(Pocket-lint) - Somehow, developer Codemasters has managed to derive some positives from the tricky task of creating an annual sports-game franchise in the middle of a global pandemic.
The 2021 iteration of the officially licensed Formula One game has an eye-catching selection of new features – far more than you would expect from a game that is on a rolling yearly development cycle – and cleverly conceived tweaks that make it even more accessible to those who follow F1 but who don't necessarily have the hardcore driving skills to entertain dreams of professional racing in real life.
So do these new elements help F1 2021 to retain its racing-game crown?
Chief among the new additions is Braking Point, a story mode whose nearest analogue is FIFA's The Journey (appropriately enough, given that FIFA's publisher Electronic Arts recently bought Codemasters).
It follows the fortunes of two contrasting team-mates (you can choose between various midfield teams), rookie Aiden Jackson and veteran Dutchman Casper Akkerman, along with a supporting cast of team personnel, family members, and the wonderfully sinister and narcisstic driver Devon Butler, who delights in sowing discord among his rivals.
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While Braking Point's storyline unfolds like a soap opera, you must successfully negotiate a two-season-long series of driving challenges, in which you're dropped into races with specific objectives. Those become steadily harder, generating a judicious difficulty curve.
At first you're expected to merely pick up the odd point (Braking Point doesn't really reward you if you exceed expectations by, say, winning a race in an Alpha Tauri), eventually you'll find yourself having to negotiate the awesome Spa in the rain or bag a podium at the exhilarating but tricky Zandvoort.
Braking Point is great fun, and doesn't take itself too seriously: if the real-life Formula One paddock was as catty and gossipy as it depicts, it would fuel an endless stream of scandals. It also makes F1 2021 feel more like a well-rounded game than just a racing simulator.
Plus, Braking Point's harder challenges leave you in good stead for the game's main career mode, which has received some welcome attention. The 2021 offering is the first F1 game to support two-player careers, in which you and an online friend can negotiate a shared path through Formula One. You can opt to play it as team-mates committed to a single team, or you can sign for different teams (with the possibility of coming together in a team via the game's contracts system). The two-player career option offers an intriguing fresh twist to the game.
If you pick the single-player career, you can now choose what Codemasters calls a Real-Season Start, and jump into 2021's season at the race of your choice, with the standings as they were in real life at that point.
Another welcome career mode tweak is the option to emulate practice sessions without actually driving in them, which can be a boon if you know the particular circuit well. That option still lets you run specific testing programmes, which generate points that you can spend on car upgrades.
That role-playing-like car upgrade system – as crucial in the game as it is in real life – has also been rendered less arcane, with the skill-tree replaced by simple visual representations of the parts you're researching. As a result, it's much more understandable for those who aren't already immersed in the minutiae of Formula One.
The overall effect is to make F1 2021 more accessible than its predecessors to gamers who gravitate towards the more casual end of the spectrum. As with previous F1 games, those without semi-pro racing skills can crank up an array of driver aids, while if driver aids are beneath you, you can experience just how tricky this year's crop of Formula One cars really are to drive.
Which, as we've become accustomed to realising in F1 games, is a revelation. Even when using a gamepad, F1 2021's car-feel is phenomenal: you really do get a sense of the immense grip levels the cars possess along with a level of sheer speed which is breathtaking.
As it should do for reasons of authenticity, tyre degradation plays a big part: the late stages of races invariably become a struggle to keep your car on the island.
And F1 2021 even makes a passable fist of conveying the loss of downforce drivers experience when they come up behind other cars – get too close to a car in a twisty section, and you'll find yourself afflicted by armfuls of understeer. In technical terms, F1 2021 is at least as good as any racing game on the market, whether you prefer things arcade-style or fearsomely true to life.
The mind boggles at the level of realism Codemasters would be able to achieve if it had designed the game purely for the Xbox Series X/PS5 generation of consoles. But, understandably given the persistent new-generation supply problems, it is a cross-generational game. One welcome innovation, though, is the ability for PS4 owners to play online against PS5 owners, and Xbox One owners to do likewise against Series X/S owners.
Online, proceedings are still pretty intimidating if you don't have the sort of commitment levels that lead you to splash out on a wheel and pedals combo. However, the two-player career mode option mitigates that to a certain extent.
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In terms of tracks, F1 2021 comes with 20, with three more – Portimao, Jeddah and Imola – to come. In normal circumstances, Codemasters would have a presence at each of the races, but Covid has mitigated against that, so the company has done very well to match this season's 23-race calendar (although that may still end up changing from what is currently mooted).
The raft of new elements and tweaks to F1 2021 suggests that keeping Codemasters' employees away from real-life Grand Prix may actually be a good thing – no Formula One game in living memory has so many new features to boast of.
In general, F1 2021 has a vast amount to offer. It's accessible yet utterly authentic, according to how you set it up, so no matter what type of gamer you are, you'll be able to find something new.
The story mode, Braking Point, adds some unexpected narrative flow and is great fun to negotiate your way through. Tweaks to elements like the upgrade system also make it more accessible to more casual gamers too.
Overall, F1 2021 is pretty much an exemplar of what a racing game should be, whether you're a Formula One fan or not. So if you intend to buy just one motor racing game this year, you simply won't find one better than this.