Formula One in 2021 has been absolutely cracking to watch, with great on-track racing, another shake-up of the established order, and plenty of background politicking as teams try to get every advantage they can while spending as little money as possible in the final year with the current regulations. It’s an unenviable task to try and recreate, especially given how changeable the calendar is right now, but Codemasters has seemingly been watching a bit of Netflix to find fresh inspiration.
In general, F1 2021 follows in the racing line of F1 2020, from the game’s handling through to the sprawling set of game modes you have available to you. There’s a few new wrinkles here and there, but the overall experience is a consistent and steady evolution. However, much like the seemingly insignificant rules changes from 2020 to 2021 in the real sport, there’s also some real surprises here.
The headline new feature is the Braking Point story mode, Codemasters weaving together a narrative with high production values and on-track racing action. It initially follows F1 rookie Aiden Jackson, starting off with his final championship-winning race in F2’s 2019 season before progressing through his first two years at one of the mid-tier or backmarker teams of the sport in its current form – you can pick from Williams, Alpha Tauri, Alfa Romeo, and Aston Martin. There’s immediately a lot of tension as he steps into the car and goes up against veteran teammate Casper Akkerman, and then there’s the smarmy poo-stirring of returning fictional character Devon Butler, driving for another team.
It actually comes together rather nicely as a story, and it’s the kind of stuff that Netflix’s Drive to Survive producers would absolutely lap up, as the rivalry between Jackson and Akkerman spills over to the on-track action. You’ll often be dropped into a situation mid-race, whether it’s a blown tyre, or coming from the back after a safety car and then having to push on to get into a points position.
Of course, it’s also totally unrealistic. It’s set in a parallel dimension where there isn’t this whole pandemic thing, so that first 2020 race is in Australia, you’re often tasked with racing through the field and overtaking half a dozen cars in just a few laps, and playing as Williams, you’re regularly fighting for points and even the odd podium. The story is the same, regardless of the team you pick, but it would have been a huge task to adapt and produce for all the more realistic permutations.
While it might seem like it would be, Braking Point isn’t a particularly good way to induct yourself into racing with F1 2021. That first race in F2 ironically means you’re racing with the more difficult vehicle in the game, without the sheer downforce and grip of any of the F1 cars, and you have to complete each objective you’re given. If you don’t know the circuits, then snaking sections of tracks like Zandvoort, Suzuka, COTA and others will prove to be a real challenge. At least you have the rewind button to help out, and anyone coming from F1 2020 or the few years before will probably be able to hop right in.
Alongside Braking Point, you have the usual array of game modes and options available to you. Pretty much everything from F1 2020 returns, from the driver career and managerial My Team mode, through to the online multiplayer, promise of esports integration and the player-managed Leagues for online racing.
New for this year are two welcome tweaks to the familiar. You have the ‘Real-Season Start’ for the driver career, letting you choose a particular point in the real 2021 calendar and pick up the race from there with the driver and constructor standings intact – a fairly cosmetic change, but nice to have when the game is coming out after 9 of the 23 planned races. There’s also the two-player career – an expansion of the co-op championship from older games – which has a fairly straightforward way to share championships and either race with you both in the same team (and one of you taking charge of R&D and contract changes), or competing in rival teams. Progress for this is saved on Codemasters’ servers, it seems, and there’s a slight awkwardness to teaming up, as it uses the game’s internal messaging feature – click the left stick on the main menu to see them.
Of course, Codemasters always seem to give with one hand and take with the other. The garage of classic cars that have been included and grown over the last few years have been put back into storage – I’m sure they’ll be back in a few years. There’s also changes to the R&D system in the career mode. You can now skip through practice sessions and not miss out on R&D points by instead spending the time in a quick odds-based mini-game to automate the process, but the R&D tree of the last few years has been replaced with a setup that narrows your focus on just a handful of options. It’s simpler, but takes away the bigger picture view that you had before.
F1 2021 follows in this long lineage of Formula 1 games with its handling. The cars are all sharp and pointed in their handling, capable of doing pretty much exactly what you want from them, and punishing you for mistakes. We’ve reviewed this year while playing on PlayStation 5 with a DualSense controller, the new haptics and adaptive triggers doing a good job of adding a subtle layer to the feedback you get – don’t expect anything over the top here. As in recent years, the game feeling at its best with a smidgeon of Traction Control to help you out and maybe ABS turned on, so you won’t have to hold back too much when riding kerbs. Still, there’s always the trickier and more slippery kerbs that you need to be wary of and there’s always the potential to misjudge a corner.
It’s no surprise that F1 2021 lacks a little pizazz as it bridges the generational divide. The game looks good and runs perfectly well on PS5, but it’s not an amazing step forward, if you were expecting one. There’s also the sense that Codemasters are a step behind in replicating all the changes of the 2021 race calendar. Obviously, it takes time and resources and there’s a constant chopping and changing from the real world sport, but there’s the remodeling of Barcelona’s Turn 10 that hasn’t been replicated since February, and three tracks are coming after release – at Imola, Portimão and the new circuit at Jeddah. Oh, and there’s no support for a sprint race weekend as is being trialed in F1 this year, despite being a feature available for F2 race weekends.