(Pocket-lint) - Officially licensed sports games that come out every year often struggle to convince gamers that they are sufficiently different from the previous year's effort to justify their purchase. Impressively, that is not a problem that afflicts F1 2020.

Developer Codemasters has managed to come up with two new elements that massively broaden its appeal – to a constituency way beyond those who would merely class themselves as Formula One fans.

Plus, F1 2020 also functions as a unique historical document of sorts, since it chronicles a “ghost season” which in real life has been altered beyond all recognition by Covid-19.

Casual and pro alike

F1 2020's most significant new feature is, curiously, one which the vast majority of those who buy the game will studiously ignore. Entitled Casual mode, it cranks up the driver assists to the maximum, and dials down the realism in certain ways so that, for example, cars behave manageably even during off-track excursions.

The end result is that it makes even the most ham-fisted drivers, with the sketchiest grasp of racing lines, weight-transfer and so on, feel like heroes. Casual mode is so effective that it opens up F1 2020 to gamers who prefer arcade-style racing games.

For those who value their driving skills, though, it feels rather like cheating. And it also combines will with a (vertical) split-screen two-player racing mode, returning to a Formula One game after a six-year hiatus.

Laying the foundations

Meanwhile, gamers who like a bit of team management thrown in with their on-track action have also been catered for in F1 2020, with a new mode called My Team.

This takes the Career mode (which is still in the game) and adds an extra fantasy dimension which Formula One fans should find thrilling: it lets you start a new, fictional career as owner-driver (drivers have started their own Formula One teams in the past, but not for several decades).

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So, on top of the same car-development elements as Career mode, you get to build and upgrade factory facilities, which has a knock-on effect on car development, plus attract and choose sponsors.

By investing in various factory elements, you can help your number two driver to improve aspects of their racing, and what you do on track has a big say in how quickly you can bring your newly formed team to competitiveness.

In the hands of anyone less on top of their game than Codemasters, My Team could have been a sprawling mess. Instead, it's simply and cleverly structured, and really makes you feel like you're taking the Formula One paddock by storm.

Better than real life

However, the most unique aspect of F1 2020, which instantly sets it apart from its predecessors, is that by virtue of existing in a virtual world, it's able to chronicle what the 2020 Formula One season would have been like had it not been decimated by a certain c-word that's stormed the whole year.

In real life, the season only just got underway in July with a double-header of races in Austria, and complete uncertainty as to what races will take place once the eight European ones have been enacted.

Codemasters

This year should have seen two races added to the calendar, at a new street circuit in Hanoi, Vietnam; and Zandvoort, the much-loved Dutch circuit, returning to the roster for the first time since 1985. Neither circuit will see a real-life Formula One race this year, which is a massive shame, since they are both in the game and are thrilling to drive.

Hanoi is narrow in places, with walls that must be avoided, but is also unusually high-speed for a street circuit, with three straights providing overtaking opportunities and some incredible sequences of high-speed corners.

Zandvoort is wide, low-grip and more old-fashioned, but is a true drivers' track that rewards extreme bravery and precision.

Technically adept

Anyone who has played one of Codemasters' recent F1 games would expect F1 2020 to set new technical standards for racing games, and that's precisely what it does. It looks magnificent, and the feel you get from the cars is uncanny, even via a controller rather than a wheel-and-pedals driving rig.

Codemasters

The way in which the cars' tyres noticeably start losing grip after a few laps provides great insight into the techniques the real drivers must master, and at certain circuits you have to preserve fuel by lifting and coasting. All this ramps up the excitement as Grands Prix build to their climaxes.

The AI-controlled drivers are harsh but fair – make a mistake and they will punish you, but they won't make over-optimistic lunges unless, seemingly, you display a propensity for barging your way past the cars in front – the AI feels slightly tit-for-tat.

Online, it's a different story when you come up against human drivers, but at least the game enthusiastically dishes out penalties for egregious moves.

F1 2020 is also more integrated than ever with the official F1 Esports competition, so if you display the sort of preternatural driving talent that would be required to make it to the real-life grid, you can use it as a springboard to compete with the big beasts. But you can also test the online waters via unranked practice sessions and the like: Codemasters has stratified the game's online side about as well as could be envisaged.

Codemasters

The only element of F1 2020 which strikes anything resembling a bum note is a trivial one in the game's grand scheme of things: the computer-generated drivers, as seen in cut-scenes, are just about recognisable, but look way less true to life than the rest of the game. The in-race interviews can also seem a tad pointless and irrelevant at times.

Extra customisability has been added to the game, too, so you can opt to contest truncated seasons in a more bite-sized manner should you so wish, and it contains the usual store of iconic cars from yesteryear which you can pilot in various scenarios and challenges. Plus it contains 2019's full Formula Two season.

Verdict

Overall, F1 2020 is a tour de force. Crank up Casual mode and you can play it as if it were an arcade racer – except you're at the wheel of the fastest, grippiest machinery that has ever existed. Turn off all the assists, invest in a racing rig and the game morphs into an uncanny simulator which will leave you in no doubt as to why you never managed to make it as a professional racing driver.

F1 2020, more than any of its predecessors, is not just for die-hard Formula One fans. It is, quite simply, the best racing game currently on sale; it just happens to boast the official license for the pinnacle of motorsport. Codemasters, once again, has set the bar intimidatingly high for its rival developers.

Writing by Steve Boxer. Editing by Mike Lowe.