Formula 1 games are difficult to get right. The sport itself is incredibly technical; loving nothing more than to shroud itself within layer upon layer of jargon, yearly rule changes and mechanical geekery. And that’s fine, so long as you’re a ‘real’ fan – without the geekery, some of what draws gear-heads to the world that Bernie owns would be lost.
For everyone else it’s a bit more challenging. Let’s be honest, the casual audience watches F1 for the overtaking, the glamorous spectacle and the crashes. The problem Codemasters has is in creating a game that appeals to both the casual audience and the serious F1 fanbase. Rather than trying to perform the ultimate balancing act by marrying elements that will attract different audiences into a cohesive whole, the team have taken the approach of keeping things largely separate.
F1 2012’s new Season Challenge mode is one such example, geared very much at the casual player and/or those looking for a quick fix. A condensed version of the series’ traditional Career, Season Challenge is a 10 race sprint in which you try to work your way up the ranks and earn a driver seat at one of the top-tier teams. If you’re a sane and respectable F1 fan, you’ll want that team to be Ferrari. They’re the best there is, was and will ever be.
You work up to ejecting Massa from Ferrari by selecting and beating rivals over the course of three races. Beat your rival in two of three races and you earn his seat. At the start of your season you’re limited to driving for one of the lesser teams (think HRT, Marussia and Caterham) so, while it’s possible to start off by selecting Lewis Hamilton as your rival, it’s unlikely you’re going to get the better of the paddock’s brightest stars right away (so long as you’re playing on a decent difficulty setting).
The mode is fun because of the immediacy of its progression. So long as you’re performing well, you’re changing car often. New car means better car… unless, for some reason, you’re picking inferior rivals. Selecting a new rival changes the dynamic of races; yes, you want to win but you also need to beat your rival. Beating a rival can feel like a win if it equates to driving for a new team.
Serious fans will grow bored of Season Challenge’s five lap races and single lap qualifying, but it does exactly what it says on the tin; offers a career mode that doesn’t take 20 hours-plus of gameplay to complete.
Elsewhere there’s a new tutorial mode, dressed up as the Young Driver Test. Upon loading up the game for the first time you’re thrown straight in behind the wheel and asked to perform a number of drills; from learning how to take hairpins and drive in the rain to understanding the basics of KERS and DRS.
It’s simple stuff aimed at the newcomer, but it just about manages to feel more involving than the usual disconnected tutorials that ship with the sports games that bother with them. Veterans will find it all a bit of a waste of time, and will probably take offence to the fact that you have to complete day one of the Young Driver Test before you’re allowed to start a full career.
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Champions Mode is another bite-sized offering in a similar vein to ‘Moments’ from EA Sports’ Fifa, Madden and NHL series’. Each of the six world champions currently competing in F1 (Alonso, Button, Hamilton, Schumacher, Raikkonen, Vettel) have their own challenges – from staying ahead of Hamilton in the rain to overtaking Raikkonen within a few laps. There’s no hiding from the fact that it’s lacking in diversity, but (like Season Challenge) it’s a decent distraction for when the longevity of Career Mode gets too much.
Career Mode itself has barely changed this year from last. Menus are improved and the number (and depth) of press clippings increased, but they add little to the experience after the initial novelty factor has passed.
On track changes have more of an impact, particularly the new weather system. Localised weather means certain areas of the track might be affected by rain, but the rest is bone dry. It creates an interesting dynamic in that you can go flat out on your primes for the whole lap except for those couple of wet corners.
Furthermore, weather seems to change more frequently than it has in previous games. Rainy starts become dry finishes enough for it to be something to worry about, especially when it comes to pit stops and tyre strategy. In general it adds an extra layer of drama and difficulty. For example, I’m terrible in the rain, so when my mechanic comes on the radio to tell me that rain is expected in the next 15 minutes I’m upping my speed to get as many laps finished as I can before it hits.
Multiplayer suffers from the same demolition derby contestants as it always has and, to be fair, most racing games suffer from. On the other hand, there’s very little lag even when 16 players are involved – so if you can get together with a band friends there’s little to hold you back from enjoying yourselves.
So, it’s the same game as last year with a few tweaks – mainly to give new players a helping hand in getting to grips with the technical aspect of the sport. There’s little doubting that F1 2012 is the best Formula 1 of this generation, the problem is that it’s only marginally better than last year. How much you like the series and like F1 will determine whether or not that’s worth £40 of your hard earned cash.