The first thing I did upon starting F1 2019, the latest official game by Codemasters in the yearly sports franchise, was to not race a Formula 1 car. Which is weird. But also very exciting.
I’ve been yearning to play the junior formulas in an F1 video game for many years now, and this instalment delivers just that, with F2 now included. I’m happy to report that it’s glorious.
The cars are more progressive in their handling than their more illustrious brethren. In the first few corners, you will be sliding all over the shop, but after a handful of laps to adapt to their characteristics, you’ll soon learn to be smoother on the throttle on corner exit to avoid wheel spin as the turbo spools… or embrace the boost and go into full Ken Block drift mode. It’s so much fun. I adore driving Formula 2 cars.
For now, the F2 field is from 2018, with 2019 arriving later this year as an update. What takes things to another level is how this class has been included in the main career mode. You start out with three race scenarios, each involving two major rivals, Lukas Weber and Devon Butler amongst the class of 2018 F2 field. Between each race is a cutscene with your rivals arguing about the on-track action. It reminded me of the TOCA Race Driver 3 story.
This is an immersive experience, as you then progress to the major league alongside your rivals. Choosing to sign for Haas, my rivals were placed in Renault and Racing Point respectively, slotting in to replace some of the 2019 driver roster. Everything else is authentic, from the teams, cars and liveries to the bonus point for fastest lap and the sound of each individual engine. These are a little more pronounced than last year, the Ferrari unit gurgling on the down changes being particularly sonorous.
In a strange move, considering the initial build-up, there isn’t a single story element for the rest of your career. The three of you make the jump to F1 and the story just stops. Perhaps in a future F1 game, this great start could be expanded upon.
After the thrill of the opening salvo, things go back to normality with all the monotony of a French Grand Prix. The career sees your fictional character progress through each race in a regular F1 season, initially as the second driver in a team, before proving yourself to become the team leader and working to become the world champion. You can keep going across ten seasons, and there is added variety thanks to manager talks, press interviews and historic car events. For old times sake, there’s still a trophy for shutting up Jeff, your pit crew member.
Heading into a racing weekend, it’s all just a bit too similar to previous incarnations, especially after such a different introduction. To earn more development points and upgrade your car, you’re given the exact same challenges and tasks to complete in practice sessions as before. These have been stagnant for some time now, the tasks are punitive and the game is ripe for change in this area. The grind is real if you’ve played the other recent F1 games.
But, wait. Rejoice! For you can now simulate the practice sessions and still gain a decent amount of development points. Such a simple change nearly made me crack open a can of Rich Energy in celebration. Simulating still gains enough development points to fully upgrade one of the four areas of the car in a season.
Another pleasant surprise is the driver market. Other drivers on the grid switch teams, both in-season and at the end of each year. Adding a Football Manager-esque feel, I witnessed Robert Kubica departing F1 after the 2019 season, for example. On the flip side, Hulkenberg and Hamilton swapped teams – which was very weird! – Kevin Magnussen signed for Red Bull, and Raikkonen went to Williams. I doubt we’d see similar moves in the real world, but it’s a welcome feature that just needs some refining. Perhaps in future it can take into account real-world contract lengths, junior teams and up and coming F2 drivers.
Codemasters has been talking at great length about online gameplay, which is a much bigger focus for the latest F1 instalment. Ahead of release to the wider public (though I’m certain that some copies have arrived early over the weekend) the online performance has been rock solid. No hint of lag, ghosting or being booted from lobbies.
Aside from solid online gameplay, there are new features too, chief of which is the addition of Leagues. These enable you to set-up a championship with a calendar of weekly races at a set time and date. You can then invite your friends, or search for other leagues to join. The lobby will open at the date you set, and results are kept track of each week – AI cars can fill in for any missing drivers and potentially score them some points, if you want. It’s brilliant idea that is well executed, but it will live and die on an engaged user base. We’ll certainly be trying it out in our traditional The Monday Evening Meet (#TMEM) for TSA community members!
Secondly, the Weekly Events take inspiration from last season’s Featured Events and amalgamate these with elements of DiRT Rally 2.0 community events and the GT Sport daily races. I took part in a Weekly Event Grand Prix where you have a few days to run practice laps, set your best qualifying time and then race against drivers of a similar pace to yourself on the Saturday. Once again, the implementation is super slick and I got a real kick out of winning an event at Silverstone against online players of similar skill levels.
Competing in these new online modes, regular ranked and unranked races progresses your overall level through XP and driving standard ratings. Nothing new there, but you also amass in-game credits known as ‘Competition Points. “To spend on what?” I hear your asking. “Customisation”, I reply.
As you may have already heard, you now use a customised livery on an F1 2019 spec car online outside of unranked and private lobbies, pairing them with a custom driver suit, helmet and gloves. You can choose from a selection of pre-made car liveries, buy additional ones with in-game credits or with a splash of real cash, and then tweak the colours. Changing the actual livery design is sadly off limits and it’s a similar story with racing suits. The net result is a field of cars that look broadly similar and a podium, more often than not, with three drivers wearing the same non-descript white clothing.
One of my main bugbears from 2018 has been carried across, namely the aged tracks. While Monaco is now more delicious than a swig of Huski Chocolate, and the pre-race environment shots have taken a dramatic step forward, this just highlights the dereliction of some other circuits. The frame rate still dips between turns five and six at Melbourne, the weird dip in the track before turn 13 of the Hungaroring simply doesn’t exist in real life, and Spa still feels dark and dingy. These characteristics stick out like a sore thumb in comparison to the fancy lighting effects and slick presentation found elsewhere.
Thankfully, the excellent handling of 2018 is carried across with some further refinements, plus the AI behaves in a largely naturalistic manner. The core gameplay keeps you coming back for more.