A year ago, Codemasters released their first F1 title. It was generally well received, and won a number of awards for its efforts – and it managed to recreate much of the atmosphere of Formula 1 – high quality graphics, good gameplay, a full grid of 24 cars and a dynamic weather system. Yet, under the surface there were problems which are almost gamebreaking.
The AI was fraught with problem – lacking the pace to even close to keep up with expert racers, and also being mostly unaffected by fuel weight, and the pitting was practically rigged against human players. While these issues (and more) may have damaged the experience irreparably for some, F1 2010 was a game which felt mostly very good, and was clearly bursting with potential.
With this year’s iteration, Codemasters claim F1 2011 will both address the above issues and a lot more, featuring a number of new modes, everything updated to 2011 specification, and a raft of improvements to tackle the issues with F1 2010 – upgrades to physics, AI, pitting mechanics and the penalty system, along with much more. So how does it do?
Developer: Codemasters Birmingham
The key feature to any racing game is the way it handles on the track, and in this area, F1 2011 delivers a exciting, deep, and mostly realistic handling model which goes far beyond what F1 2010 offered. This was something revealed to me within my first few minutes with the game on Spa as I sprinted up the sweeping left-right-left combination up a steep hill, Au Rouge, where my aggressive adjustments on the wheel caused my car to oversteer before giving out entirely and spinning me into the wall – the car feels much less planted than it did last year, and when really pushing the limits of your mechanical and aerodynamic grip you will feel like you’re on a knife edge, millimetres from both disaster and perfection.
There is now a lot more potential for things to go wrong – it’s much easier to lock your brakes up, and the car is much more prone to oversteer. Fortunately, the game manages to feed back prospective problems to you through a combination of rumble, sound, visuals and, for wheel owners, force feedback too. In some senses, F1 2011 is a more difficult game than its predecessor, but at the same time it feels a lot more intuitive. You no longer need to avoid certain kerbs like the plague, and can be much more aggressive over the bumps and rumble strips. Playing on a control pad feels a little easier than last year – though driving all assists off in the wet is a real trial. Like last year, a wheel will really improve your experience, and with my Official Microsoft Wireless Racing Wheel the force-feedback is certainly improved over the lacklustre attempt in F1 2010, but the feedback on the highest settings still feels a bit weak.
The assists that Codemasters do offer should allow almost anyone to be able to drive around the track and experience Formula 1 in the first person. At the most assisted level, the game merely requires you to hold the throttle trigger and turn. Also available is the option of ABS, and TCS, which take out the need to moderate your braking and acceleration, automatic gears, a dynamic racing line, and pitting assistance. In F1 2011, the dynamic racing line which features in many racing games these days has an interesting twist where a third dimension (height) is added to the line to show how much you need to slow down. Around a corner the line will raise up, and as you slow down the line will fall until it is flat at the point where you’ve slowed down enough. It’s a useful and interesting innovation which will undoubtedly help players in the quest to learn tracks.
Formula 1 is about very fast cars and very fast drivers, but it’s also about great strategy. While going fast is important and being able to overtake is critical, knowing how to manage your tyres and fuel is also very important. There is plenty to think about – especially with the new addition of the KERS, which gives you a 6.7 seconds-a-lap 80 horsepower boost, and DRS.
DRS is a controversial new addition to Formula 1’s rules, allowing a movable rear wing to enhance speed on the straights. It can be used at any time during practice and qualification sessions, and on specific areas of the track in a race when you are within a one second gap of the racer ahead. While there are questions over whether this has improved real life Formula 1, it is certainly a great addition in F1 2011. When using DRS your aerodynamic grip is reduced considerably to the point where cornering becomes nearly impossible – to maximise your pace around the lap you will need to be using it as soon as you can out of each corner. In races, DRS will give you a very good chance of making an overtake, assuming you can get close through the rest of the lap.
That’s not all – tyre wear is a big part of F1 2011 correlating well to how important tyres are in Formula 1’s 2011 season. You need to be considering which tyres to use at which point in the race, and how hard to drive on them (aggressive or bad driving will increase tyre wear). A further consideration is your fuel usage: you start races with heavy fuel loads which dramatically affect handling, and you have the ability to swap between three different fuel mixes, balancing your consumption against raw power. Get this decision wrong and you may find yourself spluttering to the finish.
The dynamic weather system, one of F1 2010’s greatest innovations, seems to have been retuned this year, and the most noticeable difference is that it’s much more difficult to drive in wet weather – especially with the assists off and especially on a control pad. Still, experiencing the rain starting to pelt down, the track dampening, with puddles and a drier line appearing are some of the most immersing and impressive experiences on offer not only in F1 2011 but in any console racer, both aesthetically and in gameplay terms.
Mechanical failures now feature too, but I’m pleased to say that I haven’t once found myself on the end of an inexplicable one – the failures come about through your abuse of the car, a point which was driven home to me and my co-operative partner when he blew his gearbox when he shifted down the gears too quickly and too early.
Damage caused in crashes, unfortunately, like in F1 2010 is very much on the understated side. It still feels like the only really vulnerable part of your car is the front wing, and even that isn’t that fragile. When watching Formula 1 one of the things which becomes very clear is that F1 cars don’t like touching – at all. It’s rare for two cars to collide at all without at least one of them experiencing some issue – and this isn’t something you sense in F1 2011 at all. Visually too, the damage is deeply disappointing – especially from the same developer and engine as Race Driver: GRID – though it’s worth noting that part of the failure to represent damage accurately is probably down to a licensing issue.
When you do cause some major damage, there is a chance you will experience the safety car, a new addition to the game. It’s pretty rare to see it come out at all, but when it does you are presented a restrictive mechanic which tries to prevent any wrongdoing or mistake by using aggressive auto-braking, and track resets. In the three times I’ve experienced the feature, it worked well, and smoothly, though it would be perhaps nice, at least offline, to be unrestricted by the somewhat over zealous system, and instead punished by the stewards.
Pitting on F1 2011 has been entirely changed up in an attempt to remove bugs and flaws which plagued F1 2010. Now, you have control over your car up until the time you need to brake for the speed-limited region, and as soon as you are out of it on the other side. It makes things simpler while also being less jerky. Most pit lanes are now simple to navigate, with the exceptions of Sao Paulo and Abu Dhabi’s wickedly curved and elevation-changing exits. Most importantly, you don’t seem to be disadvantaged in the pit lane against your AI competitors, and your lollipop man will release you into small gaps. Like with the safety car, it would be nice if total control was optional.
Unlike in F1 2010, the game isn’t let down by the AI. Now, not only is the AI much more competitive, much more believable and much more consistent across the range of tracks and corners on offer, but they are also believably effected by the things you are, like fuel, tyre wear, and penalties. Legendary should be a big challenge for almost all drivers, and I’m confident that on the lower difficulty levels and with enough assists anyone will be able to have a competitive race with the lower AI settings. For the very top drivers, legendary may be a little too easy, but unlike with F1 2010, we’re talking about a tiny minority who will find it too easy. If there is a larger problem, it’s the gap between the four difficulty levels – in particular between Professional and Legendary – which may leave a lot of players finding it too easy in one but being totally outclassed in the next. Perhaps Codemasters would be better served by creating a more customisable AI difficulty level to solve these problems.
Otherwise the AI has seen improvements in its track mentality. It’s now much more ready to make overtakes though it could be accused of being over cautious in long braking zones – but this does contribute to the rarity of them causing you to crash. That isn’t to say that they haven’t occasionally caused me issues, but that I cause them issues a lot more than they do me, which is pretty impressive for the challenging and feisty artificial intelligence. If there is one area where they are especially bad, it is in the first few corners of a race, where they are too timid making it easy to unrealistically jump up the grid in the early stages. Also, they can be too easily dissuaded through blocking them on the straights by swerving, and the penalty system has no facility to prevent this either.
The career mode returns almost unchanged from F1 2010. Like last year, this gives you the opportunity to forge a career into F1 over 5 years. You start out at one of the smaller teams and have to vie for attention to get into the more prestigious teams. Racing with the weaker teams is a trial, as the slower cars really are much slower – and you will have to accept lowly positions for your first season at least. This isn’t a bad thing – fighting for 18th position is an enjoyable experience that very few other racing games offer. Your hub outside of the racetrack is now a streamlined office featuring a calendar for progressing through the season’s 19 races, and a computer to read emails from your agent and engineer. A new feature shows you press clippings after important events so that you can gauge how you are making an impression on F1, but these, like the returning interviews, quickly become repetitive and often serve to bring you out of the experience rather than draw you in. On the track, it’s an excellent experience, off the track it walks a line between weird and pointless which still falls far short of allowing you to ‘Live the Life’, a slogan of both F1 2010 and 2011.
Multiplayer has been a big focus for F1 2011 this year, and this is best seen in the two new modes, split-screen, which does exactly as it says on the tin and very little more, and the more exciting and innovative ‘Co-op Championship’ mode. This allows you and a friend (online only) to experience a whole season as teammates. It’s a clever mode – a revival from Codemasters’ past – and it perfectly manages to sum up the battle between cooperation and competition between teammates. This features the full complement of practice, qualification, and race. I have noticed a few small bugs in terms of how the game was storing qualification results – for example my teammate qualified in 18th and I qualified in 17th, but when we returned to our game having quit after the qualification session it swapped us around. It wasn’t particularly egregious but it hints that there could be some more major issues.
The fundamentals of the rest of the online features are more or less unchanged – noting of course that you can now race with up to 16 humans and that the grid can be filled up to the full 24 with AI. The experience system has been changed up now, so that you can lose as well as gain points. When starting a race the game will give you a target position, dependent on your relative rank to other players. If you beat the target you gain points, if you are below it you lose points. Out of the quick race modes, only ‘Sprint’ seems to have a high enough population to get a proper race going, which is a 3 lap race in perfect conditions. Frankly, this doesn’t suit Formula 1 very well, and the ‘must win on the first corner’ mentality, plus the overly lenient penalty system makes it as much a melee as a race.
Outside of the quick modes, you can also search for or create custom matches, which gives you a lot of customisability to create the race you want. When searching for a custom race, you can now see the status of a session, and join sessions in progress, as well as spectating them while you wait. This reduces the difficulty in finding appropriate races, and generally in the custom lobbies the racing is more respectful and enjoyable. The lobbies can be customised heavily, though it’s a pity that there is no option to run practice, or full qualification sessions (you can do a 15 minute qualification session).
A new menu option, Proving Grounds, now houses the old Time Trial mode combined with the new Time Attack one. Time Trial features almost identically to last year, though it’s now a lot less picky about you leaving the track in ways which won’t boost your time. Unfortunately, time trial still seems to have much, much higher grip than what you experience in any other mode. Lap times in Time Trial are very high, and it’s hard to use Time Trial to test out setups. It’s still useful to learn tracks without worrying about other tracks, and competing for leaderboard position.
More interesting is the time attack mode which pitches you against six scenarios, locking you to a car, setup, weather scenario, and tyre and setting you a bronze, silver, and gold time to beat. It’s a pity perhaps that there are so few of these and it would be nice to see them build on this in future especially if the levels could double as tutorial levels for some of the more complex features.
GRAPHICS & SOUND
Graphically F1 2011 is an impressive game. It certainly doesn’t reach the standards of Gran Turismo 5 in replay, but the in game graphics, especially when you consider how much is going on in terms of the weather, 24 car grid, and pit crews, are a real triumph. The 19 tracks are all well modelled – including the two new arrivals, the Nurburgring and the Indian Grand Prix – and Codemasters has also applied similar care to the returning tracks in terms of trackside detail. The audio is fairly solid, with the exception of the somewhat dull engineer (who now features in multiplayer modes thankfully), and listening to the sound of 24 engines roaring around tracks is very convincing, though the engine tones could probably be somewhat rawer.
Unfortunately, all of this, most of which is very positive, is blemished severely by precisely the same things which hurt the last game: bugs. It must be said that the bugs I’ve experienced and known others to experience are nowhere near as large as those which plagued F1 2010, but they are certainly there and they are certainly going to cause some irritation. The only major one I’ve discovered so far involves the AI’s ability to run extremely long on intermediate tyres, something which basically wrecked my chances of a decent position in that race. It’s a pity, but F1 2011 is still a game let down badly by a lack of quality assurance. Hopefully there will be patches to solve these problems, but readers should be warned that F1 2010’s problems were not adequately solved by patches.
All in all, F1 2011 is a game which succeeds on many levels, even if it is still held back here and there by bugs. The ‘Live the Life’ side of the game still feels a bit flat, so it’s fortunate that the racing is anything but. The online now feels more than fully fleshed out, especially with the fantastic co-operative mode. It’s not necessarily a racing game for everyone – suited to hardcore racing fans and F1 fanatics, and much less so to a casual racer – but for its somewhat niche market it delivers a racer which gives big guns such Forza and Gran Turismo a real run for their money.