Formula One is a sport beloved by many the world over. Its mythology talks of the elegant brilliance of Fangio, the artistry and brutality of Senna and the ruthless efficiency of Schumacher. In the recent past negative comments have been regularly shared regarding the sport with complaints that it's too boring, not enough of an advantage to win compared to placing second (points) or that the cars are what wins or loses a race. Yet it is still followed by millions the world over; Lewis Hamilton is revered and reviled in equal measures for the way he goes about his business and everyone can see the technical mastery Vettel and Alonso bring to the table. Basically Formula One is as big as it ever was and the time was ripe last year to launch the experience into consumer's homes with F1 2010. Now we have its successor, F1 2011.
Codemasters were and still are a fantastic choice to bring to life the F1 licence. A British developer (similar to the majority of F1 teams) with a history of delivering excellent racing games and covering a wide variety of disciplines (Colin McRae Rally, TOCA / GRID and Micro Machines). They delivered a solid racing sim but this year have to show they've taken on board criticism, corrected mistakes and moved the gameplay along far enough to ensure devout fans will enjoy this iteration as much as the first whilst also attracting new players. They need to do so for the here and now and to ensure their pipeline will continue until F1 2XXX.
In providing an exciting, exhilarating and physically perfect F1 racing game, they have succeeded. The cars are perfect replicas of their real-life counterparts, including the detailed cockpits. They handle superbly in that all the while you are trying to improve your qualifying time by 3/10ths of a second you are having to tame a true beast of a machine. The power, the downforce - it's all felt through the rumble of the pads or feedback of the steering wheel. If you have chosen the wrong tyres or got the setup all wrong you'll feel it - the car will fly off the track and do a 180 if you give it even just a bit more gas than it can cope with. This year's rule changes are in effect, so DRS (Drag Reduction System) is present (as is KERS - Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and again, if you try and play with that around too tight a bend you've had it. It is very much the antithesis of twitch gaming. As such whilst playing with a pad is doable, the very best experience is with a steering wheel. The driving is altogether better than other driving simulators. Even the AI feels real – you are not up against drones who will only follow the racing line at the perfectly prescribed speed. It is just right and it's hard to find a more amazing experience thanks to the speed, fear and downright joy as you thunder out of the tunnel at Monaco and into the Nouvelle Chicane with Sebastian Vettel right behind you looking for an opportunity to overtake.
The way the driving is parcelled up into the whole F1 experience though leaves a lot to be desired. The main premise is that you - a rookie driver - have five years in which to make it big in your career. Of course you can whizz through those years quickly by going for short race weekends, skipping practice and completing a race in 3 laps (which is fine until you realise a penalty is still ten seconds – enough to drop you from 1st to 24th in some races) – or you can go the whole hog with practice, 3 qualifying sessions and a full 200 mile race. Ideally you’ll be winning the driver's championship and a constructor's title in the process. Along the way you'll look to take number one status from your teammate, develop rivalries and make yourself well known to ensure the big offer comes in from Ferrari or McLaren. Why five years? Why not allow you to create a character freeform and make your own way throughout a career that can end when you say so? Equally, why drop interviews in between each and every race when they have no bearing on proceedings? Surely if you're answering questions related to the team and the standard of the car you might expect some comeback? Each of the five seasons is the 2011 F1 calendar repeated; nineteen races across the globe with a race to the highest number of unassailable points. The season's interspersed with emails from your team principal, your PA regarding new contract offers and so on. Contract offers arrive when your reputation (increased by meeting objectives such as race placement or qualifying performance) grows. But nowhere does the game let you know what this arbitrary number means. Presumably at a certain level you trigger an offer from a specific team. It would be great if we knew how far to go to get that Red Bull gig. Overall the career is flimsy and gets old very quickly. As the crux on which to encourage persistence with the title? It's not good enough.
The overall presentation is fine but is a far cry from best in class. The in-game graphics are excellent, with tracks lovingly rendered with GPS mapping technology to ensure all undulations, twists and turns are present and correct, but the external scenes (team truck, interviews) are very basic and unintentionally cartoony. The cinematics over the race weekend between sessions are fun but short lived and repetitive. The accompanying soundtrack however is emotive and reinforces your joy when deserved - i.e. after your first win! Happily, pretty much any and every statistic you could want is saved in your profile - from miles driven, to longest brake lock. All the information needed to analyse your successes and failures is there - though you'll have to do the hard work yourself. The highlight of the game however - and quite possibly reason enough to buy it - is the rain effect. If light or heavy rain is present at qualifying or race day, the whole game becomes something else. It's done so well - the lighting effects are spectacular, if you can actually see the track ahead rather than just spray coming from the car in front! It's a wonderful and challenging time that when absent is longed for more than anything else.
There are changes this year versus the previous iteration. Twenty-Four cars per race including online racing is one. Proving grounds is another - effectively the new time trial mode, it also includes scenarios where you can try and beat a specific time in Monaco in light rain or some other specific condition. The full day to night transition on Abu Dhabi race weekend is great. Most impressively however is the full co-op mode available either online or for local multiplayer action. Fancy working as a team to win the championship? Want to help each other out by sharing strategies? It's the kind of throwaway implementation that can make or break a game and in this case brings something unusual and enjoyable to the table. If you and a friend both have access to this game (or can spend prolonged periods in each other's company) its likely this is the way you'll spend much of your time playing.
In the end F1 2011 is a great racer but only a nearly-great game. The changes from last year are enough to persuade the resolute fan to upgrade and the core gameplay is stronger than its predecessor such that its now worth many more people picking it up. Depending on the way you choose to play it the game could be done and dusted (trophies and all) within twenty hours, or you can go all out and nearly match the real season for length. Value is not in question and neither is accuracy. The driving is immensely good fun. But whilst all that’s good warrants a nine, the final measure has to come down. It’s brought down by the disappointing career experience which is meant to be the central focus. Initially it’s exciting to see what’s been done but over time this wears away leaving behind a superficial smattering of half-baked ideas present that have no real purpose, bearing or direction.
This review is based on the Playstation 3 version