Making Formula One games is a famously thankless task, but in recent years, Leamington Spa-based Codemasters has picked up that particular F1 baton and run with it in an increasingly impressive manner.
Once upon a time, thanks to the niceties of satisfying the official licence (such as getting every advertising hoarding spot-on), the annual Formula One game would arrive when the real-life season was all but done and dusted. But Codemasters' relationship with the powers that be is now good enough to allow F1 2016 to reach the shops at a more propitious time: the end of the mid-season summer break.
F1 2016 review: Career and acclimatisation
Last year's effort, F1 2015, was Codemasters' first game for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and, while, in technical terms, it was sufficiently impressive to satisfy the hardcore F1 fans, it felt a bit disjointed in pure gaming terms.
So F1 2016 works hard, with a large amount of success, to rectify that. This time around, in Career mode, the pre-season shoot-out has been dispensed with, so you merely choose what team you want to drive for (and can fiddle around to a small extent with how you look in the game).
Cleverly, though, much more emphasis has been placed on the free practice sessions, each of which gives you three mini-games to leaven what would otherwise be the tedium of pounding aimlessly around the track.
The first is a track-acclimatisation test, which gives you four laps to drive through strategically placed markers: you're penalised for ones you miss, or for driving through them too slowly.
The most fascinating mini-game is a tyre-wear assessment: very topical for those who follow F1 and are appalled by the fragility of Pirelli's tyres. Again, you're given four laps, and the battering you put your tyres through is captured at the end of each lap: there's a meter which goes from purple to green to red (the latter being bad), and in order to remain in the purple, you basically have to drive like the proverbial granny, while maintaining a certain speed-level. But on the other hand, being easy on your tyres can play to your advantage if, say, you want to switch mid-race from a three-stop to a two-stop strategy.
The third mini-game is a qualifying-lap simulation, which puts you on the grippiest tyres; between the three, they give you a great feel for the vagaries of the different tyre compounds, which is a central plank (like it or not) of today's Formula One.
F1 2016 review: Damage limitation
It's worth playing those mini-games, as they earn you Resource Points, which can be cashed in to upgrade different areas of your car.
And you earn Resource Points for exceeding expectations in races, too. Codemasters has hit upon what is essentially an XP system that brings tangible benefits and makes F1 2016 feel like a proper game, rather than a mere facsimile of what we watch on our TV screens.
There's also a rivalry system, which pits you against other drivers (initially your team-mate), and at the end of each race weekend, you're awarded reputation points, weighted according to how many driver aids you use, for example, which essentially give you a head-start when you pluck up the courage to play F1 2016 online (an experience which is every bit as hardcore as you would expect).
The usual plethora of driver aids are available, although there's one aspect which those whose enthusiasm for Formula One is greater than their natural driving talent might find challenging: damage is turned on by default, and F1 2016's damage system is rigorous (although you can select a dumbed-down level or turn it off). The tiniest nudge of a barrier or a rival will cripple your car and often result in a puncture, which will in turn leave you short of tyres in the free practice sessions.
F1 2016 review: Career and acclimatisation
You can select various levels of traction control, which is not available to real Formula One drivers these days, and feels a bit of a cheat as it gives you a massive advantage. Turn it off, though, and the car-feel that you get is absolutely sublime. You must be very careful on the throttle, as in the real cars. The difference in grip levels between the tyre compounds is an eye-opener, as is the effect of tyre degradation (you even feel the latter with traction control cranked up).
The AI in F1 2016 is spot-on, too. Computer-controlled drivers are aggressive and always keen to pass, but seem less eager to drive into the back of your car than they did in previous iterations of the game.
The realistic feel that F1 2016 delivers is amazing: if you ever wanted to know what nursing a car around a track on disintegrating tyres, while keeping an eye on fuel consumption, feels like for Formula One drivers, this game will let you share their frustration and appreciate the unseen skill that goes into driving a longer-than-average stint. And without sweating quite as much.
F1 2016 isn't free of flaws, though: the virtual renderings of drivers are pretty dodgy, although at least the game makes a stab at podium celebrations this time around.
And the commentary, as ever, deals in generalisations rather than specifics, and often strays into downright cliché.
F1 2016 is a triumph which will thrill console-owning Formula One fans.
It's the first officially licensed title that feels like a proper game, thanks to that meticulously structured Career mode, and it recreates the feel of participating in Formula One far more rigorously and realistically than any of its predecessors.
Given that the game is free of the politics and vested interests that currently mar the sport (Bernie Ecclestone is nowhere to be seen in the game), you could even argue that F1 2016 better than the real thing.
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