different types of tires, tried for days.  My best time was 1.26.163, +0.946 second off Kimi.  That put me to P16.

It was a sunny day for qualifying rounds.  Initially, I could not even get through to Q1.  How to beat my P14 objective?  In the end, I tried mix-3 fuel setting on option tires, managed to score a P16 at 1.24.992 (+0.515 second off Maldonado).  The problem with mix-3 fuel setting is that my fuel burns fast.  It is enough for 1 warm-up lap, 2 good laps, maybe 1 more lap before the out lap on lean fuel setting.  My rhythm would be if the third race lap timing does not look good, I would return to my garage, refuel, maybe have the tires changed, and then retry.  Tires take at least 2 laps to get to an optimal temperature.  As you can see, my window of opportunity is narrow.

Through persistence, I nailed Q2 at P13 with a lap time of 1.24.573 (+0.749 second off Button).  I could not get through to Q3.  But I am happy.  Because I beat the P14 target.

Race day is yet another dry race (hooray!) and I started on option tires.  I raced my heart out looking for gaps in the opening lap.  I pushed up to P10 and I was first hassled by Schumacher.  After a few laps, he must have overtaken by Kimi.  It was tough to fight off Kimi.  At the long straight off turn 1, I lost a position to him.  I desperately regained it back at turn 3 by braking from the inside.  It was a bad decision because in order to avoid a collision, Kimi and I have slowed down so much so that the cars behind must have caught up on us.  Two cars attempted to overtake me at the Parabolika DRS zone from either sides.  I quickly looked behind and have decided to let Kimi pass while blocking Schumacher.  My target was P12 so P11 was acceptable.  Kimi is lethal.  Schumacher is not.

Lap 8, I dived in for a tire change.  I got back out on track at P16 thinking that my race was over.  Then the cars in front went in for their routine pit stops and I was back to P11.  Now, I have Massa on my back.  I switched to mix-3 fuel setting and have to watch closely on the gap between Massa and I as well as my fuel tank.  When the gap was less than a second, I have to prepare for the worse at the DRS zone.  Massa and I battled each other all the way to the last few laps when one of my late braking must have cost him dearly.  Because guess what?  My all-time-rival Vergne of Toro Rosso was right behind me!  He who from time to time always try to ruin almost all my races.

Lap 16 of 17, I was not about to lose to Vergne without a fight.  At Parabolika, I quickly closed up the inside so he has to attempt overtaking me from the outside.  I blocked him once and he went further out.  Parabolika while appears as straight is still a turn.  He lost control of the car and the yellow flag was out.  Bye bye Vergne.  Oh, how I love Parabolika.  His teammate Ricciardo was 2 seconds behind me.

2 seconds was a good gap.  I drove as flawless as I could.  Observing that I still have excess fuel, I switched back to mix-3 setting.  I took the checker flag at P11.  Objective met.  It was Hamilton on P1, Ricciardo on P12, Massa on P14, and Vergne on P17 (ha!).

To top up my double objectives met this race weekend, Toro Rosso has offered me a contract!  By taking up this contract, I will not be able to enter into any contract negotiation for the next season.  I am frustrated with my HRT car.  Without KERS is a serious handicap.  The current world champion Sebastian Vettel has driven a Toro Rosso before.  Besides, I get to unseat Vergne.

I took the contract in a heartbeat.

Bye bye Vergne.

Career – Hungary

The Hungarian Grand Prix is going to be the highlight of my F1 gaming career.

I enjoy role playing.  Hence in whichever game I play, I try to role play as much as I can.  Same for F1 2012 the video game.

With this new contract, I am now racing for Scuderia Toro Rosso (STR).  Do I miss HRT?  Of course I do.  The beautiful white and gold livery.  The good old comfort zone.  Now, I have to prove myself again, with a new teammate.  If I still cannot win more races, that could mean that it is indeed the driver’s problem, not the car.

The Hungarian circuit is rather short.  But it is full of action.  The curves are pretty evenly distributed and are rather sharp.  On practice day, it rained.  I thought the rain was pretty bad but I went out with the prime dry tires.  Whoa, the road was slippery!

I then took my engineer’s advise, put on the intermediate tires.  It was even worse.  How could it be?  OK, the ground did not look that wet.  I tried the wet tires and it was impossible to drive.

So, it was dry tires on a rainy day with part of the circuit rather dry and part of the circuit rather wet.  Oh boy.  Was that the localized weather condition?

I have raced wet weather on dry tires in a HRT car before.  Toro Rosso – based in Italy and equipped with a Ferrari 056 engine – surely feels more agile, and the car comes with KERS.  But it is also harder to handle compared to HRT.  If I am going too fast into a corner or accelerate too fast out of a corner, the car will spin.  How fast is too fast?  It is hard to tell, especially with localized weather condition.

Through persistence and practice, I discover that the track after the L-shaped turn 9 all the way to the start-finish line can be very wet.  I also discover that the dry track is not easy to driver either.  I often overshot or lose control of the car at turn 2 and turn 6.  The pressure was indeed mounting!

To my surprise, I clocked a best lap time of 1.29.952 during practice session.  That is 1.079 seconds ahead of Vettel on 2nd place.  Maybe I have it in me?

Q1, the condition was somewhat like the practice session.  I intended to save the option tires for later rounds.  And with my practice result, I did not think I would have problem qualifying above P17.

From a career perspective, KERS was a new technology for me.  I have to strategically deploy the 6.6 seconds boost along the circuit.  I choose to pour in half of the KERS allowance on the start-finish straight so as to gain the top speed – the only place in this circuit where I can – as fast as possible.  And I need to watch out for the rev limiter because there is no point in burning KERS when my car cannot go any faster.  The long straight after turn 3 is also my favorite spot to burn 2 seconds of KERS.  The remaining 1-ish second I deploy at the exit of 14 so as to achieve a better carry through speed to the start-finish line when the KERS timer gets reset.  That helps my goal in gaining top speed as soon as possible.

Back to Q1, in my first attempt I got a P3 so I was happy.  Then we have a power trip at home and I have to do it all over again.  On my second attempt, I put in one hot lap.  When I saw 1.29.169, I knew I nailed it.  For the remaining session, I sat at the garage watching the live timing.  My engineer asked me to try again but I doubted anyone would beat my timing.  So I waited at the garage till Q1 expired.  P1.  1.02 seconds gap with Maldonado.

Q2, it was heavy rain.  I have not practiced on wet tires and not sure how I would compare among others.  I was at the bottom on first attempt.  OK, I needed to push harder.  And I did.  Laps after laps I pushed harder and harder till I lost control of the car.  I did a 1.38.279 and was surprised that again, I was at P1.  0.231 second ahead of Hamilton.

Q3, the rain was even heavier.  Wow.  The road was really slippery!  Was it even safe to drive?  Q3 is a very short session.  You have one shot and have to make it count.  I lost control of the car during warm up lap and was concern about the track condition.  I did not push too hard and did a best lap time of 1.39.106 that I was unable to improve.  I was prepared to restart Q3 when I saw my name staying at the top of the list till the session expired.  0.22 second ahead of Alonso.  How did I do that?

I was on pole!

Race day was sunny.  I have not driven a Toro Rosso on a dry track.  I have not practiced the Hungarian track on a dry condition.  It was time to improvise.  Perhaps continue trying for the rest of the week?

First time in my racing career I have KERS to defend my position.  I was on pole in Valencia and was unable to convert that into a win.  Now, there was nothing to blame but me.

Starting on pole is breathtaking.  You look ahead and you see an open track.  No car in front of you.  Once the five lights were out, I accelerated fast, slowly moving over to Alonso’s P2 direction while burning half of my KERS.

Onto turn 1, I was still in the lead.  I tried to be cautious when exiting the turn and unfortunately I was a tad too slow.  Alonso sped pass me at the exit.  I don’t normally use KERS at that stretch but it was now or never in order to regain my position.  By turn 3, I overtook Alonso while Hamilton followed my race line and gained a position against Alonso as well.  It was now between Hamilton and I and I burned the remaining KERS allowance right after I exited turn 3.  I did not know what Hamilton has.  Now it was the time to put in all that I have learned and drive as flawless as I could.  So long as I could pull a 1 second gap by the end of lap 2, before DRS was enabled, I should be fine.

By the time DRS was enabled, Hamilton was 2.8 seconds behind me.  It was an exhilarating experience leading a race with a healthy gap.  I needed to pit for my prime tires at lap 8 and by then, I was close to 8 seconds ahead of Hamilton.

Woohoo!

I was happy a bit too early.  Because by the time I exited the pit, I dropped to P9.  Ouch.  That was painful.  The car in front was on option and my engineer told me that I had no hope in catching him.  I turned my fuel to mix-3, managed to defy my engineer’s prediction and overtook a few cars.  All of a sudden, I was on P1 as the cars in front pitted.

It was not the time to lose concentration because the cars behind me should be on option tires.  Hamilton managed to close the gap slightly on fresh and faster tires.  But I was able to pull away as my prime tires got into optimal condition.  On lap 16 of 18, I have more than 12 seconds gap with Hamilton.  My engineer radioed in and informed me that I did not need to push too hard, just bring home the car.

The race ended after 27 minutes and 46.794 second.  Hamilton was on P2, 12.093 seconds behind me.  Alonso was on P3 with a 15.994 seconds gap.  I took P1 on race day, on all three qualifying rounds, and on practice session, in my first race for Toro Rosso.

I am a happy man.  I am not sure if I will do well on a fast track.  We shall see.  For now, it is time to celebrate!

Career – Belgium

With my new found confidence from the Hungarian race, I was keen to start on Spa, the famous Belgium race.

Spa is best to experience on track.  Eau Rouge is famous for a good reason.  The turn is on an elevated ground.  Attacking Eau Rouge at a high speed and on qualifying rounds with the DRS wing opened, I need to exercise extreme caution running up the hill.  Because it is hard to see where the track is heading until I hit the top.  Sector 2 is pretty technical in nature.  Misjudging the cornering speed often lands my car onto the gravel or grass.  The flow of sector 3 is good.  With gentle steering, it is possible to open the DRS wing on the downhill sequence.  Breathtaking.

I was concerned about how the PS3 patch 1.2 (equivalent to 9 PC patches) would change the difficulty of the game.  On practice, I clocked a 1.59.593 on prime.  I could not get a better result on option.  P1. 1.38 seconds faster than Webber’s P2,

OK.  That is a positive result.  Q1 I put on the prime tires and did a 1.58.591 on first lap.  That was a 1 second improvement over my practice session so I sat at the garage waiting for Q1 to be over.  Vettel took P1, 0.445 second faster than my P5 lap time.  Not a problem.  I am still through to round 2.

Q2, I chose option tires and did a 1.57.297.  My goal was to get into top 10 and that was a pretty good result.  And I was on P1.

Q3, I was unable to match my Q2 result and only managed a 1.57.652.  But that was still 1.077 seconds faster than Alonso’s P2.

So I was on pole again!

I enjoyed a dry weekend.  This new patch has indeed fixed the frequency of wet races.  Unlike the Hungarian race, I did not give Alonso a chance to overtake me at the exit of turn 1, although he tried.  Burning half of my KERS running up to Eau Rouge, the car felt so slow!  The high fuel load was killing me.

Keeping it neat and tidy, I spent the rest of the KERS on Kemmel Straight.  From this point onward, it is about opening gaps with the cars behind.

Spa is a rather long circuit.  So at 25% race duration, I only needed to complete 11 laps.  Lap 5, I pitted for the prime tires and rejoined the race at P5.  I did not panic this time because the cars in front would need to pit eventually.

It wasn’t a perfect race.  At one point, Alonso was 2.8 seconds behind me.  I wasn’t opening as much the gap as I wished for.  I regained my concentration and pushed for a tidier run.

The race ended after 22 minutes 37.948 seconds.  I took the checker flag at P1.  My best lap time of the race was 2.00.363.  Alonso was on P2 (+5.567 seconds) and Hamilton was on P3 (+6.618 seconds).

25 championship points for Toro Rosso.  Not bad for a number 2 driver.

Career – Italy

Monza is the fastest circuit (I think) in the F1 calendar.  Historically speaking, I do well on slow tracks, terribly bad on fast tracks.  Critical to my F1 career, I have to get this circuit right (as you will read later).  My mind is fixed on winning this track, and the six races thereafter.  I would do whatever it takes to achieve me goal.

Whatever.  It.  Takes.

I have practiced this track on the Time Trial mode for no less than 200 laps.  In one particular setting, I went round and round in circle for ONE HUNDRED laps trying to beat my best time.  Each lap takes about a minute and a half and you can do the maths.  Oh yes, I am committed.

Onto the 13th race of the season, I can pick a rival to go against.  If I am able to beat him in 7 races, I will get to steal his seat and join his team on the 20th race at Brazil.  The stake is high.  To help you understand my dilemma, here was the scoreboard prior my racing in Monza.

  1. Hamilton
  2. Alonso
  3. Webber
  4. Grosjean
  5. Me
  6. Button
  7. Schumacher
  8. Rosberg
  9. Raikkonen
  10. Massa

I was rooted for a Ferrari car.  Unfortunately Alonso was too high and Massa was too low.  I only allowed to pick one of the two up’s or two down’s.  Ugh.  I would want a black Lotus.  But Grosjean has been doing pretty good in this season and Lotus is a tier-2 car (same as Mercedes).  Since I have to work hard for this, why not shoot for a tier-1 car?

So I picked Button as my rival.

Monster Monza only has 11 turns.  One friend of mine said that it is a beginner’s track.  I have to disagree with all my heart.  Monza is a monster.  Let’s break it down.

Turn 1 and 2 are the slowest chicanes of the entire track.  Approaching them at top speed, you really have to be very gentle in flowing through the chicanes.  I often think of feathers while caressing Turn 1 and 2.  These chicanes can cost me 1 second or more if I am not gentle.  Getting them right is what the first sector is about.  Turn 3 is OK so long as I am wide awake (after 100 laps, I can’t say).  It is easy to touch the grass on the left and the gravel on the right when I am trying to use too much space.

Turn 4 and 5 are nasty.  Cutting the chicanes too deep and my car would land onto the gravel to the left.  Going too gentle and I would lose too much speed.  The real excitement comes from Turn 6 and 7.  These are fast 90-degree corners.  A misjudge in the corning speed would again land my car onto the gravel.  The penalty is brutal.

Turn 8, 9, 10 are somewhat like Turn 4 and 5, but with a much faster speed.  I have discovered that so long as I cut deep into Turn 8 and be gentle with the throttle, Turn 9 and 10 do flow through rather nicely.  Otherwise, my car would slow down at a snail pace exiting Turn 9 due to a lack of space.

Then, there is another long straight leading to the final turn, Curva Parabolica.  It is easy to lose time here too when not attacked at the right speed and angle.  But when done right, accelerating through this turn is breathtaking.

Out of my 200 odd practice laps, a vast majority ended bad.  My main problem with Monza is consistency.  I was concerned before the race weekend.  Getting a good lap time in Monza – to me – has little to do with tire choice or fuel load.  It has everything to do with one thing: Am I keeping it clean and tidy?

I have no idea how I am doing compared to the AI cars.  On practice session, I was on P1 with a lap time of 1.28.646.  That was +2.215 seconds faster than Grosjean, one of the biggest gaps I have seen this season.  Does this mean that my hard work has paid off?

True enough, once qualifying rounds have started, some car teams have suddenly found dramatic improvement.  Q1, I was on P1 with a 1.28.823 on prime.  Hamilton was merely 0.662 second behind me.  My advantage has been chipped away!  Q2, I switched to option and pushed hard.  Again, P1 and this time with a 1.28.213.  That was 1.161 seconds faster than Vettel.  Phew.  Q3, I pushed harder and did a 1.27.679.  I should be happy with the result.  Unfortunately, Button my rival was right behind me with a 0.712 second gap.  How did he find the pace and even beat his teammate Hamilton?  I must have motivated him somehow.

On race day, I was on pole and was weary of McLaren’s pace.  I may be winning these days, but Hamilton is still on top of the scoreboard.  I have to win Button in Monza and he was on P2.  This was going to be an epic battle, a worthy battle.

5 lights went out and I charged to the first chicane with my mighty Toro Rosso.  I contemplated if I should use KERS on the first long straight as my starting position put me right on the racing line.  There is no way for Button to attack the first chicane from the inside.

But I used a bit of KERS just in case.

I gained a good gap on sector 1 but I did not do too well on sector 2.  Onto sector 3, Button was merely 0.7 second behind me threatening to overtake me on the final long straight.  I knew this day would come so I used my remaining KERS to defend my position.

Once my tires got to optimal temperature, it was all about keeping it neat and tidy and open enough gap from the cars behind.  By the time DRS zone was enabled, I have a 2+ seconds gap from Button.  So I was comfortable.  After a few laps, the gap went as high as 5 seconds but it dropped to 3 seconds as I was not too perfect in my execution.  I was concerned but I did not want to push too hard and land onto the gravel.

Button must have pitted early because all of a sudden, I have Vettel 7+ seconds behind my back.  I wished my engineer could tell me how Button was doing with his new tires.  Was he gaining lap time against me?  Should I pit early in order to cover my position?  Talk to me boss!

By the time I pitted for the prime tires and rejoined the track, I was at P10.  I dialed the fuel mix to 3 and overtook one car in front that was on option.  2 laps later when all the front runners made their schedule pit stops, I was back in P1 with Hamilton behind me.

What happened to Button?  Maybe AI cars do not cheat after all.

The gap with Hamilton was comfortable so I did not need to push too hard.  To my utter surprise, I was able to keep to the track on the entire race of 13 laps, without even the need for a flashback (a time rewind to correct mistakes).  Driving a Toro Rosso definitely feels different from, say, a HRT or a Caterham.  The car just does not turn when I want it to.  I have to come off the throttle early, feel the gear’s downshift, and gently apply gas.

The real excitement was at the last lap, I heard thunder rolling from the outside.  Lightning is known to cut off my Internet connection and at time, cause power trip.  I was praying hard that my PS3 would not get turned off before my progress was saved.

Woot!  I took the checker flag at P1.  A total race time of 20 minutes 23.200 seconds (best lap time was 1.30.771).  Hamilton was 12.743 seconds behind me and Rosberg took the last podium position.

Most importantly, Button was at P5.

Career – Singapore

I am a Singaporean.  So this track has a special place to my heart.  Indeed, this circuit has so many turns that some sequences would make me dizzy.  It is a challenging track.  There are walls everywhere, like in Monaco.  But the streets are not as narrow as Monaco’s.  Because there are so many chicanes, it is rather easy to cut too deep and trip on one of them.  F1 drivers dislike Turn 10, the Singapore Sling.  I agree wholeheartedly.  In my mind, it is one of the few death traps.  I could glide through it.  Most of the time I am OK.  But when I am not, the car ends up bad.  I hate leaving things to luck.

Another death trap is Turn 9.  Carry too much speed and my car would smash right onto the barrier.  It is hard to judge most of the time and when I discover that there is not enough space, very often it is too late.

I like sector 3.  These are new roads made for racing.  The flow through Turn 22 and 23 is excellent.

Now, because I live in the city and have driven on these roads in real life, I find it rather easy to memorize the turns.  I can understand why Singaporean circuit is one of the least favorite tracks in game.  So many walls, so many turns.  For me though, I love the graphical representation of the track.  One time, I slowed the car to 40 kph so that my family could marvel at the buildings and the trees, the marina and the road markings.

Like the Monza track, I practiced this one hard on Time Trial mode.  Time Trial is an excellent way to identify problem areas and to better yourself.  Fuel load, tire wear, engine and tire temperature are taken out of the equation.  On the road, there are only two cars.  Yours and a ghost car that represents your personal best.  You can shoot through a ghost car.  No overtaking is required.  By observing the sector-by-sector timing comparison as well as when the overtaking takes place, you know where you can push harder and where you should keep it tidy.

Back to the race weekend, the AI cars seem a bit weak.  Maybe I have come well prepared.  The gap on practice session between my car and the car behind was be as high as 8.477 seconds.  And guess who was on P2?  My rival, Button.

I suppose for a track like Singapore, Codemasters the game developer has to take into consideration that there is a wider variant in terms of individual player’s performance.  Hence the weaker AI cars.  Or perhaps Codemasters intends for us to love the track a little bit more.

On practice, I did a 1.50.290.  The main problem I face was extreme tire wear.  Perhaps I pushed the car too hard and that was a concern.  Prime tires usually last for 2 stints but I had to pit in earlier than usual and put on the option tires.  The option tires were even worse.  Once the Pirelli tires expire – like in real life – the tire performance falls off the cliff.  There is no grip or whatsoever.

Being confident that I would qualify well, I put in one lap for each round. 1.51.055, 1.50.157, and 1.50.456 respectively for each of the three rounds.  Hamilton was 5.872 seconds behind me and he took P2.  Alonso was on P3.

On race day, I was genuinely worried about tire wear.  So I started easy having tire management in mind.  Pulled away from the cars behind using KERS on start-finish line, the gap was gradually opened.  I was running at 25% race.  That translates to 15 laps.  Lap 7, I pitted for the prime tires.  Normally when I came out of the pit, I would be behind the front runners yet to pit.  Not this time.  The gap was large enough to absorb the pit stop.  Boy, that felt good as I rejoined on P1.

I thought the rest of the race would be uneventful.  Lap 11 onward, I got a chance to overtake trains of black markers.  I even got a taste of the DRS zone.  Last 3 laps, the rain has started.  Uh-oh.  The track was getting a little more slippery and my tires were getting a little more worn out.  There were heaps of black markers in front of me.  I nursed the car and finished the race after 29 minutes and 4.320 seconds with a best lap time of 1.52.814.

Besides taking P1, I have also unlocked the Domination PS3 trophy by setting the fastest lap in all sessions through the race weekend.  Hamilton was on P2, 1.16.577 minutes behind me.  Webber was on P3 while my rival Button was on P8.

Another 25 championship points for Toro Rosso and me.  I don’t think I can win this season against Hamilton.  My goal is to beat Alonso and finish 2nd.

Career – Japan

Japan, ah.  Finally I got a taste of Suzuka.  It is the only F1 circuit that is crisscrossed.  That means first you start clockwise, then flip to anti-clockwise.  On third stint, flip back to clockwise.  Suzuka has a humbling opening sector too.  Entering Turn 1 with that long straight going down-slope to First Curve, there is a tendency to carry too much speed and land onto the gravel.  “S” Curves and Dunlop Curve are a series of S-shaped up-slope chicanes that test one’s confidence in holding the full throttle while not leaving the track.  There are 5 turns in total.  Amazing stuff.

Turn 8 and 9 are beautiful.  They remind me of Italy’s Curva di Lesmo but are less punishing.  It is a down-slope drive and the design of the angle is perfect in flowing through to the 90-degree turn.  Depending on the car’s setup and how steady the steering is, it is possible to drive through Turn 12 with DRS wing open.  Then comes the Spoon Curve whereby it is crucial to get it right so as to build momentum into yet another long straight up the slope.  Because …

… up ahead is the famous 130R.

130R is breathtaking.  It is perhaps the highest speed corner in F1.  Entering 130R at top speed, when judged right, it is possible to take the turn with full throttle, leaving the car on 7th gear.

Entering the race weekend, I have already won 4 races straight.  How is it possible?  The Toro Rosso car must have made a difference compared to HRT.  Later, I discovered that R&D results are bound to the player, and not the car team (strange eh?).  That may have made the car more competitive.  And who knows?  My driving skill may have improved over that many races and that many laps?

Edit: There is a R&D bug and unfortunately, I keep on repeating the same test throughout the season and have received no upgrade parts. Hence, I could safely remove R&D advantage out of the equation.

Practice day is always a day for a reality check.  My best lap time was 1.43.310, which was 2.681 seconds ahead of Hamilton.  I must say, Hamilton was on fire going after me throughout the race weekend.  In my alternative universe, he is leading the scoreboard by a mile.  Q1, Q2, and Q3, I did 1.43.542, 1.42.363, and 1.41.202 respectively.  Hamilton was on P2 and the gaps were 1.120 seconds, 1.917 seconds, and 3.037 seconds.  In retrospect, I should have done a single lap in Q3 and saved the tires for the race day.  But I saw my timing tumbled by a second after 130R.  I could not resist not to further stamp my authority onto this track.  I mean, this could well be once in a lifetime opportunity for, who knows, I may tune up the game’s difficulty level in the next season.

One point to note though is that Q2 was rather frustrating for me.  The traffic was horrible.  I could try to build a gap between the cars in front and I like F1 drivers do.  But once I hit First Curve, I was often greeted by a train of cars entering the circuit for a warm-up lap.  It is near impossible to overtake on “S” Curves without compromising too much on the racing line.

Race day I started on pole and the first part of the race was rather uneventful.  First few laps with heavy fuel load, the car felt slow.  To open up the gap and burn some fuel, I dialed to fuel mix 3 straight the way.  I did not think I would need the extra fuel to defend my position later in this race.

The excitement came when I pitted on lap 5.  At pit exit, there were heaps of cars entering First Curve.  I was in no mood to stuck behind the slower cars and crawl through “S” Curves.  So I burned some KERS trying to overtake using my cold prime tires.  Whoa, that was risky.  Up ahead, one of the Red Bull cars lost control and parked in the middle of the road.  I had to brake heavy and dashed to the right in order to avoid a collision.  Some cars behind me were not so fortunate.  Yellow flag was out, briefly.

I did not know when Alonso overtook Hamilton.  I took the checker flag at P1.  Alonso was on P2 (30.593 seconds behind) and Hamilton P3.  The race ended after 23 minutes 11.978 seconds.  My best lap time was 1.43.389.  I reckon if I was to start on prime, I might have a better record.

From the championship point of view, Hamilton has 281 points.  Alonso has 177 and as for me, 171. 110 points behind Hamilton.  With 5 more races to go, I am merely delaying the inevitable.

Career – Korea

To recap, I have picked Button from the McLaren team as my rival.  If I can beat him in 7 races, I get to take his seat on the Brazilian GP.  I did not think I could even remotely do it.  But Toro Rosso has been kind to me.  While the car seems less drivable than my old HRT, it does have the performance.  And KERS.  Korea was my 4th race against Button, my chance to win the Rival Challenge.

The Korea track is a rather forgiving track.  Plenty of runoff areas (not that you would runoff that often anyway).  It is not hard to master.  Sector one has three long straights.  Sector two starts with three very slow turns that can put me to sleep.  Then a slightly curved straight building up to a few exciting, albeit easy curves.  Just when I am looking for a climax, I am hit by a slow Turn 10 (duh!) and a series of S-shaped curves that are as entertaining as the “S” Curves in Japan.  Instead of 5, there are 8!  My problem with these sorts of curves is that with an auto-gearbox, the constant gear hunting kills me.  But when done right, you can really feel the momentum carried forward to another turn, and another turn.

Until the whole process repeats again.

Yet another dry weekend, I clocked a lap time of 1.47.942 during practice session, 6.822 seconds ahead of Button who was on P2.  The tire wear was alarming.  It was as bad as the Singapore track.  I do not understand why.  Perhaps I drive too aggressively.

Q1, I did a 1.48.862 on prime tires with one hot lap.  Hamilton was 3.689 seconds behind me taking P2.  Since the gap looked good, on Q2, I used the scrubbed tires from Q1.  P1 with a slightly worse lap time of 1.49.234.  I tried another round but could not improve.  Hamilton was 3.186 seconds slower than me and I was happy.

Q3, I have a new strategy.  I put on brand new option tires, clocked in one hot lap (a rather disappointing 1.48.627), and slowed down considerably for my in-lap.  I wanted to save my tires for the race day.  Still, I was 3.979 seconds faster than Hamilton.  Alonso was on P3.

I think I can now relate to Vettel.  Since the car is competitive, all I need is to qualified pole and on race day, run away from the cars behind me and focus on opening gaps.  I did exactly that in Korean GP.

My rival challenge must have motivated Button a great deal.  Because on the opening lap, he shot up from P6, gained 4 positions, and onto P2.  Hamilton dropped further down in the field and I was happy for a moment.  Because he is my world championship rival.

By the time I pitted, I have opened up nearly half a minute gap with Button.  I rejoined at P1 and watched intensively on how the race unfolded at the back.

Somehow, Hamilton managed to pass Alonso.  No!  3 laps left, he was within 1 second behind Button.  Oops.  That was bad news for me.  Onto the last lap, Hamilton was within 0.6 second.  When I took the checker flag, the gap between Button and Hamilton was reduced to 0.4 second.

The bad news is, Hamilton took P2.  The good news is, I will drive a McLaren in Brazil.  Entertainingly so, I enjoyed overtaking two trains of black markers on this race.

The Korean race ended after 26 minutes 11.062 seconds (best lap time was 1.49.428).  Hamilton was 1 minute 5.075 seconds behind me.  Button took P3.  At the podium, I was sandwiched by two McLaren drivers.

From the championship’s perspective, Hamilton is leading with 299 points.  I am promoted to a second position with 196 points.  And Alonso is at 189.

A deficit of 103 points with 4 more races to go, the world championship of season one goes to Hamilton!

Career – India

I have practiced very hard on the India track. Because it is really hard.  No wonder the F1 drivers love this track.  It has good elevation and Turn 10 and 11 demand lots of concentration.

Sector 1 is cake, long straights and simple turns.  Sector 2 is probably one of the hardest sectors I have experience.  It is hard to judge how much speed I can get away with when tackling Turn 5, 6, and 7. The turns are tight.  Precision in staying with the racing line is a must.  The loop at Turn 10/11 is unique.  If my speed is too low, I would go off the track to the right.  If my speed is too high, left I would go.  If I am unable to tuck in at the exit of Turn 11, that would mess up my Turn 12.

Sector 3 is not easy either.  I am always terrible in 90-degree turns.  It is so easy to exit Turn 13 with too low a speed (1st gear duh).  It is also a challenge to hold 3rd gear at Turn 15.  All in all, I am experiencing a lot of understeering problem in this circuit.  The car just wouldn’t turn where I want it to.  Tire wear is exceptionally high on this circuit as well.

By right, I did not need to race that hard for the remaining of the season.  World championship hope is gone.  Rival challenge is a success.  I do wish to match Ascari and Schumacher’s 7 consecutive wins record though.

Besides, India circuit is fun, albeit hard.  The race ended after 25 minutes 2.668 seconds (best lap time was 1.36.791).  Rain started to fall on the last two laps.  Fortunately, I took the checker flag on dry tires, without an extra pit stop. P1.

Practice: P1 1.34.865 (+4.474 Grosjean)

Q1: P1 1.37.205 (+1.569 Di Resta) [prime]
Q2: P1 1.35.461 (+2.497 Button) [scrubbed prime]
Q3: P1 1.34.705 (+2.724 Alonso) [option]

Race: P1 (+38.554 Alonso at P2, Webber at P3)

Career – Abu Dhabi

Yas Marina track in Abu Dhabi is beautiful.  The changing artificial light from the surrounding buildings, the twilight as the race enters into evening hours, the reflection of light upon the car, the glaring of the setting sun – all and more that makes this track unique.

I have done this track numerous times during the Young Drivers’ Test evaluation.  It is a pretty technical circuit.  But once I memorize the turns and with anticipation, it is not that hard.  I discover that I can keep the DRS wing opened through Turn 15 and 16.  That is neat.  It is easy to overshot on Turn 19.  The rest of the turns have a nice speed build up to the start-finish line.  Yas Marina is enjoyable, once I master it.

I do not know if there is rain in Abu Dhabi.  Reading Wikipedia, it does not seem so.  Sandstorms maybe.  But here in F1 2012 the video game, anything can happen.  Practice day started with heavy rain, in a desert.  The weather dried up on second stint.  I stayed out through the 1 hour practice.  The twilight at dusk was captivating.  Unfortunately, the race only lasted 26 minutes 41.650 seconds.  I did not get to see the sky turned into darkness on race day.  Nevertheless, I have thoroughly enjoyed the race.  Took the checker flag at P1 with a gap of 1 minute 11.772 seconds in front of Hamilton.  Vettel took the last spot on the podium.

Practice: P1 1.50.907 (+5.742 Vettel)

Q1: P1 1.51.500 (+4.436 Button) [prime]
Q2: P1 1.49.911 (+5.046 Hamilton) [option]
Q3: P1 1.50.293 (+3.475 Vettel) [option]

Best lap time on race day: 1.51.682

Career – United States

Thanks to my technicians at Toro Rosso (a.k.a. PS3 bug), I nearly lost the race.  But I will get to that a little bit later.  Now is time to sing praises for this brand new Austin circuit to be debuted next weekend.

Austin track is breathtaking.  You start at the back of a long straight going up the hill.  At the top, a tight hairpin drops the speed to low before the opening sequence of a series of S-shaped chicanes that resembles the S-Curves in Japan.  6 turns in total while climbing uphill before opening up to Turn 9.  If the exit angle of Turn 8 is not optimal, Turn 9 would be a disaster.  Passing Turn 10 is a downhill drive to yet another tight hairpin before the longest straight in this circuit.  Turn 13 through 15 are likely to be demanding to the tires.  You can really feel the lack of grip with worn tires.

The half-circle Turn 16 through 18 going downhill is exhilarating.  Flat out on the throttle with the steering on max, the space is just nice to swing the car into the 90-degree Turn 19 before the closing Turn 20.  What a fun track to drive.  There seems to be enough overtaking opportunities.  While the track is generously wide, overtaking off the racing line does not seem to be easy.  Because it hurts the exit speed too much.

US race was meant to be my last race with Toro Rosso (yet another PS3 bug to be covered in the next race).  On race day, I started on pole with I thought a set of near pristine option tires that I have used for one hot lap in Q3.  Five lights out and I immediately noticed something abnormal.  I had no grip.  I burned all my KERS and still, Alonso cut into the chicane from my left, blocking me from the racing line.  In order to avoid an accident, I ran a little wide.  Instantly, the two Red Bull drivers Vettel and Webber overtook me from left and right!  Wow, something was definitely not right.  I have been taking it easy for the past few races and this race did not go as what I have anticipated.

Through gusty aggressive drive, I put the two bulls behind me.  But I was still not close enough to take down Alonso.  Exit Turn 11 and onto the long straight, I tailgated the Ferrari as closely as I could, dialed the fuel mix to 3.  I out-braked Alonso at Turn 12 and took back the lead.  Turn 13 through 15 were surprisingly slippery.  I nearly lost control of the car.  What happened?!

Was it because (1) it was heavy rain the day before during qualifying rounds and the track was still wet, (2) my technician has mistakenly fitted a set of worn option tires during Q3 (i.e. PS3 bug), or (3) rival team has sabotaged my tires overnight (i.e. magic)?

I had no idea.  My tires were all worn.  On second tap, I lost control of the car at several spots and it was really hard to keep the car on the road.  I had to drive really slowly through some of the chicanes.  Still, that did not always help.  My tires had no grip.

By lap 6 of 14, I dived into the pit for a – I hoped – brand new prime tires.  I rejoined at P4, nearly got into an accident with Grosjean on the right.  I burned some of the KERS just to got pass him.  OK.  The new tires felt great.  I was back in the game.  In front, was Massa.  Before I got a chance to hunt him down, he dived into the pit.  And then, I had Button in front at P1 on option, still yet to make his pit stop.  At the same spot I overtook Alonso on lap 1, I shot pass Button.  It was P1 all the way to the checker flag.

Gosh.  What a hard earned win.  The race ended after 26 minutes 18.128 seconds.  Vettel took P2 with a 40.337 seconds gap, followed by Webber.

Practice: P1 1.46.372 (+6.185 Hamilton)

Q1: P1 1.46.615 (+5.231 Maldonado) [prime]
Q2: P1 1.45.170 (+5.635 Hamilton) [scrubbed prime]
Q3: P1 1.47.348 (+3.544 Alonso) [option]

Best lap time on race day: 1.47.007.

Career – Brazil

OK.  Yet another PS3 bug, or shall I say, in the world of virtual F1, anything is possible.

I have beaten Button in my first season’s rival challenge.  McLaren has written an email to me saying how excited they are to welcome my arrival in Brazil.  In the past 7 races, I worked so hard to see this happens.  But it did not happen.  McLaren must have forgotten that we had a deal.  Button might have pulled out more sponsors than I do.  Ah, whatever.  I am still with Toro Rosso and to be honest, Toro Rosso has been really kind to me.  I have an excellent car to drive and in all my races with STR, I have taken home the win.  Any sane F1 driver would have stayed with Toro Rosso.  Any smart tier-1 car teams would want me as their driver.  I am not logical.  Neither is the rather buggy PS3 game.

While I enjoy qualifying pole and keep winning races, I must say, the most thrilling fun was back in the beginning of my rookie season, when I was driving for HRT.  My heart raced.  Very often, my hands would sweat so much that I could not even control the car.  It was chasing dreams, not seeing an inevitable victory to be unfolded.  After that little episode in USA whereby my technicians screwed up my tires (more like Codemasters has screwed up on the development of the game), the first stint of the race was extraordinarily exciting.  I wanted that feeling.  So, for the Brazil race, which I have nothing to lose, not even that promised McLaren seat to gain, I took part in the practice session without any prior experience with the track.

The Brazil track is surprisingly easy to drive.  Very thrilling on such a short circuit.  The only challenging bit – for me – is Curva do Laranjinha through Pinheirinho.  Control of the throttle and the steering precision at the hairpin is the key.  The build up from Turn 13 through 14 and 15 and finally to the long straight is exhilarating.  You can easily hit the rev limiter before you even hit the start-finish line.

On race weekend, I was upbeat after the practice session.  I was new to this track and have done OK.  On Q3, after putting in a hot lap, I wanted to call it a day.  But on my 2nd lap, after seeing that I have shaven close to 1 second to my Q2 timing, the F1 racing spirit in me was ignited.  I further knocked my 1st lap timing down by a full second.  Man, I felt good.

The race ended after 24 minutes 3.994 seconds.  Took the checker flag at P1, Hamilton was 37.965 seconds behind me, followed by Vettel.

That is the end of my season 1 career.  11 wins and 11 pole positions.  A total of 296 championship points putting me #2 in the scoreboard sandwiched between Hamilton and Alonso.  At the end of the race, the game asked if I wish to advance to season 2.  Why not?

And then Christmas has arrived.  I am indeed starting with McLaren, as their number 1 driver with Hamilton – one of my favorite drivers in F1 – as my teammate.  I have a good feel that we will win the constructor championship in season 2.  Hamilton, I am counting on you!

Practice: P1 1.17.937 (+2.347 Button)

Q1: P1 1.18.255 (+1.244 Di Resta) [prime]
Q2: P1 1.17.729 (+0.914 Vettel) [scrubbed prime]
Q3: P1 1.16.713 (+1.967 Ham) [option]

Best lap time on race day: 1.18.216

 

Final Fantasy XIII-2: The First Eight Hours

In the opening scene of Final Fantasy XIII-2, when protagonist of the previous episode Lightning rode in her new divine outfit carrying a silver shiny shield, I was in tears.  I could not breath and my emotion ran high.  This is the pinnacle of video gaming when audience are fully immersed into the story, or rather, a series of stories.  International fans have played through part one.  We were moved and we want more.  For a moment, perhaps a brief moment, we could forgive and forget how the game developer Square Enix destroys the franchise by releasing the disastrous Final Fantasy XIV Online.  So, time for a rewind.  We move forward from episode thirteen to episode fourteen and now back to thirteen part two.

I sincerely hope that the genre Japanese Role Playing Game remains as it is.  Trying to please the West too much may lose this genre’s unique flavor – beautiful animation, deep dialogues, and wild imagination in all possible dimensions.  Not to say that I do not enjoy Western RPG.  I do.  But the two should have distinct flavors.

In some ways though, the inevitable influence is there.  This new installment has been improved upon based on international fans’ feedback.  The story is less linear.  Many cut scenes you could choose not to trigger if you prefer action to sit back and enjoy a good anime clip.  Even the cinematic clips now demand your full attention.  Some of these moments play like action games such as God of War III.  The English version of Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3) is a new game released last week and I have spent eight hours so far with it.  Two chapters I have completed.  Barely scratching the surface, for sure.  If you have played or heard of the previous installment and wish to know what improvements or changes have been made, look no further.  Here is a breakdown for you.  I will write another post once I arrive at the next milestone.

Does Time Travel Make the Game Less Linear?

What a coincident that the two games – FF13-2 and WoW – use the same concept of time traveling in roughly the same development period.  Both looks upon end time on how the future may have been and both stories send ripples to the worlds by allowing the heroes to change the events in the past.  In FF13-2, Lightning the new Goddess of Warrior reined over a mystery world called Valhalla, which seems to be constantly under siege by evil forces.  Noel, the last of the humanity, goes through the time portal hoping to change the past, meets Lightning.  Lightning sends him back to the past to find her sister Serah.  In Serah‘s reality, Lightning has disappeared after the fall of Cocoon.  In the previous episode, it was Lightning who searches for her sister.  In this episode, it is the other way round

In FF13, we pretty much follow a linear story that is filled with lengthy cut scenes.  In between the thirteen chapters, there is an open world called Gran Pulse for us to quest and grind.  In FF13-2, each chapter is separated in time and place.  There is a main story that we can go back and forth.  And there are branches to other side stories too.  It may appear that there are choices to be made.  We get to decide how the story is consumed.

Another point to note is that unlike FF13, FF13-2’s map has more options for exploration.  You could of course head from one story trigger to another.  Or you could spend some time to explore and be rewarded with extra items and more side quests.

Where are the Quests?

It seems to me that in FF13-2, we are encouraged to talk to people who are wandering around the area.  It gives you a good sense of where the story is heading.  More importantly, some are quest givers who you would not have known had you not talked to them.  This is old school.  We are so used to newer role playing games that feed us with the question marks on top of the quest givers.  In a strange way, I enjoy this aspect of exploration.

Where are the Monsters?

Vanished.  You hear right.  Unlike FF13 and other role playing games, the monsters in FF13-2 are invisible.  They ambush you instead.  As you walk, all of a sudden, the monsters may appear.  You then have a few second to turn around, move to the monsters, and attempt to hit them before they sense you.  That is the new Preemptive Strike mechanism.  If you remember FF13, this mechanic requires you to go behind a moving monster, which can be a bit frustrating.  I quite like this new mechanism in FF13-2.  Also, it seems more interesting not to see a world populated with groups of monsters that pace around a fix location.

Thank God there are breadcrumbs on the mini map.  I would have been disoriented by the change in direction, all the time.

Where are the Other Members?

Gone.  That’s correct.  Gone are the days when we get to pick which main characters we wish to bring along for a party of three.  In FF13-2, we have Serah.  And we have Noel.  In FF13, from the role playing perspective, if we do not like certain characters, no problem.  We can swap them out.  Not so for this new episode.  We better love Serah and Noel because we are stuck with these two.

I do not think Serah has the well loved character of Lightning.  She does not have the ever so positive personality of Vanille either. As for Noel, he is not as demanding as Hope (phew).  But he does not have the strong personality as Serah‘s now disappeared boyfriend Snow.  Maybe it is still early in the game.  I am hoping to see more from the duo.

Now, to compensate for the lack of playable main characters, we can tame monsters.  Almost every monster out there can be tamed and can join the party.  Each monster is preassigned with one role.  They can be leveled up with raw materials, very much like how weapons in FF13 can be upgraded.  The whole monster management business is in fact pretty complex.  You will need a good guidebook to take you through.  I happen to use one (see the advertisement below).

What the Mog?

Mog is a stuffed toy that flies.  A creature sent by Lightning to Serah through Noel.  And Mog is now Serah‘s companion.  Its job (so far) is to hunt for near invisible items.  Yes, keep your eyes wide opened when playing FF13-2 and look out for those near invisible objects.

How cute is the Mog?  Check out the trailer below.

Action Cinematic and Dialogue Choices

Cinematic clips now require us to pay attention on the screen and press a combination of control buttons.  Very much like Heavy Rain.  Failing to execute the combo will lose extra rewards.  However, you will be rewarded with an alternative clip.  The end result is the same (I think).

This same action feature also becomes a must during battle, when your party’s controlled monster charges up a full bar of Feral Link.

Some dialogues now have four options.  I am unsure if it matters which option I pick.  It plays a different clip though.  Long time ago, I debated on why a linear game may not be bad because we get to see all the contents in one run.  Now, we may need to play it multiple times to see the different dialogue clips.  If you are a completionist, that is.

Paradigms, Roles, and Crystarium

The concept of paradigms and roles do not change much, although FF13-2 seems to reward us for shifting paradigms often during battle (ATB fully charged every other turn when shifted to another paradigm).  Crystarium has undergone a revamp.  Instead of the three dimensional “talent tree” that gives you options of which non-mandatory point to pick, FF13-2 flattens the entire Crystarium into one linear scale.  We now pick which role we level.  Crystarium expands once we reach a certain cumulative level and allows us to pick a bonus (such as ATB+1 or a new role).  It does not affect me too much.  Perhaps simplification is good, much like what WoW is going to do with the talent tree in Mists of Pandaria.

Optimization of Serah and Noel‘s Crystarium is not easy.  I use a guidebook that comes with tables and charts.  I do not think I have time to play a second run in near future.  So I prefer to do it right on first try.

Do We Need to Grind?

I don’t mind grinding.  But I know some do.  If you don’t read the guidebook and play the game as you like, you would probably grind less.  I follow the guidebook’s recommendation to tame certain monsters.  And taming takes time because not every battle yields a crystal.  I ended up going back and forth trying to encounter a particular type of monster and hope to tame one.

This takes time.  But I am not complaining (yet) because I am rewarded with in-game currency and raw materials that can be used to level up the tamed monster.

A Guidebook, Recommended?

I bought the official FF13 guidebook after I have finished the game.  I wish I had one during my initial play through.  This time, I invested on the official FF13-2 guidebook upfront.  I have the Collector’s Edition.  It is beautifully bound and contains tons of useful information presented in eye pleasing colored format.  To get the best out of the game, I would strongly recommend you to get the official guidebook.

Strongly recommended.

Too Long Didn’t Read

Are you a fan?  If you are, buy FF13-2 and play.  You won’t regret it.  The changes are mostly good.  It still plays like the game you have adored a year ago.  Be ready to commit time if you wish to see every aspect of it.

Chinese New Year TV Marathon – Seeker, Confessor, Shu Qi, Ayumi, Alice, And More

Contrary to everyone’s belief, Cynthia and I did not spend 4 days in front of our computers playing our favorite online game.  We have hardly touched that game during this holiday.  Ha!  It is for the love of Chinese tradition (hard to explain so we shall leave it there).  It is a rare opportunity to take a break from the game.  And the main reason is because Cynthia has envisaged this holiday to be a TV marathon.  She has magically transformed me into a coach potato for four full days.  Water and snacks were within an arm’s length.  We ate at our sofa every day.  And the only time we moved out of the coach was to answer the call of nature.  She hypnotized me using modern technology.  Some of what we consumed was junks, as in most things that come out from that box.  Others though are worth mentioning.

Legend of the Seeker (Season One)

To be totally honest, what initially attracted me to this TV series was the rather, erm shall I say, revealing medieval clothing that accentuates the beauty of a female body.  Some of the slow motion scenes can really pop my eyes, my heart, and what not.  How fortunate are the men in the old days.  I also find the costume and backdrop pretty authentic, especially since I am a huge fan of fantasy computer games.  When I paid better attention to the story and tried not to be distracted by the eye candies and on-screen chemistry, it is pretty faithful to the genre of fantasy.  Love, friendship, betrayal, sacrifice, good and evil, heroes and cowards, battles, sorcery, quests and more quests, difficult decisions and more love – all checked.  There are some unique hooks that I don’t often find in other fantasy titles.  Sharing more here you may find me insane, as though I am talking to myself.  So I shall leave it here.  We have consumed 5 discs worth of entertainment – the entire season one – in 4 days.  Monsters, we are!

Now, why on earth would they drop the franchise after a merely two seasons of broadcast?  Save the Seeker.  Please.

A Beautiful Life (不再讓你孤單)

At home, we have a rather good collection of DVD or Blu-ray, most are not opened.  I always have this urge to buy and collect.  But I seldom have the time to watch them.  During this holiday, I tried to look for a happy movie suitable for the occasion.  My eyes stopped at Shu Qi.  It is a Chinese movie.  Both titles – English and Chinese – sound positive.  So I jammed the disc into our player, sat back, and clicked play.  Cynthia has started crying way before the movie ended.  I would say “A Beautiful Life” is an art house type of movie, an emotional one.  During the interview, Shu Qi mentioned that making this movie was harder than a martial art one.  Some clips can last as long as 10 minutes, continuously.  Imagine having to do several retakes.  I pity the cameraman who carried that ninety pounds monster.

It is a rather beautiful movie.  A movie about love in difficult circumstances.  What some may see as handicap, in the eyes of the loved ones, they are unique.  It is a movie about finding happiness.  Quite an inspiring one I must say.  Good acting.  Two thumbs up.

Ayumi Hamasaki Countdown Live 2010-2011 A: Do It Again

After a while, I begin to lose track of how many Ayumi concerts I have watched on TV.  Each year, she releases one tour recording and one countdown recording.  I can tell each tour recording by theme.  But I am often confused by the countdown releases.  At the end of each year, Ayumi hosts a concert for the fans.  Usually the song set is pretty mellow in the start.  Then there is a buildup to the countdown and thereafter, you can almost guess what songs she is going to play.  Upbeat, rather happy.  Unlike the tour performance, the song choice for the countdown concert often gears towards her older classic – which is good because it is different from the tour recording.  But that also means that all the countdown recordings are somewhat the same – hence the confusion.  If not for the beautiful duet “Dream On”, I would not have known if I have already watched it some time in the past.  How come “Dream On” has not been released in any album?  How come there is no duet in any of Ayumi’s album?  I have no idea.  One thing for sure though.  Ayumi is single, and available again.

The stage is pretty unique for this countdown concert.  There are a few concentric pieces that rotate and elevate.  And Ayumi has put the stage right in the middle of the stadium.  I thought it is a pretty good design.

Alice: Madness Returns

“Alice” is neither a movie nor a TV series.  It glued me in front of the TV nonetheless.  I am a big fan of Alice in Wonderland.  This is a game adaptation.  A second one indeed.  I bought the PS3 version, at a discount.

Recently, I read an article on how game developers dread the review scene.  If a game is poorly reviewed, or even at lukewarm, that turns gamers away from buying it.  Thousands and millions of dollar of investment go into the drain.  Years of development go along with that.  It is a brutal scene.  This game “Alice: Madness Returns” has not been kindly reviewed.  I hesitated during its release, have forgotten about it for a long time, then I saw the rather attractive price tag a few days ago.  I have always enjoyed playing a game as a heroine.  This version of Alice wields a Vorpal sword (you have to ask Lewis Carroll what that is) and lives in a real dark and twisted world.  Despite the lukewarm review, I have decided to give it a try.  This game is not perfect.  I will probably write a more detail account of my adventure with Alice in the future.  However, from what I have experienced so far, I like it.

God Of War III – “You Are Dead”

Picture this.  I would be siting on the sofa manhandling my gaming controller with such vengeance and ferocity; Cynthia would be siting on the floor reading newspapers or doing her own thing.  Often when she looked at our plasma television, she would see the words in font size one million that said: You are dead.  Cynthia would look at me in puzzlement, on every occasion, and asked, “What kind of god are you?  You are dead again.”  Soon, query became mockery.  Too bad.  Cynthia was not at home when I smashed Zeus’s face until my plasma television was literally painted in blood.  What a vindication it would have been.

I was Kratos – a Spartan, a protagonist, and a demigod.  It just happens that I suck at action and platform type of game.  But with such a highly acclaiming rating, as a proud owner of a Sony PS3, I have got to give “God of War 3” a try.

The Story

Some say “God of War 3” has a story.  I am not so sure about that.  “Final Fantasy” has a story; “Heavy Rain” has a story; as for “God of War 3”, the story is merely taking down one god or titan after another till you face Zeus.  I have not played the previous installments and am a bit lost as the story develops.  I suppose this game would mean a lot more to those who know who is who and what is what.  Cut scenes are short and minimal (which could appeal to the mass public?) except the last set of cut scenes, which manage to tell a rather moving story.  But I was not attached to the characters.  I wanted to cry but I couldn’t.

Maybe “God of War 3” does have a good storyline, as an action game.  It does prompt me to research into Greek Mythology.  It is a typical story of a demigod against the titans and the gods of Olympus.  It is a journey from the Mount Olympus to Hell and back to Mount Olympus.  It can be epic, seeing from that angle.

The Sex

Sex sells.  And the sex episode in “God of War 3” could easily be the most artistically done, exceeding the “Mass Effect” or “Dragon Age” franchises.  Aphrodite – the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality – is beautifully rendered.  The action requires ‘participation’ using the game controller, which if your timing and accuracy is off, you could screw up the scene.  The Smith God – Hephaestus – who has fallen from the grace of Olympus, who is the husband of Aphrodite and creator of Pandora’s Box and Pandora herself, as the story goes, unable to be with Aphrodite.  That is why the goddess has to pleasure herself with two chamber maids.  And that is why you – Kratos – come into the picture.

The best part is, you can do it as many times as you like.

The Action

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of action.  Fighting against the humongous titans is insanely epic.  That involves quick thinking and good timing of special moves as prompted on screen.  Fighting against the bosses and special enemies is insanely frustrating.  This got me thinking.  Game designers could either repeat the similar encounters many times throughout the game (like “Final Fantasy” or “Dragon Age”) or create unique and difficult encounters that require some gamers to keep trying.  The third kind of action tests gamers’ reaction time and precision in executing platform type of maneuver.  Such as flying through a tunnel full of obstacles that have to be avoided.  The tolerance of error can be so low that it can be equally frustrating.

Fortunately, there are plenty of save points.  And there are plenty of auto-saves.  The game play is about 15 to 20 hours.  I have seen “You Are Dead” for close to 300 times at God level (average difficulty).  Yes, I am an idiot.

The Puzzle and Treasure

Most of the puzzles are straightforward.  Some can be pretty hard.  All the jumping and puzzle solving reminds me of “Tomb Raider”.  There are items to be collected within the game to upgrade Kratos’s ability.  Some require venturing a little bit out of the main path or line of sight.  Some require a special technique to retrieve their locations.  Some are rewarded as and when puzzles are solved.

Wait a Minute, This Game Reminds Me Of …

This game reminds me of “Tomb Raider”, “Portal”, and “Guitar Hero”.  “God Of War 3″ only has one main quest.  The weapon and item acquisition path is fixed by the storyline.  There is only one way to solve any given puzzle, with the same set of rewards.  Not that I am complaining.  Does it mean that “God of War 3” is linear?  (On the record, I am OK with linear games, whatever linear means.)

Most Memorable Moment?

Graphically, the game is pretty stunning (running at 720p) and the battle scenes are bloody and epic in scale.  The cut scene and the environment is still not as beautiful as “Final Fantasy” but I reckon it is better than many games out there.  The most memorable moment of the game, for me, is when Kratos teams up with Pandora.  I felt less ‘solo’ and more with a ‘purpose’.  Too bad, that moment is relatively short.  The entire game seems relatively short (between 15 to 20 hours).  Perhaps that is the norm for this genre?

Final Fantasy XIII Scores Very High In My Book

I have always said that Japanese’s imagination knows no bound.  And their commitment to production quality is truly an inspiration.  If I am to combine all the cut scenes from the game Final Fantasy XIII, it can easily be one beautifully made anime in full HD glory (1080p).  It takes me 80 hours to see the ending (still not completing the game yet) and I have lost track on how many and how long the cut scenes are.  Especially in the beginning, I could literally spend a few minutes playing the game and then here comes the cut scene.  It is long enough for me to make a cup of tea, finishing eating an apple, and wash my hands.  As the story unfolds, the gap between the cut scenes lengthens depending on how fast or slow you progress.

Quite a few friends of mine asked if FF13 is indeed linear.  To be frank, non-linear game does not mean that it is good.  Linear game does not mean that it is bad.  It is all about execution.  In terms of storyline, there is nothing you can do to change the outcome, unlike other games.  That also means that you do not need to play the game multiple times to see the complete set of sub-stories.  For FF13, you play it once and be totally immersed.  There is a fixed number of characters and gears you can develop,  But which ones to pick is entirely your decision based on your preferred strategy.  In fact, looking at the game play, the key feature that sets the game apart from the rest is that it has little to do with your reflex actions.  It is the strategy you deploy prior to each battle and the ability to think on your feet every 5 seconds or so during the battle.  The combat system is unique and has earned a lot of praises.  There is no need to mess around with the positioning of your characters during a battle and it does not require you to frantically press the buttons on your controller to beat the enemy.  At a macro level, you control the roles of your characters and switch them at one go by up to 5 defined sets created by you.  At a micro level, you can choose to execute a specific action for the character that you have a direct control with.  And because of the variety of enemies, you are forced to adopt a different strategy for each battle.  Be it as a different role set combination, or even a different set of characters and gears.

Another noticeable difference compares to other role playing games is that the enemies in FF13 do not level as your characters level.  You can go back and revisit your old foes that gave you a hard time and beat the crap out of them in seconds.  Or you may get trashed by some unknown enemies that are so powerful that in the early stage of the game, all you can do is to flee.  Because the enemies re-spawn, there is no shortage of action.  In later part of the game, you can explore the area in any direction you prefer.  Tackle the missions in any order you prefer.  Or if to see the ending is all you want, you could skip the side missions.

While the enemies do not level, at the end of each battle, there is a 5 stars rating system.  The more powerful you become, the target time goes down.  In another word, you still need to work hard for a 5 stars rating.  In some cases, it pays off to get that rating.  Some of you asked if there are a lot of grinding, like other role playing games.  I suppose the choice is yours.  But I find it rewarding to do a bit of grinding to get more powerful and to farm materials to improve the gears. 

Majorities of the battle are quite easy, I must say.  The boss fights from the main storyline are often long (like more than 10 to 15 minutes of intense thinking).  The boss fights from the side missions can be extremely hard.  Some of the tough battles you may take a defensive stance, sacrifice the 5 stars rating, and win.  Others will slab you with a doom counter if you are taking too long.  A doom counter is one that you must beat the boss in 3 minutes or there will be an instant death.  In short, there is no shortage of excitement.  Needless to say, some are so tough that you have to further develop your characters and return for another attempt later.

Judging FF13 from the Western standard, it may fall short a bit (it is after all a Japanese RPG).  But I happen to be thrilled by how beautiful the game is made – the colorful and unique environment, the memorable characters that are so easily to fall in love with, and the dramatic story development.  These days, it is hard to find a non-violence game that does not come with blood and gore and sex – like FF13.  If you wonder what the game play is like, here is a brief breakdown.

Part One – Stories And More Stories

In the first part of the game, you do not get to choose whose is or are in your team.  It depends on how the story unfolds.  There are lots of cut scenes.  The combat system progressively gets more complex, a good learning curve that I like.  Some comment that this part is too linear.  I happen to like the fact that I am forced to learn how to cope with different characters and different team composition.  In FF13, all the characters have different strengths and weaknesses.  Part one took me about 30 hours to complete.  It also accounts for the story of the 13 days prior to where you first started the game.

Part Two – Open Side Missions

Once you reach Gran Pulse, you get to venture to different parts of the map.  As you complete side missions, portals are open to aid you in warping to a different location in the map.  In this part, you also get to pick your team composition.  You do not have to complete all the side missions.  But they are rewarding.  It did not feel like grinding to me, although I have to pass the same area multiple times.  There is always something to be discovered.

Part Three – Head to Chapter 13

FF13 is divided into 13 chapters.  After Gran Pulse, you can do one chapter and return to do more open area exploration and complete more side missions.  The last two chapters can get pretty hard.  That is where the experience (and confidence) you gather while doing the side missions pays off.  Personally I love the story of FF13, although I must admit that I do not quite understand the logic of the Japanese.

Part Four – Open End Game Missions

This is where I am at right now.  After the final boss of the main storyline is beaten, after the story is concluded, I am brought back to the save point right before the final boss.  The difference is that I can now further develop my characters.  There are 64 missions in total.  Quite a number of them are designed for the end game.  Missions can be retaken if getting a 5 stars rating is what you are aiming for.  Or just for the fun of it.

Talking about save points, another good thing about FF13 (compares to other JRPG I read) is that there are tons of save points.  You can pick up the controller, play for 10 minutes or so, stop and do something else in real life.  I find that very useful.

So You Want A Final Fantasy XIII “Growth Egg” As Early As End Of Chapter 11?! Yes You Can!

Arguably one of the most important items to obtain in Final Fantasy 13, “Growth Egg” doubles the Crystogen Points (or experience points) you earn that are needed for your character development.  Who wouldn’t want it as soon as possible?  To obtain a “Growth Egg”, you need to complete a class A mission that is opened for you at the end of chapter 11.  It is a very hard mission and I reckon it is designed as an end game activity.  But if an average gamer (me!) can do it, there is a high chance that you can too!  Here is how I made it, not without blood and sweat.  And in the mist of it, I have obtained a 5-star rating and unlocked the “Limit Breaker” trophy or achievement.  That is a 100,000+ damage in one shot!

Prerequisite

After the final boss in Chapter 11, instead of moving forward and trigger Chapter 12, move backward and obtain Mission 55 “Can’t We All Just Get Along” from the rooftop of a deserted school.  I chanced upon this because I have missed out one of the components to repair Vanille’s toy (another pretty rewarding thing to do).  If you need a guide to obtain that mission, click here.

Key Strategy

For this class A mission, you have to face a very tough boss called Neochu that can take down casters with one shot.  And it has quite a few hyperactive adds called Picochus that hit very hard, very fast.  The encounter is very much like its little brother nearby (which I hope you have tried).  Take down the boss first, and then worry about the adds later.  To do that, you will need Vanille (hence picture above!).

Battle Team Setup

Interestingly, Neochu is not immune to Death spell.  So the key is to have Vanille picking up that ability (under Saboteur role) after the expansion of Crystarium at the end of Chapter 11.  To have a better chance to pull off this debuff strategy, upgrade the Belladonna Wand to Malboro Wand.  I have upgraded the weapon level to close to 40, which may not be necessary.  I have Snow equipped with Paladin and Hope equipped with Hawkeye.  Both equipments are at star level.  By the way, all the upgrade components I have obtained from mob drops (or spoils).  It is very doable if you have been doing some side missions.

I set up Snow as the tank (Sentinel) and Hope as the healer (Medic).  As for Vanille, she switches between Saboteur (for debuff), Ravager (for damage), and Medic (for extra heal).  So in total, only 3 Paradigms are required.  To manually execute the Death spell, I have picked Vanille as the leader.

Prior to the final boss of Chapter 11, all my characters have maxed out their Crystarium for three roles (out of six, for all six characters).  After the boss fight, I choose one role to specialize and max that out.  I didn’t make any special purchase for this mission.  I suppose wearing accessories for extra health points would help in some ways.

Stage One – One-shot the Boss

Preemptive strike is out so left with the options to either use the shrouds to buff up your offense or defense before engaging the boss.  I walked into the battle with neither because I forgot (see, I am your average gamer).  In retrospect, buffing up the haste level may work better.  It may speed up the process.  The target time to finish the battle is 28 minutes.  I have earned the 5-star rating.  So I must have taken lesser time than that.

I went in with Snow tanking and Hope healing (for the entire fight).  As for Vanille, I spammed Death spell.  If Neochu hits Vanille first before Snow grabs the aggro, it is game over.  If Vanille unable to land the Death spell and one-shot the boss within 5 rounds, it is also game over.  The combined damage of Neochu and its annoying little creatures is just too much for one healer to take (before end game that is).

I read that some spent hours one-shooting the boss (only to be overwhelmed with the little ones – how sad!).  It didn’t take that long for me.  Maybe upgrading the wand helps.

Stage Two – Heal Up!

Once the boss is down (which is the easy part), it is time to survive the group of cute little Picochus.  Even with two healers and a tank, my team could barely survive.  Especially when my tank lost the aggro.  You could either fast switch Vanille between the Medic and Ravager roles to heal and to spam the area of effect spell Firaga.  Or if like me, the tank was down and soon faced an inevitable wipe, I called in the cavalry.

Stage Three – Summon the Eidolon

Some say Eidolons in Final Fantasy 13 are pretty useless.  It is quite right that these god like creatures don’t seem to be as powerful as they should be (given the fact that it is such a pain to make them yield and be your own).  As for me, Eidolons have turned the tide in the past when I faced with seemingly insurmountable battles.  And I must say, I love the over-the-top animation for these Eidolon encounters.

After Vanille summons her Eidolon, Hecatoncheir, your job is to keep both of them alive for as long as you can (which is not long).  Before Hecatoncheir gets decimated by these little adds, switch to Gestalt Mode and unload some punishment to the Picochus.  I manage to half their health points, which in retrospect, it is really not bad.  Meagre amount of damage dealt aside, the beauty of summoning an Eidolon is that when Eidolon leaves the battle, all the party members are back up with full health.  Time for round two!

Stage Four – Taking Down the Adds

This is the most nail biting moment.  I mean, I have come that far.  I really don’t want to fail here.  With Snow tanking the little mad Picochus, Hope can barely keep him alive (he is my best healer in the game).  I have to switch Vanille between Medic and Ravager mode to balance between staying alive and killing off the enemies.  It is a painfully slow process.  The good news is, as you wear down the number, it gets progressively easier.  Later on I found out that I could cast Imperil debuff on the little ones to lower the spell resistance.  That made the job done much faster.  If I am to do this again, I would cast the area of effect debuff, Imperilga, before the area of effect spell Firaga.  You may be tempted to one-shot the little ones with Death spell.  I don’t like the extra aggro on Vanille.

Some find it hard to take down the adds.  At bare minimum, if you have Snow on tanking position and both Hope and Vanille on healing, you should be able to last indefinitely.  Hope should also be able to solo heal Snow most of the time (there is some randomness in FF13 after all).  If you can’t, you may need to further develop your characters and gears with the side missions.  If you can, it is simply a matter of patience.  And “Growth Egg” is a reward you would love to have.

Heavy Rain (PS3) – Immersion Can’t Get Better Than This!

How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love? – from the theme of “Heavy Rain”

It is hard to define the genre of this critically acclaimed title “Heavy Rain”.  It is not exactly an action game, though there are some elements of action.  It is not exactly an adventure game either, though it plays like one at times.  Certainly feel like watching a self-directed movie with full fledged orchestra soundtrack – a movie of a serial killer to catch and a kid to save.  172 days of casting, 90 actors selected from 457 auditions.  You get to switch between different key players according to the key story events.  And because you as a player get to decide your course of action and to participate in the action, the story unfolds based on the decisions  and the mistakes you have made.  Believe me, if you are not an expert in using the game controller or if you are like me who tend to press the wrong buttons or move the motion sensitive controller to the wrong direction when you get nervous, you bound to make mistakes.  Making too many mistakes may lead to an alternative storyline.  Continue to make too many mistakes may lead to a character’s death.  I have learned my lesson the hard way.  I thought I could sit back on my sofa and relax, I was grossly wrong.  And because it is one continuous play-through, you have got to live with your mistakes, for better or for worse.

The characters on the screen reacts to the sequence of buttons you press as guided by the game.  Some motions also take into consideration of how fast or slow you move the game sticks or shake the controller in certain directions.  Some scenes require you to press and hold a set of buttons in a sequential order.  How tricky the combination is depends on the situation.  For timed event, you really do not want to make too many mistakes.

“Heavy Rain” runs in 720p graphic quality.  Although it seems inferior compares to 1080p games such as Final Fantasy XIII, it is by and large acceptable.  The motion sequences are realistic (due to filming using real stunt men).  My only complain is the rendering of characters.  The real actors behind the scene look so much better (I thought it should be the other way round).  The interaction between characters – like the kissing scene with the mouths not exactly locked together – has much to desire for.  Still, consider the complicity of the game based on player’s interaction and the sum of all possible paths, the game play has made up for some of these flaws.

My first play-through does not take long to complete.  Such is the characteristic of a non-linear game.  For one play-through, I have probably only seen a quarter of what the game is.  I will need to replay this game multiple times if I wish to explore different storyline, different endings.  Bonus materials are unlocked based on game progress, such as the making-of videos that are entertaining to watch.  Believe it or not, being able to play this exclusive title is one of the major reasons why I bought a Sony PS 3.  And I am very much satisfied.  I will for sure play it again but not right now.  For such a dark game (and the constant rain) – the mood, the suspense, and the sorrow, it can get a bit depressing.  Such is the beauty of immersion.