Almost 20 years ago a talented team of developers at Psygnosis released an officially licensed Formula 1 game for the PlayStation that proved to be arguably the defining console F1 game of the era ? Formula 1 ?97.
It was not the most realistic, the best-looking or the most feature-laden F1 game of the time, but with a highly satisfying analogue handling model, great accessibility, a plethora of customisation options to make the experience as casual or challenging as players desired and true TV-style presentation, F1 ?97 offered an authentic racing experience that was truly unrivalled.
Despite a number of solid console Formula 1 releases since then, from the EA games of the early 2000s to Studio Liverpool?s PlayStation-exclusive series and now Codemasters?s modern franchise, there has not been a game since that has quite reached the same level of immersion and encapsulated the spirit that Formula 1 ?97 provided all those years ago.
That is, possibly, until F1 2016.
More freedom for the player
A new and expanded Career Mode adds much to F1 2016Despite leaping into the current generation of hardware with F1 2015 which boasted arguably the best on-track action the series has ever seen, the lack of key features and modes made last year?s title feel a lot like a prototype. Like so many real F1 teams, Codemasters? development focus had firmly been on next year.
With F1 2016 releasing today, however, it?s apparent that the Birmingham-based developers have spent the last two years wisely, producing what is clearly their best game since taking on the official Formula 1 license in 2009.
Of course, the headline feature for this season is the much anticipated return of career mode, which has been entirely rebuilt from the ground-up. Players have the freedom to choose their racing number, edit a number of templates to create their own personalised helmet design and select whichever team they want to race for from the start of their career, as well as which team mate they want to compete alongside.
Encompassing ten full seasons, a deep but accessible research and development system forms the backbone of the new career mode. Good performances on track earn resource points. Collect enough points and you will be able to upgrade your car in one of five areas ? including aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. All upgrades will impact on your car?s performance on track and carry over between seasons ? meaning it is possible for take a back-marking team like Manor or Sauber to championship contention, should you drive well enough to earn a lot of resource points.
New practice programmes provide some fun ways to earn resource points during the build up to a grand prix in the form of three mini games. The track acclimitisation programme offers points for successfully hitting braking, apex and corner exit points, with faster corner speeds rewarding greater points. A tyre management programme gives you points for meeting target lap times without putting too much strain on the tyres and can be genuinely useful for helping you to improve your driving techniques. Finally, a qualifying simulation programme allows you to practice your hot laps to a target laptime to help dial in your set up and prepare for the real deal.
With AI teams also developing their cars over the course of career mode, the field is constantly in flux with the potential for Mercedes to be caught and passed by Red Bull or Ferrari while the player slowly builds up their own team to mount a challenge for the titles in an upcoming season. For those who want the ultimate challenge, the Pro Career mode also returns from last year to allow players to experience career mode in the most unforgiving and realistic way possible.
The damage model has become more sophisticatedOn track there is a subtle but significant difference to the handling model this year. Whereas in 2015, when cars were forgiving at the limit of grip, F1 2016?s cars feel considerably more weighty and can no longer be balanced effortlessly when they break traction. It?s something that will likely affect controller players more than wheel users, as the decreased steering sensitivity in the game makes navigating fast chicanes and sweepers more difficult than last year?s game.
The cars are also more challenging without driving assists, especially when driving without traction control. Too much throttle on the exit of a fast corner and you?ll either find yourself struggling to save a tank-slapper as you fight the car?s lateral momentum, or losing control entirely and sliding directly into the barrier.
And hitting the barriers ? or, indeed, anything ? is especially punishing this season with the addition of the new ?simulation? damage model. Perhaps more than any other new gameplay feature, this has the potential to add the most to the immersion factor as it will transform how players approach a race weekend.
With simulation damage, any significant contact to the wheels is likely to see them break off and cause an instant retirement to a session. Seeing a minor driving error that would have gone relatively unpunished in previous instalments result in a race-ending crash is a welcome sight for hardcore racers and will force players to adopt a new, more reserved approach to battling the AI, as the risk factor involved in making daredevil moves is now much greater than ever before. Those wanting a more forgiving experience still have the previous options of ?full?, ?reduced? or no damage.
Difficulty has always been a key point of contention with the Codemasters series for fans and this year it will something that will catch out a lot of players initially, both newcomers and established veterans alike. Players now have seven difficulty settings to choose from with the addition of the ?ultimate? AI level.
Every AI difficulty setting feels as though it has been made slightly quicker than last year. Whereas Legend AI had provided the perfect level of challenge for me in F1 2015, I was unable to match Pascal Wehrlein around Melbourne on Legend in career mode after an hour and a half of playing with setups, while the tyre management development programme was virtually impossible for me to complete successfully.
Racing in the wet is more challenging too, with such little grip available on full wet tyres in heavy rain conditions that it makes you more sympathetic to those drivers who bemoan having to drive in ?undriveable? wet track conditions in the real world.
The Safety Car returns
This looks like a job for Bernd MaylanderCodemasters have also provided players with a number of highly-requested features this time around. This year sees the welcome return of the Safety Car as well as the introduction of the Virtual Safety Car system. Both appear to work well, with the features helping to add an extra dimension of risk and reward to longer distance races that was missing from last year?s game. And with the simulation damage model, players should see more appearances by the Safety Cars than in the games of the previous generation of consoled.
The formation lap also makes an appearance for the first time in the Codemasters series and the developers have thankfully given players full control over their car for the lap, minus lining up on the grid. What some may consider a minor addition to the game actually goes a long way to building the immersion and excitement before a big career mode race, as well as providing players a chance to practice the new manual start feature.
As the five red lights illuminate, players hold down the gear up button to activate the clutch and balance the throttle in a sweet spot before releasing the clutch to launch off the grid. It?s a simple but effective system that takes out a lot of the randomness of starts that was present in previous games and means quick reactions can see players get a jump on AI rivals or other human racers in multiplayer.
And multiplayer sees a significant improvement for 2016 also. The introduction of full 22 car grids for the first time and the online championship save feature means that co-op championship returns in spirit this year, while league racers will find the ability to save and resume championships especially useful for organised online championships.
Codemasters? best yet
You can race Singapore in the day timePresentation wise, the game is virtually identical with last year, retaining the same front-end user interface, menu music, pre-race cinematics and post-race podium scenes as 2015. Engine sounds are relatively unchanged from last year, although ambient noise from other cars seems to have been boosted slightly. Graphics are once again impressive, with the game retaining the same smooth frame-rate as 2015 on PS4, albeit with some frame drops and mild screen tearing during some of the career mode cinematics.
Another welcome new element to the gameplay is the time of day editor that allows players the opportunity to choose the lighting conditions in which the race weekend sessions take place. You can choose to race on any track in sunrise, morning, midday, afternoon and sunset conditions which can go some way to changing the atmosphere and feel of the 21 circuits. While you are unable to run night races anywhere other than Bahrain, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, you do have the option to race those circuits in day conditions. Running around the Marina Bay circuit in broad daylight is quite an enjoyable novelty.
There are a number of little details that help add so much to the overall experience. Jeff the engineer returns and has a lot more information to provide to players during races, from whether or not to switch to race strategy plan ?b? or what your current live championship position is ? vital for those title-deciding races.
Players can now edit camera settings, adjust steering sensitivity and linearity on pads, plan out an entire race weekend and determine what weather changes will occur during which sessions and how long in. You can choose what tyre compound nominations you want for each full race weekend from three presets ranging from a preference for more softer tyres to a preference for harder ones.
On the track, you now receive live data on your car, allowing far more accurate and precise awareness of your tyre life and engine and brake temperatures. A time delta allows you to to tell in real time whether you are quicker or slower than your benchmark best laptime in a session, while there is also the option to have manual control of pit entry, where it is your responsibility to make sure you slow to the pit speed limit before crossing the pit entry line. Codemasters have even included the option for receiving an audible ?bleep? to indicate when to shift gears, just like the real drivers do.
Codemasters have produced their best F1 game yetAs full of content as F1 2016 is, there is still some room for improvement. There is no scenario mode or classic cars or tracks that we enjoyed in F1 2013. The opponent AI is strong for the most part and even prone to mistakes and believable collisions amongst each other during races, but I did experience a ?traffic jam? crash at Baku?s notorious turn eight that resulted in at least five AI cars being disqualified. Disappointingly, there?s still no way to save replays to watch full races back from different angles at a later date.
When you find a balance of all the gameplay options that you like, there is an awful lot of fun to have in F1 2016. From quick, casual thrills to getting lost in career mode running full distance races, wincing every time you get close to a barrier or rival, there is a level of immersion here that very, very few Formula 1 games have ever been able to achieve.
It goes without saying that to enjoy the on-track experience to the maximum, a quality wheel is essential. But no matter what you?re looking for from a Formula 1 game, you are very likely to find something to enjoy from what is undoubtedly a game worthy of the price of admission and Codemasters? best F1 outing to date.
F1 Fanatic rating
Formats: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Price: £34.99 (PC), £41.99 (PS4), £44.99 (Xbox One)
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