It’s been a few years since there’s been a must have Formula 1 game. Codemasters’ tenure with the license has parallels to McLaren’s fate in recent years. 2014 was a bit of a nothing year, as they waited for a new engine to appear in 2015, but that was then trying to set the foundations on which 2016 can build significantly.
While McLaren’s recent performances have been a marked improvement, they’re nothing compared to the transformation that F1 2016 has undergone since last year. There’s a huge list of new or returning features that border on wish fulfilment for die-hard F1 fans. Almost every part of the game has been tweaked or added to in significant ways.
Perhaps the biggest one is the return of a 10 season career mode, which was a notable omission from 2015. It goes quite a way beyond what what previous games have attempted, starting with the ability to pick a driver avatar – sadly, though it was being worked on, there are no female driver avatars this year – driver number, and customise the helmet design and colours.
The trappings of the career have been improved, as the paddock and motor homes return with a lot more life and activity. There are also moments of full motion captured performances for your agent and head of development, who help to shape and give structure to your career. Most of the non-racing time in career mode will be spent on laptops and tablets, spending points to determine a development direction, tweaking your car’s set up for the race ahead, choosing your tyre allocation for a race weekend, and so on.
What happens on the track is obviously the most important thing here, and Codemasters are broadening the appeal of things outside of the races. If playing with a full race weekend, practice sessions have a lot more meaning, as you can focus on track acclimatisation, having you pass through gates on track that help you learn corners and speed better than the racing line that you can have beamed onto the track, learn how best to manage tyres in a stint – tyre wear and lap time data can be viewed and used to come up with different race strategies – and, of course, try to find your absolute pace for qualifying. Performing these tasks and doing well let’s you spend points earned to upgrade certain parts of your car that you feel need improvement.
Naturally, you don’t have to indulge in that side of things if you don’t want to. You can simply choose to do 3 lap races and start your career with Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari, always fighting for the lead. Further back and your race goals will be more realistic, such as a 14th place with Haas, as well as trying to beat your teammate and any other rivalries that you form later.
But the longer races also feature more of the peculiar trappings of Formula 1 than ever before. You can do a formation lap for the first time, there are manual race starts which have you holding the clutch and balancing the throttle – the AI are more mixed up at the start as a consequence of this – manual pit entries have you slowing down for the speed limiter or facing a drive through penalty for pit lane speeding, and the safety car returns with its more nebulous cousin, the virtual safety car, which holds you to a maximum lap time and delta that you must not exceed.
The cars and handling have a lot in common with last year’s game, as you might expect. With the same form of turbo engines in the back, they’re easy to have slipping and sliding if you come out of corners and floor the throttle. The AI’s less uniform starts help to mix things up and might give you a few more opportunities to pass on the first lap without resorting to bumping tyres as you blaze up the inside of the first corner, but I found that it can still be quite easy to get ahead and then bottle drivers up behind you. That’s been the case in the sport for a long time, but it’s always been disheartening to see the car in front streaking off into the distance, while those behind bide their time for you to pit and release them.
If there’s one real disappointment, it’s with the game’s graphics. The EGO engine has never been that great at making humans look good, and the agent and technical director almost feel like next gen versions of LA Noire characters, but it also doesn’t really amaze when out on track, in comparison with some of the other racing games out there. Hopefully the occasional frame rate hiccups that I noticed can be ironed out by the time of release. There’s also minor touches that feel slightly undercooked, such as the game taking over to place you on grid after your formation lap, and not having a mini game of sorts for getting in and out of your pit box, and just featuring the pit entry.
Those can easily be forgiven by looking at the vast improvement over 2015 that this game is, especially in regard to multiplayer. It was plagued with poor connectivity last year, and would inexplicably replace other racers with AI, undercutting the mode entirely. We’ll have to wait until release to test it, but the AI switcheroo has been done away with and multiplayer can now feature a full grid of 22 drivers.
After a few lean and disappointing years, it looks like Codemasters are back on form. They’re a company that’s growing again, with the high profile rescue of the team from Evolution Studios earlier this year, they’re riding high after the acclaim and popularity of Dirt Rally’s return to pure rallying, and now F1 2016 is shaping up to be one of the most comprehensive renditions of the sport we’ve seen.