Last year's well-received F1 2010 was Codemasters doing what Codemasters does best: unadulterated, realistic racing. It was a hard-nosed brute of a title, a world away from the fun but shallow DiRT 2 – its stablemate at the time.
F1 2010 was an entirely different beast; tough, authentic and laser-focussed. It was ultimately the more satisfying of the two, requiring significant dedication to wring success from it. It wasn't without its foibles but the crew at Codemasters Birmingham had embraced and recreated the world of Formula 1 better than any developer previously.
Enter F1 2011. It'd take quite a cynic to be concerned the sequel to the BAFTA Award-winning F1 2010 would be poorer than its predecessor, and it's not. F1 2011 is more of a confident step forward than a giant leap, but it's an improvement nonetheless.
The first order of business here has clearly been a spoonful of cement, because F1 2011 has hardened up significantly. F1 2010 was cruel on the uninitiated. F1 2011 is downright merciless.
Returning fans of F1 2010 will note the changes to the handling, which are all for the better. Cars in F1 2011 feel far less twitchy; fixes to the suspension and aero models have obviously helped greatly. F1 2011's updated aero seems to better communicate weight (crucial considering the aerodynamic elements on an F1 car can produce as much as three times the car's weight in downforce) and the suspension tweaks have meant superior handling at slower speeds. The results are pleasing across the board. High speed handling feels more authentic, with a suitably heavy feel to cars travelling at extreme velocity, and low speed corners feel more manageable thanks to boosted mechanical grip.
F1 2011 is a better reflection of the characteristics of a real F1 car than F1 2010, but that isn't what has made the game harder. In fact, the learning curve for this year's version is more accommodating than last year's. Because of this increased authenticity the cars arguably feel a little less unpredictable and are therefore easier to master. Improved feedback means you can better find and feel the limits of your car. It's something you'll notice when you really begin to attack the kerbs and discover you can snap your car out of a threatening slide if you catch the tail in time.
What makes F1 2011 so ruthless, rather, is the opposition AI. There wasn't anything particularly faulty about the AI in F1 2010 but here in F1 2011 it's more adaptive and seems to better respond to your actions on track. They're aggressive, quick and they will catch you napping, but they won't attack at the expense of damaging their own vehicle.
Above everything your approach to F1 2011 must be methodical. F1 is a complex motorsport and F1 2011 is a fittingly complex game. If you want to win here you need to be committed. Activate the game's full suite of driving aids and dial down the opponent difficulty to its lowest setting and, after getting to grips with the handling, you should be able to dominate. However, played how it ought to be played (with limited to no aids and more tenacious opposition) F1 2011 is a feral mustang that'll take more than a few lengthy sittings to tame. Even at medium difficulty the AI drivers will push you to the absolute limit.
You need to learn every track – and there are 19 of them (including the new Buddh International Circuit in India) so it'll take a while. You need to know which corners you can take flat out and which ones you can't. Brake, or even feather the throttle for a moment, on a corner you should be relying on speed and downforce to get you around without slowing down and your rivals will chew you up. A dynamic driving line can be switched on to help here.
Above all you need to become comfortable with the fact that, at least when the game begins, finishing in first is not a requirement, it's not expected and frankly it's just not possible. Players shouldn't really get their first wins in F1 2011 until they have a car with the capacity to get out in front and the skills to drive it consistently quick.
But there's more to excelling in F1 2011 than just driving fast. Consistency is key. You need to find your maximum potential and get into a groove. Above all, it's a strategy game. You need to exploit track conditions; times at the end of qualifying will be quicker than at the beginning when the track is green. Tyre choice and management is paramount; F1 2011 now features full race weekends, so you get access to all three practice sessions. You need to carefully juggle your available tyre sets with a mind to not only qualify as high up the grid as possible but also save your freshest rubber for the race. You also need to be aware of debris on the track; deviating from the racing line will pick up marbles on your tyres. You need to be wary of mistreating your car lest you suffer a mechanical breakdown. You need to do a lot more than just squeeze the accelerator and point the car away from the walls.
Codemasters has added a safety car this year, which is a fantastic feature. After a bad accident the safety car will come out for a few laps and pick up the leader, with the rest of the field bunching up behind. The safety car brings with it a whole new set of issues to remain across. Your engineer will tell you to change your fuel mix to save fuel while in the safety car queue. You have partial control while behind the safety car; you need to steer, accelerate and brake but the game will autobrake for you if you go too fast. You can also pit under the safety car for a tactical advantage. The safety car is a great addition, but you can turn it off if you choose. Events can also be red flagged. This happened only once to us, when we triggered an extensive pile up on the first corner at Monaco.
The most welcome feature Codemasters has added this year is the KERS and DRS systems. KERS is a mild power boost you can use basically once per lap, and DRS changes the angle of the car's rear-wing, reducing drag and increasing speed. The impact of KERS and DRS on your lap times will be minor (you'll notice it more during qualifying, when you can use DRS whenever you want) but learning how to use them properly will be important. The game could have done a better job educating players on the use of these tools but, admittedly, F1 2011 is not really designed with non-F1 fans in mind.
Multiplayer now supports up to 16 players (along with eight AI bots for a full field). Like DiRT 3 Codemasters Birmingham has also rediscovered splitscreen, and there's also an online co-op feature where two players can race for the same team. This remains untested, but this new mode has a huge amount of potential. The dynamic of working together with a friend to clinch a constructor's title while simultaneously trying to beat him or her to the driver's trophy sounds hugely appealing.
If we had to be critical of the career mode, the area of the game designed to be milked the most, we'd say it's still quite sterile. It's just like F1 2010, adequate yet kind of unfulfilling. You kick off your career with one of the minnow teams, competing for scraps at the back of the pack. The more team objectives you successfully meet the more you'll increase your reputation and, in turn, your chances of scoring a gig with the champion outfits later on. It all works but it lacks a bit of personality. Hanging around a team trailer checking emails between races isn't high on the sort of drama or passion we connect with Formula 1. On the track Codemasters has things nailed. Off it, things could be a little more engaging. We're not really after something as gripping as Fight Night Champion, just something with a little more character.
Visually speaking it also doesn't quite stand up to the sort of scrutiny the screenshots may lead you to believe. The tracks look good, but they're definitely designed to be seen whipping by as a blur, not examined close up. They're excellent facsimiles of the real things but they just seem to lack a little nuance. The game actually looks its best in the wet rather than under full sun.
The game also struggles to deal with accidents. They look realistic enough at speed but in slow-motion things are a little sketchy. One moment you'll be admiring how sliding into wall, nose first, has convincingly sheared the front wing off when suddenly you notice the rear of your car has vanished below ground level. Crashes involving large packs of cars are a little underwhelming too; spearing into the bedlam of the first corner at Monaco we noted rogue cars will become transparent when it suits the game. They're minor gripes, though. The effect they have on the racing itself is minimal.
The best way to describe F1 2011 is as an assault. It assaults your vision with corners that are gobbled up beneath your car faster than you can blink. It assaults your ears with the authentic banshee-like shrieking of F1 racing. It assaults your reflexes with split-second race-breaking moments. You don't have time to think; just act. F1 2011 places you on a ragged edge where to relax is to crash. At the end of a race – whether you've shrewdly held off the pack for the win, battled your way into the points or fought valiantly for position lower down the field – a pair of gnarled hands and a sweaty controller may be your only real reward, but the sense of accomplishment runs far deeper.
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