There’s a lot of love on TSA for F1, both the real sport and the racing game series. So Codemaster’s new title, F1 Online, is sure to get a fair bit of interest, even if it’s just idle curiosity to start off with. By making it free-to-play and open to practically any browser, though, this new look at the sport could have a much wider audience than the console games.
The game is split into many smaller slices, all of which compliment and feed into one another. You’ve got the official, licensed teams and tracks to race on one side but these are locked off stringently from the custom team creation, management and racing, which is the real meat of the game. The licensed cars and tracks are currently still from the 2011 season but share assets with the yearly releases, so will shift up to 2012 in the coming months, and cater for future years too. They’re great for a quick burst of racing at full speed, which is hugely faster than early custom cars but have an added appeal of giving you rewards to supplement your custom team, should you manage to accomplish the race objectives.
On the custom side of things, the first thing you’ll have to do in the game is create your team. Sadly for me, Stefan GP was already taken, but I did find a nice TheSixhAxis-esque logo to stick on my car’s nose. You can pick one of a small selection of liveries for both car and driver helmet, and switch colours around, but here you get the first glimpses of the game’s income stream.[drop]Further patterns can be unlocked through in game achievements, such as winning races, or simply meeting your objectives and levelling up but you can also purchase many of these cosmetics via micro transactions. Thankfully, there’s no simple button to buy your way to the top in the game, so micro transactions won’t be affecting the balance of the racing itself, they’re merely an option if you want a different look right away, or want a temporary boost in the development of your team.
With your team created, you’re taken to the Race Hub and you’ll get a pretty extensive tutorial as you work your way around the game from here. The Race Hub prominently features your car, with the nine areas which you can improve with new parts on show. These range from the Engine and Front Wing to Air Intakes and Brakes that all affect the various statistics of the car. No “Coke Bottle” area, which everyone yammers on about on TV, but all of these parts add together to put your car into a particular class of performance, starting off at U1, then progressing up to U9, onwards through C, B, A and finally S, which will match the performance of the top official F1 teams.
To improve your car, you’ll need to build up your Team HQ. In this area you have a pretty nice 3D view of your headquarters, which is split up into four departments, Research, Production, Race & Commercial, and here you can really start to forge your own plan for the development of your team and car. You can build up each department together, and have a well rounded car all the time, or perhaps have a narrower focus and let some of the other development areas catch up a bit later.
It looks to play out as a series of unlocks, with you needing a certain level of experience, money and staff to get buildings. Those buildings then let you pursue new parts, and unlock new bonuses and perks for you to choose between, such as reducing costs, improving earnings, or reducing production time. You’re working in real time, so you won’t instantly have that new front wing but will have to wait a certain number of hours to finally get it ready for your car. In this way, the game is trying more of a drop-in and out experience. You can hop onto it in the morning, set something to build, and come home in the evening to be able to put it on your car and take it racing.[drop2]Racing itself is actually a surprisingly hands-on affair. From a 3D overhead view, which can push a fair bit of graphical niceness to your screen, you have direct control of the car, far removed from GT5’s B-Spec. You use your mouse to point in the direction you want to go in, and left or right clicking to accelerate and brake respectively. KERS and DRS also make an appearance via your keyboard and round out a simple to play but very tricky to master play style, which is only added to by unfamiliarity with the tracks. You have warnings of the severity of corners, but until you learn them in the context of this game, you won’t be getting a perfect lap any time soon.
When it comes round to wheel-to-wheel racing, the collisions and physics are pretty forgiving, which does help keep it accessible and, above all, fun.
You can either do single races from the official F1 section, or you can head to the Race Hub and choose to take part in a Time Trial, Quick Race or even a Championship. In Time Trial, you can go up against the clock and your own or friends’ ghosts but when you head to Quick Race or Championship, you could be going into a full field of 24 cars all with real world rival players. You’re matched up against vehicles in the same class as you, get to view the track and make any last minute changes to the set up of your car, and then sent racing. You’re given specific targets to try and achieve in the 3 lap races, based on your comparative performance level and should you match or beat these, you’ll get a bigger prize pot out of the racing to help further your development plan faster.
The custom races can’t take place on the licensed tracks but, to make up for it, Codemasters have put together a selection of 15 bespoke tracks for this game. Some are quite obvious homages to famous tracks you know and love, whilst others are more original but still trying to emulate some of the famous corners and sectors. The handful that I’ve had a play with certainly have a bit of challenge to them, even if the sights aren’t particularly recognisable.
From what I’ve seen of the game so far, it’s got a lot of good points to it. There’s plenty of longevity with the team management and car upgrade path, which is nicely broken up by the online racing. A hardcore management simulation this is not but it’s got a fun factor that could keep people checking in each evening for a quick race or two, and to unlock the next upgrade package for the next day.
Codemasters are currently sending out waves of closed beta invites to those that signed up, with the open beta scheduled for mid-June.