Drag reduction systems, varying tyre compounds and even brand new power units have done little to change the sport of Formula 1 over the past few years. Though the decks have been shuffled and different teams have risen to the top, the racing has remained fundamentally the same for the last four or five years. While the sport has remained the same, Codemasters have endeavoured to wipe the slate clean when it comes to their videogame.
The consequence of that move is that F1 2015 is a surprisingly minimalist release, with few bells and whistles beyond the core racing gameplay. You have a Championship Season mode, in which you pick any of the drivers and race as them for a full season, Pro Season is the same, but with all of the assists stripped back and full weekends and races, for the ultimate challenge. These are joined by quick races, time trials and multiplayer racing.
There’s no career mode though, where you create your own racer and work your way from one team to the next. Nor are there sprint seasons, challenge modes, classic cars and tracks or any of the ideas that have featured in the series over the past few years. There is the full crop of 2014 cars and tracks – including a German Grand Prix – but they’re simply there as a variation on a theme, letting you play as one of the bankrupted teams or with a mildly competitive McLaren car.
When the game was announced to be coming earlier in the year, Codemasters explained that this was to be supported with content patches and car performance updates over the course of the year. Yet, without game modes that make use of this functionality in F1 2015, to explore evolving car performance or let you relive key moments from races in the sport over the last 18 months, it feels somewhat futile.
Ultimately, F1 2015 is a foundational game upon which Codemasters can build for the next five years, introducing further game modes and making use of new frameworks and features as they go. With a whole new game engine, physics model, AI and plenty more besides, it’s still worthy of the current generation of console.
In particular, the visuals are excellent. As I noted in our first impressions, it’s a relatively soft image, but one that is pleasing on the eye and with very few instances of aliasing. Lighting effects have been improved greatly, so that the night races on the calendar actually look rather good now and we finally have a day-night transition when racing for any decent length of time at Abu Dhabi. The track scenery is very attractive as well, whether it’s the crowded buildings around Monaco or just the fact that grass actually manages to look like grass, rather than a horrid mottled green texture with odd tufts sticking out of it.
The attempts to ape the look and presentation of television broadcasts are a mixed bag, however. There’s some really nice touches, like being able to spectate other drivers when you’re not on track, having some commentary from familiar voices before and after a race, and it’s great to see the grid packed with people before the race. It stumbles with the lacking character models, as all of the drivers look like stiff second-rate waxwork models, brought to life to flap mouths and splash each other with champagne in a strictly scripted fashion. Much of this is skippable, but there are a few odd points which you cannot bypass or have to wait a few moments before you can.
Of course, none of that matters when you’re in the thick of the action, and at the beating heart is the game’s handling model. Naturally, you can play with all of the assists turned right up, but as with any racing game, it’s better as you turn those down or off. Compared to the last few years, racing without assists is a little more exacting, with the rear tyres easier to spin up as you try to accelerate and the brakes much easier to lock up. Certainly, it’s much more difficult to get a good race start without wheel spin if you don’t have traction control turned on.
Thankfully, I didn’t find any drastic differences in my best lap times as I fiddled with the assists, but rather found that having a dab of traction control or ABS simply let me be more consistent. Oddly, I was also able to get up to my best pace quicker with a pad than with a racing wheel on PC – something especially true of driving in the rain – but just found a wheel to be more engaging and fun, even if I’d like to have more force feedback, with a slight edge in pace if I was able to hook it all up.
The challenge is amplified greatly by stepping into the Pro Season. It pits you against the fastest AI while pushing you to tackle full race distances from within the mandatory cockpit view, no assists and even without the HUD that keeps you informed of track position and laps. That job instead falls to the race engineer, who will regularly badger you with information and tips – don’t worry, these can be reduced in frequency or removed entirely – but can also be prompted with voice commands or with a D-pad menu.
When using voice commands, your stuck with stock phrases like “Driver behind” or “Fuel target”, rather than being able to ask who’s in third place or where a particular driver is. Even outside of Pro Season it can come in handy to get a quick reminder of when your pit window is or the gap to the car behind, but I found it quite unreliable and confusing when warning me of my remaining fuel. My first 25% race saw me lost positions with speed limited through lack of fuel, because I hadn’t been warned of low fuel to my knowledge, and I also had conflicting messages where I asked for an update, was told I was running on fumes and then the automatic message told me that I had 10% fuel left. It’s another area that has the potential to grow over time.
The same must be said of the AI in the game. Pick the right difficulty for you and they’re solid competitors that can give you some wheel to wheel action and keep you honest, but they can quite often be bottled up behind you and they lack that spark of uniqueness from reality, where we see drivers taking very different lines through Brooklands and Luffield at Silverstone, for example. Then there are the genuine problems, such as a tendency for both team drivers deciding to pit on the same lap of a 25% race under normal racing conditions, or their overly racy behaviour during practice and qualifying, which can lead to truly asinine moments where a driver on his outlap ruins your hot lap.
Taking the game online sees an interesting assortment of race types to choose from, as well as baring all the options to you in custom lobbies. You can choose from short sprints without collisions to 25% length races with a one-shot qualifying session and up to 50% races without assists. Picking a category then sends you to the menu to let you do something else for a few minutes while it searches for a space. It can take a while, even with the game freshly launched, and there are further loading times and countdown timers, so that it can feel like quite a wait between races.
But it’s not without its issues, and there were some bizarre bugs that I saw with the occasional instance of invisible racers meaning that I was further down the finishing grid than I thought I should be. Of course, you’re also racing against the all to familiar types of racer that you find online, with the race engineer sagely advising me to take it easy into the first corner, to avoid any crashes… Just as in previous years, this will still be best enjoyed with friends in private lobbies.
F1 2015 doesn’t have many of the features and game modes that we’ve seen over the years, and this feels disappointing given delays during development, but it gives a solid basis for future growth. With lush visuals, tight car handling, good racing and a sprinkling of fresh ideas, this is exactly the fresh start that Codemasters needed.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4, PC