“We’ve had lots of Tweets from your fans,” claims F1 2011’s interviewer as you start up the main career mode. It’s a little cringeworthy, for sure, but it’s as good a method of getting the player to enter their name and nationality as any other, as the carefully chosen questions tempt out the required data to populate your save game. The man facing you (and his cameraman stood off to the side) forcefully demonstrate that Codemasters’ strength lies in modelling cars though, not humans, the lifeless figures that populate F1 2011’s more expanded off-track sections hardly L.A. Noire material.
They don’t have to be, of course, because F1 2011’s racing credentials more than live up to expectations, but it’s jarring to see a full pit crew and various press wandering around so poorly realised. If Codemasters were hoping that the increased pedestrian presence would improve immersion they only got it half right, the remaining list of new features thankfully much more substantial. 2011 is a more comprehensive game than 2010, but the question is whether or not enough has changed for the better.[drop]The presentation has certainly ramped up, even if it’s merely incrementally in some areas. The menu system itself is still as slick as ever (and I still adore the way you fill out your own F1 championship from blocks of bespoke races) and the off track areas, including your trailer and the new Parc Ferme sections, help to create a bit more of an atmosphere. They’re not perfect, as I’ve said, but they’re there, and the overall result is undoubtably positive for F1 fanatics.
Your own personal area features a laptop (with emails and race information), the ability to change your helmet and the option to view the race calendar. It’s not an essential improvement, but it’s consistent enough with the garage viewpoint (where you can consult the in-car computer and engineer as before) that it’s worth having. It’s not terribly different from what you’ve been used to in past titles, but all this (and the post-race sequences) at least try to offer a more complete experience. Certainly, nothing else has ever attempted to be an all-encompassing title the way F1 2011 has, even if it doesn’t always get it right.
Loading times are still a killer though (and one track, Singapore, steadfastly refused to progress past the loading screen in our build, no matter how many times we tried) – this is something that all of Codemasters’ recent racing games have suffered with and it’s surprising that they’re still as long as they are. Once you’re in the garage it’s plain sailing, but until then you’re left staring at a screen full of slowly scrolling statistics, at least on the PS3.[drop2]On the track, though, you’ll be glad to know that F1 2011 hasn’t lost its mojo. The handling, regardless of the amount of driver assists you’ve got going on, is sublime, and some tweaks to the physics (such as realistic traction on kerbs) make an altogether more believable drive. Naturally, the game’s most disposable on the easiest settings, where the brakes are automatic and the tyres at their most grippy, but hardcore racing fans will quickly want to dial down the settings to get the most of it.
The presence of KERS and DRS will impress devotees to the sport, too. KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) converts otherwise wasted energy from the brakes into acceleration (like a boost of power) and is illustrated via a little battery icon on the HUD. The speed increase is subtle, but can make all the difference if deployed tactically. The other new feature, DRS (Drag Reduction System) opens up the rear wing, losing downforce on corners but effectively giving a little more speed. Both are handled well (and mapped to a trigger and the Triangle button on PS3) but probably won’t be too obvious for casual gamers.
Other improvements over last year’s game include better, more realistic AI – although our build was marked as ‘work-in-progress’ in this area – which generally means that there’s less cheating in qualifying and the computer controlled drivers will be smarter with regards to tyre use. The race engineer communications are more useful too, giving you over-the-radio updates on your car and those around you, including information on fuel, pitting, pace and so on – this extends to online too, so in theory you can keep an ear out for what your opponents are up to.[boxout]Online itself is where the biggest changes are – there’s now a full grid of cars (with 8 AI drivers against 16 online players) which makes a huge difference to the game, but it’s in the lobbies where Codemasters have really worked hard. Balanced objectives now mean that weaker players don’t necessarily need to beat the better ones – F1 2011 will look at your ability, rank and car and give you realistic targets rather than just ‘come first’, and you can now instantly fill up the lobby with AI drivers and kick start a countdown once it’s half full, removing the waiting around that the last game suffered from. Those using assists will find themselves subject to weight increases once they rank up, too.
Offline the game now supports split screen, and there’s a two player co-op championship if you’ve got a buddy you can rely on. Finally, there’re two new tracks: India and Nurburgring, and some visual improvements, especially with regards to much improved lighting effects and enhanced track side detail. The framerate’s still not perfect, mind, and it’s not particularly a hugely impressive looking game even running at around 30fps unless you’re playing it in the admittedly rather fantastic looking rain, but fans will rest easy knowing that the developers have moved in the right direction, just a little incrementally.
- Improvements all around to the handling and AI
- Better online lobbies
- KERS and DRS are nice for hardcore fans
- The off-track stuff looks and feels a little basic
- Visually roughly the same, frame rate isn’t perfect
Now the tricky part – is F1 2011 worth picking up if you already own 2010? That’s a question that only the individual can really answer – there’s certainly a good, extensive and solid game here but then a good chunk of it is clearly based on last year’s code and visuals, even most of the menu interface remains the same. The improvements are all for the better – that’s for sure – but perhaps we’d have liked to have seen more of them. Anyone that bypassed 2010 and held out for this years can relax easy, though, this is probably the best Formula One game we’ve seen for years.
Disclaimer: the review code we had was marked WIP in certain areas. The AI wasn’t fully finished and some features, like the safety car, will be finalised with a later patch. We’re expecting retail copies next week, so we’ll update as necessary.