Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk
I’m coming at F1 2011 from an interesting angle. In much the same way I don’t hand my money over to EA every time a box bearing the word “FIFA” is released into the marketplace, I haven’t played a new Formula One game in years. With sport franchises, I choose my moments, as chances are that year on year there are very few changes worthy of note. How many tracks are likely to differ, cars are subtlety tweaked and some sponsors decals might be altered; F1 2010 then is something that I simply saw other friends play.
Although, being completely straight, the last true F1 game I bought and loved was released when I owned a console with a “64” in the title. Chances are then that things may have come on more than a little since then. And in more ways than just graphical fidelity.
Jumping into a cockpit for the first time is an experience, and one that will probably have new players on the cusp weeping. It’s tough, although not unfairly. Codemasters Birmingham have put a great deal of work into simulating the nuances of a car that regularly travels in excess of 200mph, and have succeeded in capturing just why us mere mortals are unlikely ever to travel at such speeds in real life.
Back in the day I swear I could just point my car in the right direction and away I would go, but this new handling model takes getting used to. Practise sessions are worth their weight in gold as you slowly piece together how hard to push yourself round each corner. Patience is rewarded though as those initial laps spent wondering just what you are doing wrong are slowly replaced with a feel and understanding of the car and its limits.
At this point, your carbon-fibre steed has a great sense of weight to it, as you throw it from left-hander to right–hander. The power you ride on also becomes evident as you start to notice the subtleties of inertia involved when turning or breaking whilst accelerating, and the absolute contrast this brings when first taking a long, open corner at 180mph before breaking hard to go navigate a hairpin at a pace more comparable to a small family hatch-back. If you did not appreciate the intricacies involved before jamming on your helmet that first morning, you will have by the end of the day.
There are, naturally, a whole host of assists that can be toggled to suit everyone from novice to Vettel himself. Brake assist, ABS, traction control, all can be altered to provide a race experience tailored to you, and opens up the whole experience to more than just the hardcore petrol heads out there.
The nicest touch of the aids is probably the 3D racing line. A virtual line painted onto the strip is nothing new to the videogame racer, but for that extra ounce of feedback it stands proud of the track if it thinks you’re going too fast. Greens and reds have been and are still very practical for communicating how your speed compares to the ideal racing line, but this extra layer gives such immediate feedback that it’s as if a lollypop lady is standing there, arm out, demanding you slow down.
The most interesting simulation of the handling this year is by far and away the tyres. There is a great emphasis on not only choosing the right compound but getting them up to the correct operating temperature before fully extracting the most from them. Similarly, over aggressive driving or staying out on track too long will see the set degrade, resulting in tough grip and purple sectors or cars that dance on ice as your traction falls away.
Solving one of the conundrums revolving around the “what’s new this year?” bullet points on the back of the box, sees the introduction of KERS and DRS. Simplifying matters somewhat, they are both the real-world equivalent of Mario’s mushroom when he goes karting; allowing the driver a short burst of extra speed.
With the touch of a button, KERS allows drivers to inject energy that had previously been recovered when braking back into their acceleration. This extra burst of horse power can see them accelerate quicker from a corner, boost their chances of over taking on a straight, or even fend off such a move. Similarly powerful, DRS opens the back wing of a car. This wing is specifically there to create downforce, dragging the car down to the road for grip. With it open, however, that drag is reduced and the top speed of the vehicle increases.
As with the short term effect of the plumber’s ‘shroom, KERS and DRS both have limiting factors that stop drivers from employing it around the entire circuit. KERS, for starters, only has a limited reserve each lap, forcing you to pick your spots. Furthermore, if you can drive round the entire circuit with your back wing open, then good luck to you. With the car handling as it is you need all the grip you can get.
Correct use of the two in conjunction can shave whole seconds off of your lap time, or allow you the jump on the car in front, completely changing how races are won or lost. It’s as if Bernie and co had spent one late night too many dabbling with F-Zero.
Binding all this together is a career mode intent on continually slapping you round the face with the fact that Codemasters have managed to secure the most complete of licensing deals. Race drivers, team principles, BBC commentators, and of course every manufacturer, are recreated and can be seen outside your motor home or personally contacting you as you compete across the span of an entire season’s worth of racing.
Given a seat with one of the more inexperienced teams, your goal is to further your career by raising your standing, working your way through the grid and eventually lift the world title. One aspect of this is obviously the racing, but behind the scenes there’s a reputation/XP system constantly ticking away, judging your progress. At a base level this is all about qualifying and final race positions, but in a bid to extend the experience there are more things to consider.
Each session and race weekend will come with its own set of objectives. Team rivalry, for one; for if you can’t out race your team mate, then you’ve no chance at making an impression. More so than that though, you’ll be asked to race with specific car configurations, introducing the very editable car setup and forcing you to possibly step outside your comfort zone. Top it off with regular interviews with the BBC Radio 5Live team and all the ways you have conducted yourself and succeeded (or failed) will no doubt catch the eye of other teams. Much of this feedback is conducted through a very stale email system tucked away in your motor home or wooden interviews, but it’s hard to see of a more streamlined way that this could have been handled.
When out on the track, however, things liven up once more as your fellow racers go wheel to wheel with you. Their AI is impressive, with a careful balance of aggression but with large helping of self-preservation. Coming down a long straight, they’ll happily employ both KERS and DRS to push you down a place, cutting the breaking fine. On the other hand, give the grid a first corner hairpin and each driver will attempt to negotiate it successfully. All too often have such corners been graveyards that have caused me to hang back at the first turn charge.
Thankfully there is a feature that allows such things, should they go a cropper, to be rewound and reset, just as in Dirt 3, placing your car back five-seconds in time. Whether you use it or not is down to your own conscience but all beginners should make a point of hunting it out.
With all the shine and glamour, be it the cars or the locations, the disappointing aspect of F1 2011 is just how flat it looks. There is a great amount of detail in the vehicles themselves and everything that lines the trackside, but there is something in the lighting model that means it lacks a certain va va voom. We’ve all seen the sleekness of the Ferrari, but sitting in the cockpit, hammering it down the straight, the nose you stare out seems quite dull by comparison.
The audio however, is outstanding, with the roar of the engine as you thrash it to pieces bringing the whole experience together. Furthermore, the extra little touches of wind and distortion as you alter your aerodynamics and apply the DRS is aurally equivalent to the screen stretch in Burnout. You’ll feel like you need a seatbelt for your sofa.
Part of the reason I have been absent from virtual F1 for so long is that I just fell out of favour with racing games as a whole, finding them sterile and unrewarding. What F1 2011 has done, rather impressively, is make me once again interested in the world of engines and lap times.
Though the career mode may have some rough edges, it is a focused attempt to bring the important aspects of the race weekend to your console. I began to care about the practise sessions, willing to put the time in to get used to the new circuits, and became desperate to shave tenths of seconds off of my time to beat that smug German.
As with its real life counterpart, the greatest asset Codemasters possess’s here is the car. It may be a difficult mule to begin with, but at some point it clicks and you’ll find yourself driving a thoroughbred.