Formula 1 2011
The closing comment in my review of last year’s F1 2010 was, despite the overwhelming success of the relaunched series, its true success ‘is its potential to grow together [with the sport] in 2011’. An overly ambitious debut, offering a mere taste of what could be to come in the future. The core gameplay’s success meant all that was required of Codemasters Birmingham was a yearly service – ironing out AI issues, increasingly functionality and implementing the sport’s new regulations. It would have been all too easy to cash the cheque. F1 2011 is however, an unexpected evolution that once again aims to redefines expectations, and does so with resounding success.
What F1 2010 possessed in sheer gameplay quality, it lacked in interactivity and functionality. Its career mode was sufficient enough to feel more than a string of single events, but it fell tragically short on its motto of “living the life of a Formula 1 driver”. Features such as inter-team and championship rivalries were present, yet hollow. The AI difficulty also often undermined a sense of achievement, as opponents failed to overtake even the slowest of back markers. Points were a frequently possibility in even a Lotus; hardly a faithful representation of the 2010 mechanical hierarchy.
Entering your first season as one of the six slowest teams, it is clear that this is no longer the case. Even the most hardened of F1 2010 players will find it near impossible to beat the likes of Williams and Force India from the cockpit of a Lotus, Virgin or HRT on ‘Legend’ difficulty (the only option that provides an accurate degree of AI competition). It’s a successful transition that makes single player modes more demanding than previously, but at the same time it presents the natural problem of limiting the player’s success. It’s difficult to enjoy a debut season with one of the bottom three teams simply because 19th place is easily achievable, but 18th is only attainable through circumstances outside of the player’s control. Unlike in F1 2010, these teams are consistently two seconds slower than their nearest competitors. The woes of Lotus, Virgin and HRT are faithfully represented, but authenticity doesn’t necessarily translate into an engaging experience. This first season becomes nothing more than an extended tutorial.
The underlying reason for not being able to produce obscure results is the new physics engine. Every technical tweak made to the car in the garage has a clear response on how each corner is approached. The rear of the car is ever more important, swaying around with great momentum when heavily fuelled, yet dancing about apexes when light. When combined with the new Pirelli tyre model of highly-degradable tyres, a skilled player must not just understand the technical requirements of driving the perfect lap, but also how to maximise that performance relative to their current levels of grip and downforce. Put a wheel on the grass all too often and you’ll be punished with needing to take an early pit stop, which in turn will leave you needing to set some fast times to maximise the undercut, whilst desperately trying to prolong the life of your new set. Unfortunately though, multi-pit stop strategy is only effective over races of 50% distance (up to an hour) or greater. An unnecessary removal of the 30% somewhat spoils the opportunity to toy with strategy – 50% distance is simply impractical for career mode. A full season would equate to an overwhelming 40 hours of gameplay.
The transition up the field is significantly more rewarding in F1 2011. The revamped physics engine places emphasis on the unique traits of each machine. The Mercedes has formidable straight-line speed when gear ratios are optimised, whereas the Renault glides around high speed corners effortlessly and the HRT weeps from non-existent drive out of slower corners. There’s a genuine sense of entitlement to the best machinery as you work up the grid; racing at the front holds an intensity that the back of the grid can never truly replicate.
In terms of the circuits themselves, all nineteen provide their own challenge. There is no golden rule to mastering street circuits, or the optimal set up for classic high speed venues. True to the 2011 season, there has been little turnover – the forgettable Bahrain and ailing Hockenheim replaced by the stunning (new) Nurburgring and the debuting Indian GP. Though the returning tracks will feel instantly familiar to fans of the series, the new regulations offer a completely new dynamic; a mastery of F1 2010 will not stop you panicking about whether your DRS is still open or not in those early events.
Away from the rubber marbles and gravel traps, this year’s outing is a more defined package. The online multiplayer has been reworked to promote community growth, whereas interviews and contract negotiations are somewhat less artificial. Radio 5 Live commentator David Croft becomes the ‘face’ of the media, though interviews themselves remain disappointingly objective. It’s also impossible to judge how your reputation is growing amongst rival team bosses. After sixteen races of flattering my HRT, I remain clueless as to whether the likes of Williams or Force India are set to offer me a contract. As a result of licensing issues, as the player you remain the only driver who is able to switch teams, meaning even the virtual Felipe Massa cannot yet be usurped by Sergio Perez or Robert Kubica.
Formula 1 2011 is a significantly better game than 2010, but a few unnecessary feature removals and replacements prevent it from truly living up to its potential. Behind the wheel, once again it sets an intimidating benchmark for the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo to reach. There is not a virtual racing experience more intense, exciting and strategic currently on the market. Crucially though, minor decisions like the removal of the 30% race distance and failing to expand on media interview leave Codemasters stumbling, rather than falling, at the last hurdle to greatness. In every way, 2011 is the superior game to its forebearer, but regrettably handicaps itself in the most minor but consequential ways.
We were prophesized a Senna, but instead delivered a Mansell.