(Pocket-lint) - Developing a yearly game based on a sports licence can be a thankless task, especially in terms of convincing gamers that the latest iteration differs significantly from last year's one. But in the 10 years since Codemasters acquired the licence to make Formula One games, the Warwickshire developer has consistently improved its annual F1 offerings, and this year's effort feels like the culmination of that process.
There's one instantly tangible benefit to all of Codemasters' experience of making Formula One games: F1 2019 arrives earlier in the season than ever before, with 12 races yet to come – whereas a decade ago, F1 games would routinely come out when the season was all but over.
Check one, check two
F1 2019 contains another major first for the franchise, too: it incorporates Formula One's feeder series, F2.
Codemasters has cleverly used that to give the main Career mode extra narrative thrust. This time around, you have to earn your entry into Formula One by impressing in a truncated version of F2's 2018 season – which puts you up against the likes of Lando Norris, Alexander Albon and George Russell, all of whom earned full Formula One drives this year. Plus, you develop rivalries with a couple of fictitious drivers, who will also make it into Formula One's 2019 season.
Presuming you meet expectations (finishing in the top two of the F2 championship), you then get to choose which F1 team to join, and must pay a bit more attention to your contract than previously. Another new feature for F1 2019 is the possibility of drivers moving between teams (a process which mostly takes place in the off-season).
Shape your career
It's then time to plunge into a full F1 career, an experience which feels more roleplay-like than ever, thanks in part to your ability to dictate how your car should be developed, using Resource Points that you earn through completing programmes in each Grand Prix's practice sessions, as well as through your qualifying and racing efforts.
A journalist frequently pops up to question you, which can influence your team's attitude to you and boost the morale in various of your team's technical departments. Your rivalry with your team-mate feeds into your progression, as does your propensity towards either sportsmanship or flamboyance behind the wheel.
There's real satisfaction to be found when new parts you've ordered arrive and give you more speed, although you also have to switch out worn components before they fail in races. Although driving around, say, a malfunctioning gearbox is surprisingly good fun.
Looks sharp, plays sharper
In terms of its graphics and gameplay, F1 2019 is unimpeachable. It looks fantastic – Codemasters has added new night-racing visual effects which appear eerily realistic – and more importantly, it feels stunning. You can sense the extra grip that this year's cars possess, but must beware the loss of downforce which occurs when you get right up behind another car.
Another noticeable tweak that adds further realism to this year's game is the way the cars interact with kerbs: if you get too greedy with them and your angle of approach is wrong, they will pitch you into spins.
And the way the tyres deteriorate during long stints means that you must exercise extra vigilance as the chequered flag beckons, braking earlier and being more careful when accelerating out of slow corners.
Beyond the main Career mode, F1 2019 is meatier than ever. You can play through the entire 2018 F2 season and there is an impressively large roster of Challenges, such as checkpoint races and vignettes from classic races in which you must overtake a set number of cars in an allotted number of laps. Challenges also crop up (optionally) during the regular season in Career mode.
There's a vast repository of Formula One cars from all ages, along with classic tracks, which you can use to build your own custom championships, and the online side of the game is more solid, inviting and inclusive than ever, with new multiplayer leagues designed to accommodate those of us who don't possess the sort of driving skills required to harbour professional e-sports ambitions.
F1 2019 also adds an element of integration with the official Formula One e-sports World Championship, in which all the real-life F1 teams have become involved – bringing a welter of news as well as the chance to spectate and comment.
It's difficult to find any fault with F1 2019; you could contend that accessing esoteric functions such as adjusting your ERS or communicating with your team is a tad fiddly if you're playing with a controller, but that just emphasises the game's nature as a state-of-the-art simulator, for which serious players will shell out on a steering wheel/pedals combo. Its familiar array of driver aids, which can be turned off individually, means it's still thoroughly accessible for lesser driving talents too.
If you haven't bought a Formula One game for a while, F1 2019 should be firmly on your radar: it's the best-looking and most realistic-feeling Formula One game yet and contains a host of new features which make it feel more coherent and meatier than ever before. Formula One remains the pinnacle of motorsports, and F1 2019 mirrors that by occupying the pinnacle of motorsports videogames.
Codemasters might have created a problem for itself as far as F1 2020 is concerned: it's hard to imagine how it could possibly improve on F1 2019. It really is that close to perfection.