If there was a perfect opportunity to overhaul and revitalise Formula 1 video games, it was 2014. It wasn’t just that a new generation of console hardware was approaching its first birthday, allowing for much greater graphical fidelity, but at the same time, sweeping regulation changes had well and truly shaken up the pecking order in the sport, with new engines, new sounds, new winners and new losers.
In the end it wasn’t to be, as last year saw Codemasters push out a muted rehash of F1 2013 for the last generation of hardware only, but made sure to say at the same time that the pain and disappointment felt by fans would get better. F1 2015 would be the big leap forward that we’ve been waiting for over the last few years. It might just be worth the wait.
Cutting straight to the chase, there is a quite dramatic improvement in the graphics, thanks to the entirely new EGO 4.0 engine which is brand new for F1 2015. Though running on PCs, the race on show was that of the Singapore Grand Prix with rain pouring down, and it looks suitably spectacular. Whereas the night time race looked flat and uninspiring on the previous generation, this was a showcase of the new lighting engine, as the reflections of the brightly lit buildings in the background shimmered across the wet surface and the columns of swirling water spray that were kicked up by the cars in front. This is when F1 2015 will look at its best
Admittedly, it’s something of an edge case, but the potential is there for the game to look stunning, and ties in with a new broadcast style to the game’s presentation. When viewing replays, camera positions have those familiar wide angles for example, while commentary from Anthony Davidson and David Croft between sessions goes hand-in-hand with a greater focus on the racing stars in their respective cars and aiming to capture the feel of a race weekend.
The handling model has also seen a ground-up overhaul, though it was difficult to gauge how it holds up, given the race’s slippery conditions. Getting the right level of assists will be key, but with a new physics engine, a new tyre model and every aspect of the game refreshed, it’s sounding encouraging – Codies are keen to say that this also means that the previous disparity between wheel and gamepad has been neutralised. In the end, my bravado and overconfidence saw me struggling, as I turned just a few settings too many down and struggled with grip coming out of corners, whether racing with pad or wheel, but after a lack of challenge to the driving without assists in previous games, this was a refreshing change of pace.
Having said that, I still found it rather easy to bottle up the AI behind me, as those in front scampered off into the distance – something which was all to familiar from previous games. The AI is still be refined and tuned to deal with the new physics and car handling, not to mention how hard it is to pass around Singapore at the best of times, but I would hope to see improvements to the AI manifest themselves better in the final game.
Crucially, this game is releasing much earlier in the season, with a June 12th date dropping it right into the heart of the race calendar, sandwiched between the Canadian and Austrian Grand Prix, as opposed to coming in September or October, with just a handful of races left to go. But that also leads to one of the biggest changes to how Codies support the game after release, with regular title updates over the rest of the season to reflect the changing performance of the cars.
Using data taken from the early testing sessions and the first fly away races of the season, they’ve balanced the new 2015 cars accordingly. The McLaren is a slow disappointment, the Red Bulls will only be on a par with the Toro Rosso cousins, and the Ferrari’s will be in with a chance of upsetting Mercedes’ hegemony of the sport. But as the McLaren gets closer to the race pace of the others, Red Bull iron out the kinks in their car and the true strengths and weaknesses of each of the teams are revealed, those will be reflected in the game.
With a steady stream of fresh data to analyse, the goal is to have the first title update roughly a month after release. If you’d rather see Williams and Red Bull duking it out for podiums or have McLaren firmly in the middle of the pack, you can always step back to the full 2014 season which is included – and to avoid any confusion, this does not simply reuse assets of old, but goes into even finer detail, such as having individualised steering wheels for each team.
That’s not quite as interesting as the new Pro Season mode, however, which will offer a dedicated challenge for the most ardent of racing fans. Though you can naturally achieve the same effect on your own, it codifies the stripping away of all the game’s assists, lets you race only from the first person view point, and gives you the full race weekend of three practice sessions, qualifying and a full length race. It’s a quite daunting prospect, and it’s needless to say that this mode will cater to the very best racers out there and nobody else.
Those vocal few might be within a tiny minority of buyers, but assists available throughout the game will cater to the wider audience too, and striking that balance will be key. Though a relatively brief look at the game and using an atypical combination of track and conditions, all of the ingredients are there for a step up in quality to match the demands of the most vocal fans and do so in a way that is worthy of the new console hardware. I’m cautiously optimistic that this could be the fresh start that the series has been crying out for over the last few years.