Annually released sports videogame franchises are funny beasts. On the one hand, they’re great for developers to react quickly to their audience and update the game to reflect the real-life movements of the sport in question. On the other, they suffer from a lack of major progress between iterations which leads some to question whether or not they’re worth the asking price.
Like Fifa, Pro Evo, NHL, NBA 2K, MLB 2K, Madden and the rest, Codemasters’ F1 series (now in its second year) faces both of these truths and – particularly as a newcomer – must work hard to overcome the latter.
However, F1 has a problem that’s perhaps bigger than that faced by any of those aforementioned franchises. Last year’s outing for rather good for a debut, especially when you consider the complexities and subtleties of Formula 1 racing. F1 2010 was a game that highlighted the skills of those involved and set the bar sky high for anything they put their hand to thereafter. Admittedly it’s a good problem to have, but a problem that still needs to be conquered.
I’ll put your mind at ease right now, F1 2011 is a superior game to F1 2010; there’s more to do, the gameplay is improved and this year’s new F1 rules have been implemented almost in their entirety (depending on which difficulty you choose to play on). But, like all of games of this ilk, it’s arguable as to whether it’s a game worth buying for anyone other than those that are going to recognise what are largely subtle changes.
The least subtle of those changes is the addition of co-op career, allowing two players to race for the same team; working together for the constructor’s championship but competing for top spot in the driver’s league. Predictably, and pleasingly, this creates a great dynamic in which the early season mentality of working together is quickly replaced by a thirst for finishing as high as possible (and especially above your team mate).
Of course, this will change depending on the personality of you and your playing partner, but even those that enter with the best intentions should be prepared for some inter-team backstabbing and position hopping at some point. Team orders be damned! It’s like Vettel and Webber all over again. If only everyone were like Ferrari and just made it clear that they like Alonso more than Massa.
To further add to the drama there’s incentive to perform better than your team mate in the form of upgrades that are added to the car of the leading driver before that of the ‘second’. Seeing as how these tweaks alter the performance of your car for the better, the driver that was a previously one second behind in the race can quickly find that increased to three or four.
Think of it as semi-competitive co-op.
Other than the inclusion of the much requested ‘safety car,’ on-track improvements are more subtle and will only be noticed by long-term F1 2010 players. As one of those players, however, I did find myself applauding many of the new features.
The handling model is vastly superior to that of the first game, providing much more feedback and allowing you to more accurately position your car on the optimum piece of tarmac. Gone is the niggly twitchiness that previously forced you to play the on-again-off-again routine with the left analogue stick (steering wheels worked fine), replaced with a much smoother system that makes it possible to race clean lines with your standard PS3/360 pad.
Alterations to the suspension and tyre models mean there’s a much greater sense of differentiation between set-ups, adding a further element of realism and making the pre-race practise and tuning sessions more important than before. During races of 20% or more of real-life length you’re forced to use both the ‘option’ and ‘prime’ tyre compounds so it’s a good idea to give both a run out during practise and/or qualifying to get a feel for their relative performance on each track.
Best laid plans can be scuppered by the weather, though. Probably due to the improved handling model and tyre compounds, weather plays an enormous role in races – the team seem to have rid the game of the fact that light rain made almost no difference in F1 2010. Any kind of moisture on the track is now cause for concern, if you’re running on one of the slick tyre sets, and while you may not want to come in for wet tyres right away you will definitely want to play more cautiously.
Cloud movements have been added to the game’s skyline which allows you to look up into the heavens and try to judge for yourself how long the rain will last, and if it’s going to get any worse before it gets better. However, if you get more a couple of seconds to look at clouds while racing at 190mph than you’re a better driver than me…
AI is also improved but is still not perfect. Opposition will now move aside to let you pass unhindered during qualifying hot laps, as do back markers that you’re lapping during a race. However, the aggression levels seem to have been raised a touch which can make for some interesting side by side entries into corners and more than a few borderline illegal blocking moves. These are particularly noticeable on the first corner and on safety car restarts when the pack is bunched closely together. Then again, it could be argued that this a mirror image of the sport as is this year.
KERS and DRS are both in for the ride this year which, like the safety car, helps to keep races closer. While the two systems are hardly as effective as a boost in Burnout or Need for Speed they are enough to overtake an opponent on the straight if you’ve got yourself into a good enough position, providing a bit of a get out of jail free card for players with the patience to employ them intelligently and patiently.
The new 24 car multiplayer (16 human, 8 AI) also represents a massive improvement over last year’s online offerings. Like all multiplayer modes your enjoyment is directly related to the skills and attitudes of those you’re racing with/against. 16 human players on the track can be great with responsible, mature racers, but as soon as you get one moron in there… Those serious about their online F1 2011 experience should look to band together with likeminded individuals.
Anyone who does happen to get taken out early by someone insisting to play the wrecking ball can watch the race in ‘spectator’ mode by flipping between various cameras on the remaining cars; a massive improvement from the ‘waiting for session to finish’ board that accompanied an early retirement in F1 2010.
If you’re a fan of Formula 1 and/or F1 2010 then this is a must buy, the new features and improvements making it more than worth your time, money and effort. Anyone not so ingrained in the sport will struggle to see the upside of spending another £40, however. No matter what though, this is a better game than last year and (once again) the bar of expectation has been raised going into F1 2012.