With F1 2018 being the ninth title racing out of Codemasters’ garage, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there is little more to offer over and above F1 2017. Last year’s version was a culmination of sorts, building upon the solid graphics and stable gameplay with in-depth career development and classic cars from historic F1 moments. F1 2018 doesn’t do anything to rock the boat – it’s still F1 cars driving around circuits, after all – and adds a suite of smaller updates to make things seem fresh.
This game is all about the details. Those tiny, little, nerdy elements that will send avid motorsport fans into a frenzy. Me, then.
The game starts with the new official theme tune for the sport (is it weird that this is growing on me?), there are visible sparks when competitors hit bumps in the road, a faint click when the DRS flap opens, a clunk when a clutch is engaged and the real drivers are replicated in recognisable fashion, even if Bottas looks a bit like Paul Gascoigne. Oh, and there’s the inclusion of the divisive Halo safety device.
Just quickly about the Halo. Yes, if you use the cockpit camera, your forward view is obstructed and weird. Thankfully you can turn off the central column and get a fuller view of what’s ahead, but if you stick with it, you can still clip all the important apices and I promise you will get used to it after half an hour. More problematic is that, unless you play with the angle settings in cockpit view, your view of the wing mirrors is all but nonexistent.
For those who understand the nuances of F1 in its current hybrid era, you will appreciate the addition of ERS to gameplay. Using your in-race pop-up menu, you can select between five different levels of electricity deployment, alongside the fuel rates, both of which affect performance. It requires real dexterity to race wheel-to-wheel at over 200mph while changing your fuel settings, ERS level, tyre strategy and tell your race engineer — good old Jeff, who returns — to be quiet.
The capacity of the AI has also taken a step forward. Each car has tangible and unique advantages and disadvantages modelled on real-life performance. You may put in a Herculean effort to qualify in the top three using a Renault, but come the race, the Ferrari and Mercedes cars are noticeably quicker down the straights, and not just against you either. In longer races, there is a definite mid-field battle while the top six cars stream away ahead.
There are times, depending on difficulty level you choose and driver skill, where you can have great battles with the AI, and if you have a late dive down the inside under braking — something I’m quite fond of doing — they will see you coming and give you enough room, thus avoiding doing a “Kvyat”.
Overall, the game requires more focus than previous iterations. Your car wobbles and shimmys its way across kerbs, you can see individual suspension parts reacting and the force feedback has increased. You need to treat certain rumble strips with respect, otherwise you will spin out. When driving with a wheel, the whole experience is much more physical. After ten laps around Monaco, you’ll be panting more than Kimi Raikkonen without his drinks bottle.
If you have damage switched on or the difficulty level higher than usual and you start to daydream, the inevitable mistake will end your race. While not a hardcore simulator, F1 2018 is more serious than before. Don’t worry, however, if you are not the next Ayrton Senna, there are plenty of assists for those playing with a controller or the more casual F1 fan.
The handling balance is still neutral, with entry understeer and progressive exit oversteer should you overstep the mark. A running theme with this series is that aids such as ABS and traction control do lead to an ultimate speed advantage, but this year catching a slide when the traction control is off is extremely rewarding and you’ll have more fun by mastering the handling model than by masking it.
The main meat to the game is the expansive career mode. For many, F1 2017’s career mode was great in season one, but lost momentum in season two. The upgrade system revolves around completing tasks in practice, followed by qualifying well and winning races to earn research and development points. These points can be spent on vehicle upgrades, but last year’s game took far too long before any meaningful progress happened.
F1 2018 revises this, with more practice test sessions to earn greater points and there is a smaller upgrade path. Except, it’s not really. Later upgrades are now hidden on the path diagram and don’t reveal themselves until much later in the career. On top of that, you have to be wary of losing progress through rule changes between years, or the state of R&D that you’ll find if you shift teams. It makes it feel initially less interminable, but is also a cheap tactic to hide the drag.
New for this year are media interviews. The questions can be scarily accurate, referring to spins and contact you thought you’d got away with during a race. While the queries aren’t repetitive for the most part, how everything affects your reputation progress seems almost inconsequential and I’m not sure it needs to be as frequent as it is. If you complete a full season doing three practice sessions, qualifying and a race to try and get development points, Claire will ask you questions over 100 times.
All 12 of the classic cars return from the 2017 game, but are now joined by six older cars from the 1970s and 1980s from the likes of Lotus, Ferrari and McLaren, plus a 2003 Williams and the glorious 2009 title-winning Brawn. This latter car is an absolute dream to drive, with a screaming engine as your soundtrack and Scalextric-like handling. Some of the earlier cars aren’t quite savage enough, though. In a way, they drive like a modern-era F1 car with slightly less grip, slower gearing and lower power levels, when I should really have to wrestle to control them.
But the main issue I have with expanding the legacy collection of vehicles is the sense of a missed opportunity, because there are only modern tracks to race them on. Give me Jerez, Brands Hatch or the original Hockenheim and the story may be different, but without the setting to match the looks, they feel like a publicity stunt as opposed to a complete feature.
Online racing is another area that has been fettled. As per usual you can earn XP from good results, move up ranks and play ranked or unranked races. Codemasters has added in a safety rating, which is based on how clean you race, and a skill rating which is based on how well you race in ranked events. If this reminds you of GT Sport, then you’d be right on the money. This is a very similar system, the aim being stamping out those online players who seem to crash into you at every available opportunity.
In practice, the game penalises you for hitting other players online from behind, but I’m not sure if it works for side on collisions. In one online race, I was fully alongside someone, only for them to deliberately side-swipe my car, which hit me off the track and into a spin. The game either didn’t give them a safety rating penalty, or didn’t inform me of other players indiscretions. The system is a great idea but clearer communication or a better collision detection system could be implemented to fully iron out bad behaviour.
There is a bigger thorn in F1 2018’s side and that is that is age. Still running on the EGO game engine, albeit in a heavily reworked and upgraded state, no matter how many interesting and new details are added to the game, elements are now beginning to feel dated once more. When other racing games provide ultra-accurate representations of tracks, F1 2018 is at times behind the pace. Spa is an excellent example, with some of the corners not being smooth curves, odd bump placings and dull trackside detail. Track surfaces on certain circuits aren’t up to snuff when compared to contemporary rivals. Likewise, the game creaks along when watching replays and the way characters walk and talk is very awkward.
F1 2018 takes the existing blueprint and adds many small elements to create one reasonably sized step forward. There are enough differences here to warrant a purchase over last year’s edition. F1 2018 is easily the best Formula 1 game yet, but next time, small changes may not be enough.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on Xbox One and PC