Also available on: PlayStation 3, PC Developer: Codemasters Birmingham Publisher: Codemasters Genre: Driving
F1 2011 shows that if it ain't broke, don't fix it - just make it better. The game follows last year's first stab by Codemasters at a title based on the world's premium motor sport, which gained critical acclaim, strong sales and a BAFTA to boot. For the new game, which features all 24 drivers and 12 teams in the 2011 season, Codemasters has taken what was good about F1 2010 and tuned up the engine. The game could best be described as a re-engineered Formula One car rather than a whole new model, but it's certainly a competitive beast.
One thing that pretty much immediately hits you about F1 2011 is that Codemasters has not fallen into the trap of making the game easier - far from it. The previous title was merciless on the naive racers and its successor actually ups the ante, making the handling accessible on the surface, but fiercely tough to master. The cars feel much more planted in F1 2011 and much less twitchy than in the previous game. There has been significant work done on the suspension and aerodynamics to make the cars more manageable, making for an all-round more satisfying experience.
Control is always there for those willing to concentrate and there is never the feeling that a good racing line is out of reach, whatever you do. The cars feel heavy and solid at high speeds, yet also lithe and nimble through the corners. Indeed, the learning curve is better balanced in F1 2011, with players of all abilities able to ease their way into the experience and feel competitive at first. But they will need to learn fast as they progress through the game as the AI gets merciless.
Computer-controlled drivers pose serious threats throughout the race, perfectly ready to capitalise on any mistake you make and always putting pressure on your position. What this mix of a challenging vehicle to master and an increasingly competitive field does is force the player to always be switched on. You must really test your mettle in F1 2011 to gain success, just as in the real world of Formula One racing. On the lowest difficulty most players will be at least competitive, but even at medium setting with some driver aides stripped and the opposition hyped up, this game will take a few seasons to regularly get on the podium.
As in the real sport, it's important to not only get to know your car, tyres and engineering setups in the garage, but also essential to know the different nuances of the tracks. All 19 Formula One circuits have been lovingly recreated here, including the fantastic new Buddh International Circuit, near Delhi in India. Different corners can be taken using different racing lines, and it's key to get a feel for the tracks in the up-to-three practice sessions for each race meeting. Proper research allows you to put in hot laps in qualification and also not lose ground to rivals in the races.
There are new mechanical features to master too, including the Kers system, which gives a much-needed power boost on long straights, and the DRS system allowing drivers to tweak the angle of the rear wing to reduce aerodynamic drag and more easily enable overtaking moves. Despite these features not being very well explained to novices, they are really welcome when you have got to grips with the benefits of each. As in the last game, the team radio constantly passes on information from the engineer about the car's status, the times to use Kers and DRS and also how other drivers are performing, particularly your teammate.
F1 2011 is not quite a simulator but it's also not an arcade title either. You are unlikely to just walk in and start winning races, but instead it's about building up your skills and getting access to a car that can be genuinely competitive in the field. This is one career mode that focuses on the 'career' aspect. There is much more to think about in the game than just gripping the steering wheel. There are strategic choices to be made, such as when to go out in qualifying to get the optimal track conditions for the best time, as well as being careful to avoid debris on the track, and watching out for changes in weather conditions.
Codemasters has introduced a range of safety features to F1 2011 to make things more realistic, most notably the safety car, which bunches up the field and brings new tactics into play. The game allows you to steer, break and accelerate while behind the safety car but it will auto-break if you go too fast. The safety car, which can be turned off if desired, is a nice addition, as are the various flags showing states of race safety. This all adds to the sense of immersion and realism in the career mode, but one thing it still lacks is a bit of pizzazz.
This might seem a ridiculous thing to say as no-one wants a gaudy imitation of Formula One, but still there is a lot of drama and magic about the sport that is rather missing here. There have been efforts to improve the media relations aspect of the career, including BBC Radio 5 Live's David 'Crofty' Croft handling some interviews, but it still lacks sparkle. Checking emails is rather tedious and there is none of the millionaire glamour that is such a vital part of this world.
Graphically, the game is an improvement on its predecessor, but it's also a touch rough around the edges. The tracks are excellent to race around at high speeds, but they don't quite survive closer inspection. The character models of engineers, track girls and so on are also pretty weak. Crashes don't have quite the impact as desired, with the real-time damage not quite going far enough, especially in high-speed smashes with multiple cars. Still, the audio is great, particularly the screeching rasp of these dream machines driving around at high speed.
One area that Codemasters has really spent time on is the online game. The last title was very much about the single-player experience, but the new game has a solid focus on competing with others, both online and offline. The game supports 16 players instead of the previous 12 on a full grid of 24 cars (the remaining drivers being computer controlled), along with offering a brand new split screen mode for two players competing locally. A really strong feature is the opportunity to play an entire season with a friend, either as teammates, or on opposing teams. The chance to work together, while also competing for the title, is a unique challenge.
In closing, F1 2011 is another strong season in Codemasters's Formula One career. It's not a wholesale reinvention, but rather a confident leap forward from a publisher in tune with its sport. The career mode lacks a bit of personality, but it's still a good frame for what is most important - the racing. The cars are sharper and more alive in F1 2011 and the racing is even tougher to master, yet extremely rewarding when you do. Formula One fans will once more not be disappointed by the game's recreation of the tense, exhausting and utterly exhilarating thrill of this incredible sport.