Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Review code provided free of charge by Codemasters.
[twitter-follow screen_name=’wolfsgamingblog’ show_count=’yes’]
Having skipped the last entry in the series, which proved to be somewhat controversial due to its list of stripped features, I’ve come back to Codemasters F1 series with a sense caution. Turns out I needn’t have worried, though, because in my eyes this is the best the series has been so far, delivering superb handling and a polished experience that suggests Codemasters learned their lessons from last year. Furthermore, they geeked out, tossing in safety cars, formation laps and manual launches off the starting line. Talk about compensating, eh?
Maybe it’s all to do with DiRT Rally, as odd as that might sound. Prior to launching Rally the series had taken an Americanized “extreme” approach that was a lot of fun, but didn’t sit well with the more die-hard fans of the sport. Rally essentially rebooted the series, focusing on more realistic handling and a less in-your-face style of presentation. The result was impressive critical reception and a lot of happy gamers who appreciated the nuanced handling and what felt like a loving design philosophy. And it feels like Codemasters paid attention to this, and decided to craft |F1 2016 with nearly the same level of nerdy love, while still keeping it quite accessible to anybody who just wants to jump in and enjoy themselves.
Let’s talk about the meat of the game first; career mode is back and let’s you race for up to ten years in the sport, opting to start at either a lowly team and work your way up to a championship winning car or leaping straight into a Mercedez and gunning for the driver’s championship. It’s interesting that Codemasters have chosen to just let people grab a seat in the fastest teams right from the start, but it’s a smart choice because clearly not everyone wants to start at HAAS or something and fight for a couple of points at a time. Still, as an F1 fan and a gaming fan that’s exactly what I’d recommend you do because it’s so much more satisfying and authentic to begin your career by putting in consistent results and beating out your teamate before moving on to bigger and better things, or sticking with your starting team in a bid to build them up to championship competitors. Be sure to ramp the A.I. difficulty up too, because it’s still absurdly easy to take a car that shouldn’t be winning and win regardless. Like the previous games you can also tweak your level of engagement in a season, so if you just want to partake in a brief qualifying and short race you can, or you can opt for the whole three practice sessions, full qualifying and lengthy 70+ lap grand prix. Don’t worry, there’s mid-session saves so that even if you get interrupted half way through you can always return to the action later on.
Even the most die-hard fans can struggle to find the motivation to partake in three full practice sessions, however. Codemasters know this and have thus expanded on the R&D side of the game to give players a reason to jump into at least one practice session. You can now earn a hefty chunk of R&D points by completing three tests during practice; track acclimatization asks you to simply drive through a series of gates, awarded points based on your track positioning and speed; tyre management is all about gauging your ability to look after a set of super-soft tires over the course of a few laps, which also happens to be a superb tutorial for new players who are a little unsure how to stop their tires becoming useless by the end of a grand prix; and finally there’s a qualifying pace test where you simply have to gun it for a few laps and try to set good lap times. Nail all three of these tests and you’ll walk away with a sizable bonus of R&D points that you can feed into increasing horsepower, improving downforce and much more. None of these provide hugely tangible benefits on the track, but that’s because upgrades in real-life F1 don’t tend to suddenly swing the balance of power, rather improvements are subtle, gaining the team a few extra tenths of a second here or there. F1 2016 could certainly benefit from a more varied suite of tests to help break up the monotony of doing the same three over the course of multiple races and seasons, but for now these three make practice sessions feel worth taking part in by providing important gains in the races themselves, and that’s a huge positive for the game.
Between sessions you get to pull up a seat in your team’s motor home and peruse a laptop which provides access to the R&D menu plus updates on how your well you’re doing compared to your rival and your teammate. More importantly you can also check up on any contract offers, be they from your own team looking to resign you or from a different team that could provide some better prospects. Occasionally your agent or some other person will amble up to you and spend 30-seconds chatting to your mute avatar about nonsense before wandering off again. All the while Anthony Davidson sits at a table and occasionally glances in your direction before looking way. Maybe he fancies you? I don’t know. This small virtual paddock is supported by cutscenes showing team principles, the podium and more in an effort to immerse the player into the sport. The engine Codemasters use might make people look a lot like flesh golems, but this is still the most convincing F1 facsimile they’ve come up with to date. Having said that a lot of people might just find it pointless, and that’s understandable. For those people Championship mode is going to be the preferred choice.
On track there are further efforts to make this the most detailed F1 game from Codemasters yet, starting with the inclusion of a formation lap where you can focus on heating up your tires and brakes for the optimal start. Sadly control is taken away when actually lining up on the grid and the jump from formation to actual race isn’t seamless like it should be. Still, the formation lap allows for some tension to build which is hugely appreciated. Once you’re on the grid it’s time to try out the new manual launch by holding in the clutch and then feeding the car some revs until you hit the optimal take-off point. Once those red lights blink out you drop the clutch and use some careful control of the accelerator to get the best start possible. Go to early and you’ll be handed a jump-start penalty. On a controller this mechanic is fun, but naturally on a proper wheel and pedal setup it’s a lot better. Either way, though, nailing a start feels satisfying in a way that launches in prior F1 games just wasn’t.
In the race proper there’s some other fun features that aren’t essential but do help add to the immersion factor. You can chat to your engineer, for example, requesting updates on opponents, the fuel situation, tire degredation and much more. You can even tell him to zip it if you aren’t in the mood for communications, turning this into the perfect Kimi Riakkonen simulator that we have all been waiting for. Most of these chat options are largely pointless since they can be a bit fiddly when using a controller (although the game does support voice recognition so you can actually speak into a mic to request these things) but it’s still a bit of extra detail that is appreciated. Meanwhile both the safety car and virtual safety are included to again bump up the authenticity. Be warned, though, people who aren’t familiar with the sport might find their first virtual safety car to be rather confusing. But you can always choose to disable formation laps, manual starts and safety cars entirely if you just don’t want to deal with any of it.
As for the handling it’s mostly just seen some small refinements and tweaks, with the foundations remaining that slightly lightweight but fun model that I’ve grown to absolutely love. It’s still very much leaning toward arcade rather than purely realistic, but the new power units that F1 cars are running does mean they like to try to spin you out under acceleration, far more so than any previous series’ entries which makes driving feel much more fun and challenging. Curbs have also been reworked to give them a more impactful feel, so between those and the more touchy acceleration it doesn’t take too much to send a car spinning. However, having said that there’s enough feedback that even with a controller you can instantly feel what’s going on and adjust to save it. Wet weather handling has also seen some mild modifications to make it feel trickier. Indeed, one of the game’s highlights is moving through differing weather conditions, like starting in the dry and ending in a downpour that seemingly aims to replicate scenes from Noah’s Ark. In these types of race you can really feel the changes in handling between dry, damp, wet and full-blown river, and they can provide some of the most intense racing. Take a race I had in Monoco as an example; it began dry and thanks to a flukey qualifying run I secured a reasonable grid slot, which in Monoco is vital since overtaking is nearly impossible at times. I was running well, but then it began to rain, a scray proposition on a track where there is almost zero room for error. Two safety cars later and the weather was beginning to abate, but with just 20-laps left it became a case of trying to gauge whether it was going to be worth shifting to intermediates or possibly even full slick tires. I made the call, came in, grabbed some super-softs and headed back out for a couple of very dodgy laps, but then the track dried enough for the tires to come into their own and the early pit-stop let me fly past the pack. Good times.
Like before there’s also plenty of flexibility in terms of how involved you want to be with everything. Sitting in the garage you can begin tinkering with various car settings and tire choices in order to get the very best out of the car, or you can just leave it up to your team and hit the track with minimal worry. Likewise you can opt to have a variety of driving assists turned on or off to help tweak the handling. Oddly this ability to customize the game doesn’t stretch to tire wear and fuel management, both important parts of modern one and both very divisive since it has now gotten to the point where drivers are no longer racing to the limit, but are instead constantly managing their car. While I found you generally don’t have to worry about fuel consumption unless you turn on the rich fuel mix for ages, tire degradation now feels much better. Previously it often felt like tires would suddenly just give out on you, a horrible trait taken from real life, but now there’s a more progressive decline in performance that let’s you judge exactly how far to push your luck before pitting. Although I personally have gotten beyond frustrated with the amount of fuel and tire management involved in modern F1 racing I can’t deny that while playing F1 2016 it does bring some excitement to otherwise potentially mundane moments, such as when you’re holding a good position but are mostly just circulating with nobody around you. Managing tires can make you start thinking about whether you should push to catch the guy ahead and potentially risk destroying your tires, or just maintain a reasonable pace to hold off the racer behind you. However, I find it rather odd that you can’t turn off fuel and tire management like you could previously, so if you were hoping to just race flatout then sorry, you’re out of luck.
Fighting with the A.I. also feels much better since they seem to be fairly aware of your on-track presence and won’t try to stick to the racing line like religious fanatics. This leads to much more realistic and intense battles as they’ll give ground if you’re obviously holding the best line, but will still fight for position wherever they can. I had some great wheel-to-wheel fights with the A.I. over the course of a season that lasted multiple corners. It was thrilling to get to fight this way, trying to eek out that little bit of extra acceleration or trying to set up the perfect pass several corners in advance. Of course they aren’t perfect and will still do some stupid things from time to time, plus they have a habit of braking too early for corners which makes overtaking easier than it should be. They still struggle with slow or stationary cars, so an accident can bring the whole pack to a grinding halt for no reason, and they aren’t great at dealing with you if you happen to have bad tires and need to break a little earlier. Regardless, it’s the best A.I. Codemasters have managed to put into their F1 games. The only let-down is that it doesn’t feel like drivers have their own personalities as such, or at least if they do I never noticed.
The A.I. in other areas can also be a bit daft, like your engineer calling for a pit-stop in the closing laps of a race. I mean sure, Ferrari have done things like that in real life but…oh.
Real players naturally present a much more compelling challenge than A.I. controlled cards, assuming you can find a group who don’t just try to kamikaze the first corner. The big change here is that you can not only get a full grid of 22-players but you can embark on a complete championship season with them, which is just awesome. Obviously you need to be able to consistently get together to do this, but the effort is worth it. It’s just a shame that split-screen racing is still missing. I guess Codemasters no longer believe there is enough demand for it. Those cheeky bastards, eh?
Rounding out of the package is the standard modes like time trial, quick race and championship in case you want to race a season with a bit less faffing around than the full career mode. If you were hoping for the return of the classic GP cars for some fooling around then prepare to be saddened; they aren’t here. You can play around with when the race takes place, thus letting you take a spin in Canada during midnight if you like, and either leave the weather dynamic or set it to something specific.
Now that we’ve covered most of the game let’s stop and talk about raw performance, which is actually pretty damn good. Codemaster’s have massively upgraded the visuals but they’ve improved them enough that F1 2016 can look rather pretty at times, especially during heavy rain where the lighting gets to show off its wares a little. Trackside detail still looks rather flat, but it’s hard to notice when everything is going by in a blur. It runs well, too, maintaining an average of about 80fps with everything maxed at out 1080p with a GTX 1080, FX-8350 and 16GB of RAM. With a good Intel processor you should easily nail even better rate. Drops were practically non-existent, keeping everything feeling smooth and responsive.
While F1 2016 is far from perfect it’s easily the best game in the series Codemasters have produced yet, and that’s largely because it isn’t a large leap forward, focusing more on refining what has come before. But then, where exactly do you go? Sports titles have faced this very problem for so long. How do they keep improving when they also have to stay true to the actual sport? In the case of F1 I’d like to see them expand on paddock sections in an attempt to make a more immersive experience. The classic GP cars also felt like the right move, so it’s a shame to see that Codemasters don’t seem to be planning to bring them back. Finally, as much as I love the existing handling model I’d still like to see them overhaul it to bring in more realism and a better sense of weight. But these are all wishes for the future, and we’re talking about what the game is right now, and what it is right now is pretty great. The racing is better than ever, the R&D provides some proper motivation to participate in practice, the off-track stuff is reasonably well handled and multiplayer championships are a blast. In short, recommended.
[twitter-follow screen_name=’wolfsgamingblog’ show_count=’yes’]