Last year's F1 2010 achieved something that few Formula One games had ever managed: coming very close to a perfect balance between simulation, arcade-style gaming and outright speed. It resulted in one of the most rewarding and enjoyable racers of this console generation. It was however not without its flaws, boasting multiple AI problems, weak online functionality and a patchy and awkward handling model.
Codemasters has returned this year with F1 2011 and a game that has seen more polish than a soldiers' boots. The result is a title that will satisfy the purist with its authenticity, but also please the console racers thirst for arcade action.
A game of two halves
Fire up F1 2011 and you are immediately placed in the boots of a driver in his first Formula One season. A quick press interview, team selected and name input filled out and you are confronted with a question that asks you what sort of challenge you expect out of the season. This is where the game divides itself, opt for the first two easier choices and you will still get the thrill but a bit less of the simulation. Go for the latter two and things get interesting.
On the harder difficulties, the game is absolutely brutal, requiring you to guide your car round the track in such a tippy-toed fashion that all but the best driving game masters will struggle. Those who do succeed however will find a gaming sensation quite unlike any other, a true sense of accomplishment and a chance to glimpse into what a real world driver must do to keep the car on track for two hours, let alone win.
We personally found the game played best when we selected the harder setting, so the AI put in better lap times and races, but with the traction control on full. This meant it still felt like we were racing but pushing the car to gain positions didn't constantly result in us spinning out.
Audio visual overload
Playing F1 2011 at times led us to such total sensory overload we needed a tea break. Codemasters has returned its F1 series with everything turned up to eleven. The roar of engines erupts from your speakers at the start of a race, gear changes clunk and wind blasts you in the face as you hit your cars KERS button at top speed.
Graphically the game has also seen an overhaul, now boasting a more saturated colour palette, improved car models and better weather effects. This new visual package results in the best looking F1 game to date and one which will satisfy even the fussiest of car model fans. Everything has been meticulously rendered, down to individual steering wheel details, track advertising and even the interior of your motorhome.
We tested F1 2011 on both the Xbox 360 and on an i7 PC with twin Nvidia GTX 560 Ti graphics cards. Somewhat unsurprisingly the game looked better on the PC, running at a steady 60fps, with no aliasing issues and a slightly improved lighting model. On consoles however it is definitely no graphical slouch, looking particularly impressive on some of the low light and night tracks like Singapore.
Unfortunately the PlayStation 3 takes a serious aliasing hit, with the Xbox 360 most definitely being the preferred console choice. We'll also say that playing the game in heavy rain, in the in-car view is about the most intense racing experience we have ever had and one that everyone, Formula One fan or not, should try.
Of all the changes made in F1 2011, easily the biggest is to the handling model. Last years' version meant that once you had the gameplay figured out, you could essentially blast round the track lapping every adversary with very few problems.
That has now changed entirely with F1 2011. The rethought physics engine sees every part of your car wobble and move when cornering. Tyres lock up, the back end slides out and things feel hugely unpredictable. You can now also pick up tyre marbles (fragments of tyres which break off) if you stray from the racing line, which will slow you down. On top of that straying of the track will result in all sorts of debris getting stuck into your wheels, adversely affecting your handling for several corners.
Any contact with opponents usually ends up with either your front wing shattering or other cosmetic damage to your car. The brilliance of Formula One pit crews means things can be fixed quickly with a single stop but don't expect to get back into a race if you have spun out or lost more than five or six positions to opposing racers.
KERS and DRS systems also now play a part in F1 2011, as does the safety car on longer races. All three of these can drastically change, as in real life, the way that a race will pan out. For those not familiar with Formula One, KERS or Kinetic Energy Recovery System, is a small electric motor that stores energy from the brakes, adding an extra 82 hp to your cars when you call on it. It is however of limited power allowance, so you only get just enough for a single overtaking manoeuvre.
DRS is also very similar, the Drag Reduction System pops open part of your rear wing and speeds up your car on the straight. In qualifying this can be used at any time, word of advice; don't, you will end up skidding all over the place. DRS is for the straights and overtaking and that's it.
Once we had balanced out our KERS distribution during a lap we were shaving seconds off each, catching opponents and taking podiums. DRS also makes the difference when trying to overtake some of the top teams.
Claiming the title in F1 2011 won't happen the first time around, you're going to need to work for the win and get yourself picked up by a top three team. This may dissuade some from playing through F1 2011 until you claim victory, but we say stick with it as on the harder difficulties it is extremely rewarding when you win.
The first time you fire up the game you are asked what team you want to drive for. We opted for Force India, who whilst expecting better race positions, gave us a better car to play with. This meant a decent foothold into the championship and the next season we were up there with the top cars.
Getting yourself to number one driver can take more than one season, but as number one you can select the upgrade path your want the team to take, meaning those better in the corners can get a car with better downforce or racers one with better straight line speed. This is vital for those who have a unique driving style and are after a car with a certain feel.
It may seem like we are handing out plentiful advice in this review. Believe us when we say that F1 2011 is a game that can easily be overly frustrating, but with a few preemptive career choices and difficulty settings, can achieve a perfect balance between challenge and reward.
On top of the conventional Formula One championship there is both online and offline multiplayer. You can also opt to setup your own Grand Prix if your prefer, allowing you to take on specific tracks with certain weather conditions. Good for practice.
Racing split screen is a total blast and a welcome addition to the game. It also makes up for the slightly lacklustre online multiplayer in F1 2011.
In Codemaster's defence, there is little else we can say against F1 2011 short of its multiplayer. While improvements have been made, we feel that nothing inventive has been done to try and keep racing fun when playing online. Crash out for example and there is nothing to help you catch up with the other racers. A few beginners at the start forcing you to spin out as such can result in destroying any chances you have of claiming a place.
Getting into a race also takes a huge wait, the system constantly resetting the 30 second countdown in the multiplayer lobby each time a player joins. This resulted in us regularly needing to wait up to five minutes just to get a three lap race going.
F1 2011 is everything a racing sim should be. Codemasters has tightened every nut and bolt on the sequel and produced an outstanding game that will satisfy even the most hardcore fans of the sport. It is extremely playable but fiendishly challenging when it wants to be, something which we rarely see in games now.
Sure it has it shortcomings in the multiplayer department and the PlayStation 3 version takes a slight graphical hit, but all-in-all there is little else we can say is wrong with F1 2011.
What it doesn't quite manage is creating a game that just about everyone can enjoy. The level of simulation and detail does mean that you are going to need at least some prior interest in the sport to get satisfaction from a race. If you consider yourself a bit of an F1 sceptic, consider waiting for Forza 4.
This said, we imagine creating an accurate F1 game for everyone to be an almost impossible task. Codemasters has gone as far as they possibly can with it, opening up the sport to all but the biggest sceptics.
There are few racing games we can think of with such an emphasis on enjoyable gameplay. Bizarre then that it fell on a super accurate simulation of the world's most technically advanced sport, to make racing games fun again. Keep up the good work Codemasters.