There are many things Formula 1 fans cannot agree on, but most of them will agree that there hasn’t been a truly good formula one game on the PC since the good old days of the Grand Prix series by Microprose. There were some passable games on consoles, but largely speaking we’ve been deprived of a game which truly captured the spirit of the sport. This combined with a very boring few years in which the sport ceased to be truly competitive, caused somewhat of a decline of the popularity of the sport in general. In recent years, Formula One has had a ton of investment from it’s governing body, and has seen a huge lift in popularity as a result. So what better time for Codemasters to take some learning from last year’s attempt to bring F1 back to gamers, and create a truly memorable experience? Did they succeed? Let’s go and find out.
The first thing I have to mention before you read the rest of this review is that I purchased a Microsoft Xbox 360 controller for Windows. Regular readers know that I’m not a fan of how console games cause us PC gamers to have more and more shallow games but when it comes to racing the keyboard & mouse combination is completely inferior. I’ve tried a steering wheel, but I’m not a huge fan. Unless you are in a car or have a fully simulated cockpit, personal preference goes to a controller. That said, many of my fellow gamers prefer a racing wheel for this game and I’ve been told it works incredibly well. Just don’t expect to do fantastically well with a keyboard. The second thing you should know is that I’ve not played F1 2010. A few of my fellow Mana Pool writers played the game and after reading their articles I wasn’t fully convinced that the game had everything I wanted it to have.
So onwards to some racing. When you first fire up the game, you create the usual profile, etc. This allows you to set things such as your nationality, which is referenced in race results and initially sets your KPH/MPH settings and the like. This one is always a bit confusing for me as I’m a Dutchman living in the UK. I settled on the Dutch flag as there are no Dutch drivers in F1 at the present, but changed my settings to MPH, just because I’m quite used to that after living here for such a long time. I love that I am able to do so, as there are racing games which insist that as a Dutchman, I *must* use Euros and Kilometers. You also select an Audio name, similar to Grid but at a far more limited level. Honestly, I was a little bit disappointed by the number of choices here. You have the first names of all F1 drivers, a bunch of ‘Legendary’ drivers and 3 nicknames: Iceman, Rainman and Champ. Let’s just say Iceman is rather popular, as Rainman sounds like your driver is mentally retarded and being referred to as ‘Champ’ makes you feel like you’re in some sort of cheap porno… Either way, unless you share the first name of a F1 driver, you will likely have to settle for one of the 3 crappy nicknames. Grid had a far greater selection and included my first name, so it was a shame that F1 2011 didn’t have this as well.
In terms of Game Modes, there are quite a few options. The mandatory challenges and time trials are there, complete with leaderboards. There’s an online mode where you can race with up to 16 people I believe. Quite frankly I haven’t tried this as it’s not even nearly as interesting as the core game: Career. This mode let’s you play through 5 full seasons of Formula One with the ultimate goal of winning the Drivers World Championship. The really interesting thing is that you can choose to co-op this with a friend, driving for the same team. The career mode places heavy emphasis on the ‘team mate challenge’, and keeps constant track of how you perform vs. your team mate both in qualifying, races and in the number of points you collect for the team. Doing this with a friend makes this incredibly interesting and after playing for about half a season in cooperative mode so far, I can highly recommend it. Obviously due to the time investment required for this, you need to find a pretty reliable friend to make this work. Cooperative mode is pretty similar to single player, though it misses some of the ‘fluff’ in between races and places more emphasis on the action.
At the very start of your career, you pick from one of five teams: Virgin Racing, Hispania Racing Team, Team Lotus, Force India and Williams. Obviously these teams provide a completely different level of challenge, as you can quite easily compete for points and even podiums in Force India and Williams. For a proper challenge, Virgin and Hispania are highly recommended. I chose to drive for Virgin Racing just because Hispania has about zero appeal to me. You also get to pick a difficulty level, though be warned that the difference in difficulty between these settings is immense. I don’t recommend playing on Easy as you’ll quickly adapt even on Intermediate and start finishing in the points and then winning quite comfortably. Unfortunately the difference from Intermediate to Hard is far too large for my liking. You can literally go from a position where you are 3-5 seconds quicker than all your opponents in Intermediate and finish 2 seconds a lap slower on Hard. I’d have liked to see something in between these difficulty level – as hard also takes away some of the assists and forces you to use manual gears. There are a lot of players who wish to play with the settings of Intermediate but just have the AI be a bit more competitive. Hopefully Codemasters will patch this in or take notice for F1 2012.
Once you’ve selected your team you will be greeted by some journalists who will interview you. It’s fluff really, but it all adds to the immersion. You then sit inside your motor home, where you see the staff of your team carry crates, tyres and other supplies around. You’ll also see some other drivers walk past, who are easy to recognise from real life. I found it quite awesome to see Button walk past my window, followed by some journalists. Codemasters have done a brilliant job at making F1 2011 an immersive experience in this regard. Either way, this stage is used to check e-mails, receive offers from other teams, check the standings and look up information about the tracks and other drivers. Popping to the race calendar gives you a great overview and let’s you move on to the Race weekends.
Watch me driving (poorly) in my very first career race here:
Race weekends can be played in several ways. You have short weekends and long weekends, where short weekends give you 1 Practice session, 1 qualifying session and then the race. Long weekends give you 3 practice sessions, and the fully simulated F1 qualifying – including the three different sessions, exactly as per real life. This is pretty awesome, especially on higher difficulty levels where tyres and fuel are fully simulated. Do you use that other set of Options to secure your place in the second or third phase of qualifying or do you risk waiting and hoping nobody beats your time? Awesome stuff. In addition to this, you can select from a wide range of race lengths: 3 laps, 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%, 75% and 100%. Codemasters have been adding some options to this, so I might have even overlooked an option here. When I first played, the only options were 3 laps, 20%, 50% and 100%. My personal preference goes to playing 20% races as this is where the pit stop rule is first enforced. (You must use a set of Option and Prime tyres during the race.) This length is also long enough to use some minor tactics but short enough to be doable with my limited spare time. I would probably enjoy 50% races but I just don’t have the time for it these days.
Practice sessions might sound boring but they serve an incredibly useful purpose. Car set-ups make an absolutely huge difference in F1 2011, and it’s very much worth doing a few laps just to get a decent set-up going before you enter qualifying or the race. This is an absolute must, especially, on higher difficulty settings. To further make this aspect interesting, Codemasters have implemented the Research & Design element into the game. During some practice sessions you will receive a target to beat within a number of laps, or a number of other challenges. Beating this will unlock new components or other improvements on your car during an upcoming session which in some cases can be as early as that very same race weekend. To make this more interesting, some of the major upgrades are provided to the number one driver first, thereby making the challenge of consistently beating your team mate even more fun. Becoming the recognised first driver in the team provides real benefit, and Codemasters have done a great job here.
Qualifying sessions are fully simulated as they are in real life – so they need little explanation. If you’re playing on the right difficulty for your level of skill, you’ll find that this is very well simulated. Don’t expect to set Pole Position in a Virgin Racing car on the more challenging tracks if you’re playing at a higher difficulty setting. I had a particularly challenging weekend in Monaco in my first season as I just couldn’t qualify high enough in the Virgin, which made for a very difficult race weekend. Even more lovely is how the rules are enforced. If you cut so much as the tiniest section of a corner, your lap in qualifying will be invalid. If you block other drivers on their fast lap during qualifying, you’ll receive a 10 place grid penalty. Honestly, this is great stuff.
When it comes to the race, things are equally impressive. The AI drives remarkably well for a racing game. They move aside for the race leaders, respond to blue flags (mostly, there is still the occasional douche exactly as per real life.) and they can be very competitive. Largely speaking, the teams are positioned at the right levels of speed but you do get the odd surprise result. There’s full simulation of the safety car, car damage, tyre punctures, engines blow up, the works. Add a fully dynamic weather simulation to this and you genuinely have one of the best and most immersive racing simulations I have ever played. Your first moment in heavy rain is truly spectacular. I must add that I absolutely love how the pit stops are modelled as well. You feel like you are in the F1 season, and not just cheating your way through some half-arsed game.
Throughout the race your Engineer will keep you appraised of the latest, including the tyres your direct opponents on the track fit on their cars and the distance between you and the person in front/behind you. He’ll also tell you to push harder or when you are setting race pace comfortably. The whole experience is very well put together. There is the odd issue where he will shout that you need to push while actually you are leading the way and pulling further away by 2 seconds a lap, but largely speaking it works very well. The major gripe here is that they need to include more first names as this made the experience much more immersive in Grid. For a race game which, in my opinion, is currently leading in terms of immersion, it would be relatively little effort for Codemasters to increase the database of names referenced in the game.
After the race, you will see a little cut scene of yourself which will reflect your result vs. the objectives set by the team. Your team will come congratulate (or scold…) you, and you’ll find yourself back in your motor home. Somewhere halfway into the season, you will start to receive offers from other teams (provided you are doing reasonably well and at least meeting your objectives), usually started by a contract renewal offer from your existing team. In my case I waited quite long to make a decision and ended up signing for Williams near the end of the season – with the intention of using them as a springboard to drive for one of the better teams. I can tell you that the Williams is significantly faster than the Virgin and I am having a much easier time, to the point of needing to bump up the difficulty as I won the opening three races outright with 2 pole positions. If I have to give a point of criticism here, is that it would have been nice to see the teams/driver situation and team colours/sponsors change between seasons. The ability to start at say, a season in the past and evolve through the seasons would have been great. Given that Codemasters made F1 2010, at least give us the option to start in 2010 and see some changes, rather than essentially play the 2011 season 5 times. I am sure they’ll build on this franchise though, and add more depth to it over time.
Graphically, F1 2011 is one of the best looking racing games I am yet to see. As far as Formula One games is concerned, it’s absolutely the best looking, most immersive and best playing game on the market today. The audio is equally impressive, the weather effects are outright impressive. The most important aspect is that this game is fun. REALLY good fun. Once I started playing, I couldn’t stop for nearly 40 hours, which is incredibly rare for a racing game as there are usually a bit more casual and occasional for me. In most racing games I drive for an hour or two, and then go play another game and come back to it another day. In F1 2011, I want to keep playing and have to force myself to take a break. I’m so engrossed to the screen that I forget everything else around me and the heavy concentration required to do well can really drain you. This for me, is the sign of a fantastic game and I hope that F1 2012 builds on this and takes the franchise to a near-perfect level. If you like Formula One, or even have a strong interest in racing games in general, go buy this now.
And just for good measure, here you can watch an awesome fight with Hamilton in Heavy Rain. Which, like a true Rookie, I cock up royally.