When F1 2014 was announced in the early days of August, there was a palpable sense of disappointment that the series would only be coming to the last generation of consoles this year, with the jump to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One aligning with a new release schedule that will see F1 2015 arrive much closer to the start of the F1 season. But with the advent of the new engines and regulations in Formula 1, couldn’t F1 2014 still do enough to grab people’s attention?
It’s those engines – or “power units”, as they’re regularly called – which are really at the heart of this year’s Formula 1 championship, and the early races of the year saw a lot of criticism of the noise, or relative lack thereof, that they made. The step is quite clear to hear in F1 2014 as well, with the hellish scream of the V8 running at full revs replaced by a deeper and throatier roar and the whine of the turbocharger. The sound mix is quite different when racing with a camera fixed in the cockpit rather than the television cameras, so the engine noise is very much at the fore, but I’ve actually quite enjoyed being able to hear the crowds cheering and tyre squeal when watching F1 on the telly and these are both quite prominent in the game, as you zip past packed grandstands and push the tyres to the limits through corners.
But when it comes to the actual racing, the new engines and their sounds throw me for six. A marked difference between last year and this is the point at which shifting up a gear is meant to occur, coming much earlier and at much lower revs, rather than closer to the rev limiter. As someone who typically switches to manual gears and has played the Codemasters’ F1 games since 2010, it’s something that I found difficult to adjust to over the course of a few hours play with a PC preview build of the game, no longer being able to listen for that particular frequency and having to keep an eye on the upshift indicator in the bottom corner of the screen instead. It’s not the end of the world, since these early shifts are done with overall performance and efficiency in mind, and the engines can actually go much higher, but it still takes a bit of adjusting to.
As too will the amount of energy the new power units will put through the rear tyres, making for a livelier rear end that can quite happily send you veering off the track if you step too hard on the accelerator when coming out of a corner. Naturally there are plenty of assists to make use of, with traction control and ABS helping to even out the kinks as you follow the racing line and braking points highlighted on track, or even indulge in full braking assist, where the game will actively help to slow you down into corners (and in terms of your overall pace, I might add).
For the more dedicated of racing fans (and I know a few of you will be reading this), it’s all about plugging in a racing wheel, turning the assists down or completely off and removing much of the abstraction between you and the car. Hopping back and forth between F1 2013 and F1 2014 really highlights just how much more careful you need to be on the accelerator when playing like this, as even just a fraction too much power will see the rear tyres sliding and squirming away from your intended line, forcing you to readjust. It’s here that the game came to life for me, being much more difficult to control and really bringing something new and refreshing over last year’s release, as I struggled for lap after lap to try and hold the much faster AI cars behind me.
Naturally there’s little to no graphical leap over last year’s entry, but there are a few new tracks on the calendar and it’s a delight to see the new Sochi Autodrom track and experience first hand how it will look and race in real life. With the mountains off in the distance, racing around the track is reminiscent of the Korea International Circuit that is no longer on the calendar, even with a twinge of Montreal, with hard barriers often coming close to the sides of the clearly Hermann Tilke designed track.
Unfortunately, F1 2014 does feel like it’s treading water in some regards. Much of the overall presentation is very similar or the same, with a near identical set of menus to the actual gameplay, while the Young Driver Test has been replaced by a single lap driver evaluation, which certainly helps to get you into the game itself much quicker. However, F1 Classics has sadly disappeared without a trace, and there’s also the curious omission of user controlled ERS, the battery-powered boost that has been a part of the sport for half a decade.
When I queried the seeming disappearance of ERS, I was given the following statement:
When we originally implemented the engines, all of the information we were given was that the ERS system would be part of the throttle mapping for the power unit, rather than a deployed boost as with KERS. So for that reason, there’s no player controlled system, it’s all handled along with the engine/throttle map settings, which control power and adjust fuel usage. The addition of ‘overtake’ buttons only started to become apparent part way in to the season unfortunately.
With its successor already on the horizon, F1 2014 is in the strange position of being a kind of stepping stone to a major refresh of the series. The real star of the show is plugging in a racing wheel and grappling with the task of driving these cars, but that aside and with some steps back compared to F1 2013, it could be facing an uphill struggle to get people to part with their cash.