Outside of the occasional regulatory upheaval, Formula 1 is often an evolutionary sport. Teams go from season to season trying to build on what they had before, fixing weaknesses, and then trying to refine that further through the year. It’s no different with yearly sports games, and with F1 2019 coming out out in June, earlier in the year than Codemasters have previously managed, you might have thought this would be a smaller step up. It’s the opposite, pushing the series on to capture even more of the world of F1 and everything that surrounds it.
The last few years really focussed on fleshing out the roster of classic cars and trying to make the career mode more engaging when you weren’t going wheel to wheel out on track. We saw sprawling new R&D trees to work through, new practice sessions objectives to complete, having to talk to the one and only sports journalist in the paddock, and take part in occasional classic car invitationals. Through all of this we’ve always started the career mode as a rookie getting the nod from one of the F1 teams, but 2019 takes one step back from F1.
Here you get to start in Formula 2 and the 2018 season, with Codies having recreated this formula’s twinned race weekends and reversed grid rules. You’ll be racing against fellow ‘soon to be in F1’ drivers Alexander Albon, George Russel and Lando Norris for the championship, but you’ll be meeting new fictional characters, going through branching story moments based off your on track exploits (or antics), and all of that will then feed that into what kind of racing opportunities you get in Formula 1 itself.
Funnily enough, if you turn some of those assists off, you might just find the F2 car to be a little trickier to drive than, say, a Red Bull or Mercedes. They look similar enough, with the Dallara F2/18 developed to act as a stepping stone on the way to F1, but there’s much lower aerodynamic downforce generated from the simpler bodywork. The V6 turbo in the back doesn’t have the same horsepower as an F1 engine and there’s no ERS to manage and deply, but with less downforce, I felt the need to be just a little bit more cautious on the throttle.
One thing I did notice was that the AI drivers seem to be a bit more reckless as they’re racing, perhaps deliberately trying evoke the kinds of scrappy racing that the lower formulas and younger racers are typecast as having. One incident had Alex Albon sweeping across the track, suddenly shifting from trying to go on the outside of the car in front to the inside, and being just inches away from snapping my nose off as I followed him. It led to one of those epic feeling three into one moments heading into the high speed Copse corner at Silverstone – then again, aren’t they all high speed?
Beside that, the Senna vs. Prost rivalry from the Legends Edition of the game pales in comparison. The legacy of these two drivers and their era-defining battle for supremacy still overshadows the much more straight-laced racing of the last two decade for many fans, so it’s a bit disappointing for the example that Codies gave us to play was a simple overtaking mini-game around Monza. We could pick either Senna or Prost in their 1990 McLaren MP4/5B and Ferrari F1-90, with the other being the ultimate target to overtake and a bunch of slow Lotus 79s from the 1970s trundling along between you. Not exactly what I was expecting when trying to evoke the era, and I really hope the rest of the mode does more to better honour these outstanding racers especially given the 25th anniversary of Senna’s passing earlier this week.
Another major area that Codemasters have focussed on is the multiplayer, which makes a lot of sense given how their games now prop up the FIA Formula One Esports Series. A dedicated esports hub will take you to the qualifying events, let you catch up on the competition’s news and watch races. In an interesting move, they’re putting the official team cars to one side in favour of a standardised, unbranded F1 2019 spec car that can be customised with liveries and fake sponsors, and that holds true for the rest of the multiplayer as well (though I’m sure you’ll have the option to go out in an unusually on-pace Williams if you really want). These, alongside custom helmets suits and more cosmetics are what you’ll earn from competing online to collect competition points.
While you’ll be able to dip into regular races or take part in the weekly events and scenarios, a great feature for tightly knit racing communities will be that you can set up your own racing leagues. These can simply be set up and scheduled to run on a timer, or triggered manually by an owner, you can set up custom rules, determine if they’re open or need an invite, even hold league votes for changes to how it’s run. It’s a pretty comprehensive sounding set of tools and great to see finally being integrated into the game.
What’s really impressive is how Codemasters have managed to get to this point. Five years ago they were struggling with the shift to a then new generation of consoles, but there’s now a confidence and ease with which they’re adding new features. The team is larger too, letting them get the new content into the game much quicker and release the game earlier in the year, while already having next year’s game in early development with a second team. As much as I’m looking forward to this year’s game, I also can’t wait to see where they take the series next.