Making Formula One games is a famously thankless task - mainly due to the fact that world's most-watched sport is a licensing minefield. Because all the track banners, minor sponsors' logos on cars and the like have to be true-to-life, it's simply impossible for Codemasters, holder of the F1 2014 game licence, to ever get a game ready for the start of the season.
Hence F1 2014's arrival with just three races left in the current season. And Codemasters has opted to concentrate on the current-gen consoles - versions of the game for the PS4 and Xbox One will arrive sometime next year, but we don't know when, or even whether they will be differently branded. None of which exactly positions F1 2014 as the most essential game release of the year, does it?
End of season
The good news, at least, is that F1 2014 is very impressive in technical terms. Graphically, it's stunning - it could be the best-looking current-gen racing game ever. And it's equally impressive on the car-feel front.
This year, of course, has seen a radical change to the power-train element of Formula One, with the cars running smaller-capacity turbocharged engines that generate vast amounts of torque and, in conjunction with stricter rules on aerodynamics, make the cars much more of a handful to drive. F1 2014 replicates that beautifully: from the off, you have to be noticeably more circumspect when you pile on the power, especially coming out of slow corners - throttle control instantly comes to the fore.
Codemasters has also sought to increase the game's appeal to less hardcore players by scrapping the Young Drivers' Test which kicked off proceedings in the last few iterations, and replacing it with a single lap of Monza, which is supposed to be the best way of establishing your skill level and setting driver aids accordingly.
Unfortunately, the game insisted on turning braking assistance on throughout that process, a "driver aid" which actually makes the car much harder to drive and rendered the entire process pointless. Bring back the Young Drivers' Test, Codies.
Once we had manually altered the driver aid settings to our taste, there was almost nothing left with which to find fault. The new, longer-lasting ERS speed boost is a revelation when you learn how to use it in a tactical manner, driving the Sochi track for the first time was a rare pleasure, and Codemasters has introduced one tweak which is successful: you can choose cut-down seasons of seven or 12 races instead of a full season, which comes in handy if your play-time is limited.
The Scenario mode, which puts you into specific situations in past races and gives you objectives, has been fleshed out considerably, too, which will go down well with the Formula One fanatics and generally provides a substantial extra source of enjoyment.
As ever, the online side of the game is impeccable, and thanks to Codemasters now nicely honed RaceNet system setting up races against your mates or complete randoms is a breeze. Two-player split-screen racing is supported and with up to 16 players plus eight AI-controlled cars, you always find yourself part of a full Formula One grid.
If you really do believe that you're the next Lewis Hamilton, racing in F1 2014 online with all the driver aids turned off is the best way of finding out whether your talents actually match your self-belief. Little touches constantly leave you feeling that the game is impressively authentic - you really feel the result of wearing tyres, for example, yet the tyres last noticeably longer than they did in last year's game, as is the case for their real-life counterparts.
F1 fans only
But the big question-mark that constantly looms over F1 2014 is whether it's a must-buy. It's a vastly accomplished game, which is perfectly structured and executed with great technical aplomb, but it doesn't feel particularly different from last year's iteration. On that score, one has to feel some sympathy towards Codemasters, since the sport itself hasn't changed significantly in the past year - nor is it likely to as long as Bernie Ecclestone continues to pull its strings.
But the small ways in which Formula One has been tweaked also form the crux of F1 2014's appeal: if you're so deeply into Formula One that you absolutely need to experience what this year's cars, with their turbo engines and ERS, feel like, then you'll love F1 2014.
It's also nice to have something new to play on the PS3 or Xbox 360 too - of which there are still a vast amount lurking in living rooms around the country - but the lack of new-generation is a shame. Also if you aren't a major-league Formula One fanatic, you'll fail to see the point of F1 2014.
While F1 2014 is impressive in technical terms for a PS3 and Xbox 360 game, the overwhelming sense you get is that it's preaching to the converted. And if you're not an Formula One fan specifically then it probably goes without saying there's little here for you, unlike other more versatile driving games.
Not a great deal is new, it's late to the season and having ignored the next-gen consoles F1 2014 doesn't add a great deal to an already established formula. But if you're a mega fan it's worth a look.
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