(Pocket-lint) - As far as the officially licensed annual game is concerned, Formula One fans have never had it so good. After nine years of making F1 games, Codemasters has managed to iron out the kinks in a notoriously tricky process – in which new tracks must be added (the returning Paul Ricard and Hockenheim for 2018), every virtual advertising hoarding must be approved by F1's myriad partners, and so on.
Miraculously, however, F1 2018 is ready for the sport's mid-season break, so it's now possible to pursue at least half a virtual Formula One season concurrently with the real-life one. And it's the best F1 game to date.
Off the track antics
The nature of the beast – as accurate a simulation of Formula One as possible – dictates that F1 2018 was never going to throw up any major surprises, but Codemasters has tweaked this year's offering very judiciously indeed. Perhaps the biggest addition is an upgraded, more accurate tyre model, which feeds into the car-handling and gameplay, as grip levels drop off when the tyres reach the end of their life (often rendering you a sitting duck for more pristinely shod cars, as often happens in real life).
Elsewhere in F1 2018, the main Career mode has received some tweaks that aim to instil an even greater sense that you're pretty much undergoing the same experiences as the real-life drivers. So your avatar goes through the turnstiles when you pitch up at a track for the first time, and a TV journalist appears periodically during the race weekend to interview you.
Your answers can bolster the morale of your technical departments – namely aero, chassis and power-train – which in turn influences the upgrades they provide at your request, via cashing in the Resource Points you earn from on-track exploits. That RPG-style mechanic, which Codemasters introduced in last year's game, feels more believable and compelling this time – especially when you get towards the end of a season and must decide whether to keep developing this year's car or to concentrate on next year's one.
Another new mechanic is less successful: what you do on track and what you say in interviews is fed into a meter which decides whether your style embraces showmanship or sportsmanship. We feel that being perceived as both shouldn't be impossible, and with little deviation from the mid-point of the meter and no tangible rewards, the whole exercise feels somewhat pointless.
On the track is where the fun is at
Welcome as adding role-playing-like depth to F1 2018 is, what really matters is what takes place out on the track, and on that front, the game delivers.
If you played F1 2017, you'll really be able to feel the effect that this year's regulations have had on the 2018 cars, with their wider tyres and extra power. The grip levels they achieve are truly astonishing – and, thanks to the new tyre model, the way grip drops off in the late stages of a race really forces you to adapt your driving style. Plus, you can take manual fine-control of the ERS energy-boost system: initially a bit fiddly if you're using a gamepad, but it comes in very handy when you're plotting a way past a similarly-paced car.
The apparent realism of the car-handling is brought into relief when you jump into one of the expanded roster of F1 cars from yesteryear: there are 20 classic F1 cars this time around, compared to last year's eight. Thus, we were able to jump into Championship mode and participate in a season comprising various modern tracks, behind the wheel of James Hunt's 1976 championship-winning McLaren. This choice proved thrillingly keen to slide around, and felt wildly under-braked compared to the 2018 cars, but was still a pleasure to drive rather than a handful.
Beyond the flagship Career mode – which, as ever, can be tailored to include, exclude or truncate the individual sessions that comprise a race weekend – F1 2018 has plenty more elements. Championship mode takes all the current tracks plus the game's full roster of cars (ancient and modern), and has fun dreaming up new formats which have never existed in real life, such as double-race weekends which include a sprint race.
Events bring downloadable challenges – the challenges which appeared last year and occasionally leaven proceedings between race weekends in Career mode also return – that are playable for a limited time. The first Event has a touch of Nostradamus about it: it projects a scenario at the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix (which, at the time of review, hasn't yet taken place), in which Carlos Sainz Jr's Renault is stuck among slower cars in 14th place, and you must get him up to at least eighth.
On the multiplayer front, Codemasters says that it has addressed some existing issues by adding a new system for assessing driver skill which should lead to better matchmaking, and increasing the penalties for unsportsmanlike driving, which should be welcomed by the less hardcore and talented drivers, and generally make the multiplayer side of the game feel a tad less intimidating. Unfortunately, we didn't have a chance to assess whether those tweaks had the desired effect, due to the limited amounts of online players pre-release.
Authenticity to the fore
What Codemasters has unequivocally achieved with F1 2018, though, is a game which feels like it delivers a more authentic Formula One experience than any of its predecessors.
Whether you're managing tyres that are falling off a cliff, while ignoring your team's pleas to come in for a late stop for fresh rubber, trying to keep to the speed delta during a Virtual Safety Car, adjusting the ERS to keep a faster car from using its DRS to out-drag you on the straight, or negotiating an unfeasibly lucrative contract having caught the eye of the Mercedes team, it really makes you feel like a current Formula One driver.
If we have one quibble, it's that AI-controlled drivers don't seem to get penalised quite as heavily as you do for egregious indiscretions (although at least there is a flashback system that lets you rewind when your car would otherwise be eliminated from the race). At one point, for example, while leading in Shanghai, Lewis Hamilton drove into the back of us around the last corner, which might have been believable behaviour if our nearest pursuer had been Sebastian Vettel, but left a bitter taste. On the whole the AI is otherwise impressive: blue-flagged back-markers will move over for you on short straights, for example, but you must approach them warily in twisty bits, just like in real life.
For Formula One fans, F1 2018 is a pretty essential purchase. It looks fabulous and, more importantly, the cars feel fabulous to race.
This year's game offers all the arcane experiences that go into making up a modern Formula One driver's working life. And while 2018 may not be a golden era for Formula One itself (although the sport has improved noticeably since Bernie Ecclestone relinquished control), it sure is for Formula One games.