In a time when big budget gaming is often about safely pumping money into ‘performing’ franchises, it must be difficult to be a sporting game. Anchored to a sport where little but its players have changed from the previous year, developers must find new ways of delivering the same experience to their fans. Codemasters’ Birmingham Studio is at a point with its fledgling franchise where there seems to be very little left to change. Can F1 2012 retain its pole position?
The first thing that strikes me as I load up the preview code for F1 2012 is the bold menu change. Gone are the random backgrounds of milling F1 fans and reporters and in its place are bold square images on a blue background. This is a needed change and hopefully reflects a fundamental shift in the ‘same-same’ design philosophy of Codemasters’ admittedly successful racing franchises.
That’s not to say the disgustingly ‘accessible’ introductions of every other Codie’s racing title has been done away with — there was no career access available to find out — but the simple menu system makes choices far more visible.
The physics haven’t changed a great deal since 2011 and that is a very good thing. Throttle control is still the key to laying down all the power the 2.4 litre V8 engine can produce, as coming out of a corner too hot will separate your tyres from the road every time. The damage model continues to be developed, and exterior car parts can disintegrate in a variety of spectacular ways. The stock wheel settings are the best they’ve ever been, which meant I was off and racing, 1:1 style, with a minimum of fuss. From the in-car view with screen display off, the sense of racing on the edge is as visceral as any you can find.
On offer in the preview were six tracks from the final game (including the fantastic new Texas GP) and the two newest distractions; Champions Mode and the Young Driver Test mode. This last mode teaches new drivers about F1 and racing in general, setting you small challenges like correctly taking a series of apex’s or cleanly overtaking, along with a smattering of videos introducing concepts like throttle control, DRS and KERS. These challenges have medal rankings so there’s an incentive there to aim for gold, however with just two days of testing available it ran out of fuel quite early on.
Champions Mode is almost worth the new price of entry alone and is a scenario mode pitting you against one of the six World Champions currently on the driving roster. Each scenario might focus on tyres, weather or position and provides you with a very clear objective rather than solely focusing on winning (although that’s the predominant idea). You might need to outplace your teammate Kimi Raikkonen, overtake Michael Schumacher on fresh tyres or beat Sebastian Vettel while setting the fastest lap. The AI truly floors it here and the Hamilton scenario in particular is tremendously enjoyable as you fight him off across the last five laps of a rain-soaked Brazil GP.
As fun as they are, it’s a real shame that these scenarios draw so little from previous F1 seasons. Each track is prompted by the competing driver (Vettel on Hockenheim, Button on Silverstone and so forth) but that’s all the connection you get. There was such a great opportunity here to recreate events from the real GP’s and it would be far more engaging and educational to recreate something like Kobayashi’s kamikaze attack at last years’ Interlagos GP, but instead the final section tasks you with beating just those six drivers in a single race and it felt woefully unfulfilling. Like Forza 4’s Autovista, Codemasters could easily develop this idea into future DLC.
It’s here that I start to consider the limitations being imposed upon Codemasters, who are surely more than capable and visionary enough to deliver a better experience. With big advertising dollars sitting behind F1’s financial success, I get the sinking feeling that we’ll never see what fans really crave; grand match-ups from previous decades of Formula 1. Cigarette advertising aside, there’s a long history that could be drawn on for an experience that could rival Forza 4 in scale, but with drivers moving between teams (and advertisers) and an organisation whose shopfront is so ruthlessly managed, we’re unlikely to ever see such a comprehensive F1 experience.
For gamers new to the series, F1 2012 will be a glorious place to start. The racing action is as intense and beastly as its real life counterpart and the level of challenge can range from easily winning every race to fighting tooth and nail just to maintain position. The beautiful graphics (with the usual suite of options) and the outstanding audio certainly deliver an authentic feast for the senses and the greatly improved stock-wheel settings make it a streamlined title for sim-racers.
But for fans of the series, unless significant changes are made to the format and Bernie Ecclestone eases up on what we can see, Codemasters’ F1 is in very real danger of becoming identified by what it doesn’t offer.