A resurgence in the popularity of a sport often creates an expanded market for game simulations that is often filled with the substandard products of opportunists. Fortunately for racing sim fans and Formula One followers, Codemasters has again taken a high road in its F1 franchise, designing a quality game with robust features that strive for the most simulative experience, while retaining enjoyable gameplay. Overall, F1 2011 improves on last year's game, which was no slouch.
Although the popularity and quality of racing titles, whether of the simulation or arcade variety, have waned in the last several years, F1 2011 is a unique simulation for a unique sport that distinguishes itself even among other forms of auto racing. Formula One fans are a lot like baseball fans. In baseball, there's far more to being a true fan than merely watching your local Major League team play on TV. One follows baseball more than one watches. A fair-weather fan can catch many broadcasts throughout a season while having only a casual interest in the game. Avid fans, though inclined to watch, or listen via radio or Internet, could go a whole season without catching a single Major League game and still be die-hard baseball fans. There's so much in baseball to keep up with, far beyond the longish seasons and numerous teams, it's a small wonder that superfans have the spare time for televised games.
So it goes with Formula One racing. There are only 24 drivers on 12 teams, but there are many events, each event with qualifying races leading up to race day. The races are long. The cars are complicated, from tires to engines to aerodynamics. The rules for both car construction and driving behavior are perhaps more complicated, and often significantly change between seasons. There are stats for car performance, individual driver performance and overall team performance. The stats are deep, too, going back years, chronicling aggregate team performance on specific tracks in particular events. Though most fans will watch race events when they can, you can avidly follow Formula One through a season despite never catching a single lap of a single race on TV.
Most of the sport's complexity is represented in F1 2011's career mode. You deal with team contracts, an agent, your teammate, your engineers — even the racing press. The goal of the career mode is to provide gamers with everything inherent to participating in a Formula One season short of putting them behind the wheel of a real F1 car. In large part, Codemasters succeeds, without overlooking the racer element.
The greatest risk in developing a Formula One game is letting it devolve into a micromanagement simulation as lackluster as some of the general manager modes in other sports sims, or as dead dull as many games dedicated to replicating the general manager's role. Codemasters' niftiest trick is avoiding that drowsy abyss. Though gamers may optionally assist in tuning their cars — for example, incorporating parts fresh out of the team's research and development department — they are first and foremost drivers. There's no team manager mode; you don't even have the option of putting yourself through that drudgery.
Players can fail practice and qualifying objectives and still drive on race day, but there's no option for AI simulation of races. They're long races and you have to drive them to the finish — although the often-daunting prospect of racing 60 laps at a go is mitigated by an option to reduce lap count to as few as three. The low lap count is the default option, and most players will keep it there. If they want to finish an in-game season before the real season is over, most should. But the experience of driving a full set of laps in a couple of race-day events shouldn't be missed. In three laps, you'll never have to pit and swap worn tires for new, and if you slip far out of your goal finish position, you'll likely never make it up. Over the course of three laps, the leaders lead and the laggards lag. Over 58 laps, AI teams have to pit, the competing drivers make mistakes, and the possibility of overtake finishes greatly increases.
Career mode is designed to simulate the actual Formula One schedule for the season, although any driver replacements that occur after F1 2011's release won't be accounted for in downloadable updates. Alternatively, Grand Prix mode provides the option for creating a custom, player-defined Formula One season. The race schedule is yours to plan, with all the racing teams and F1 tracks from the career mode available. Races differ from career mode, in particular because rather than driving as a fictional Formula One driver you've created, Grand Prix requires you play as any driver from the full field of 24. You can, if you wish, create a Grand Prix mode schedule that duplicates the real one featured in Career mode, this time driving all the way through as your favorite F1 driver. Or you can switch up things, moving events to different times in the season, using only one track, or a subset of tracks, from Career mode.
In addition to the usual and necessary updates to teams, drivers and events, F1 2011 incorporates this season's most radical change: the introduction of a drag-reduction system (DRS) on F1 cars. DRS is a design adjustment to the rear wing. The traditional fixed wing aids cornering by increasing downforce, which allows drivers more control when taking tight turns. But the assist comes at a price: The increase in downforce limits acceleration for overtaking competing drivers. DRS solves this with flaps that can be opened or closed. When closed, they behave like the traditional wing, increasing downforce and enabling easier cornering. When open, they reduce downforce, allowing an F1 car to more rapidly close the gap between a near competitor. The change is intended to increase the number of overtakes in an F1 race, with the idea of promoting more exciting races and malleable race outcomes.
Like everything in Formula One, DRS comes with rules, and they're reflected in Codemasters' game. DRS can only be used on certain straightaway stretches of tracks; these are designated as DRS zones. Also, if the pursuing driver is more than one second behind the target of his overtake attempt, he can't use DRS. In Formula One racing, a driver's crew manages the details of DRS use, notifying the driver on the track when DRS may be used. In F1 2011, the game's AI manages DRS use; when the player can use DRS, he receives an in-game radio message saying so, just like real Formula One drivers would be alerted.
There's some controversy surrounding DRS, especially because pursued cars cannot use DRS to hold their positions against overtaking cars. Also, DRS is in a live test phase, to determine if the system actually promotes an increase in overtakes during the season. DRS may go away within a few seasons, so gamers should use it while they can. Whatever the outcome of the real-world test phase, DRS does make a noticeable difference in the F1 2011 simulation. Using DRS takes some practice, though. After opening the rear wing, things get slippery; instinctual response is to let off the gas and/or tap the brakes, which is of course exactly what you don't want to do for effective DRS overtakes. However, once I became accustomed to what feels a bit like the car abruptly sliding out from under me, I was able to more readily overtake opponents, compared with last year's version of the game.
Where F1 2011 shines is in making such a strictly rule-obsessed sport into an exciting video game racer. There are no nods to an arcade experience, yet I often found myself gripping the controller, stuck to my chair for just one more race. F1 2011 is not by any stretch an easy racer; however, variable difficulty settings make the game accessible to a broad range of players. Once players improve, driver assists, switched on or off in sets by selecting different difficulty levels, can also be managed individually in the game's race pause screen. Finer-grained control of difficulty is important in this title because there are some aspects of controlling the car you'll eventually get the hang of — and perhaps some you never will.
Codemasters has also significantly improved driving control, particular when using a standard dual-stick controller. Like most race sim players, I enjoy using a wheel peripheral; but there are plenty of gamers who won't pay high prices for a good wheel, and others, like myself, who'd often rather put in an hour with the controller, dispensing with wheel setup. There shouldn't be a significant penalty for using a stock controller instead of a wheel. F1 2011 does a fair amount to close the gap.
The games graphics appear much the same as last year, although there are general improvements in level of detail, especially in weather. The title features some of the best-looking rain effects I've seen in a racing game. Of course, slick tracks influence how the physics AI governs car handling, but the graphical enhancements made me feel like I was really driving in the rain, rather than just managing the complications of a wet track in an abstract fashion.
Some of these graphics improvements may have had a slight negative side effect: In the Xbox 360 version of the game, driving out from the garage, or during a flying lap, there is some brief but jarring stutter, both in visuals and audio. Though this never happened during a race, it breaks the flow of the game, especially pulling onto the track before the qualifying portion of an event.
On the surface, there's little to F1 2011's audio, but not much is required beyond doing a good job with the varying sounds of Formula One car engines, the tires tromping over the track's warning strip and the like. The racing sound effects all nicely surpass competence, and the voice acting used on team radio and during interviews with press is at least competent.
F1 2011 has a robust multiplayer component, with most of the features offered online, split-screen or via locally networked consoles. (A code is required for every online player, one of which is included with new copies of the game.) Online Grand Prix pits drivers against one another in a seven-lap race, preceded by a 15-minute qualifying event. If you're playing Gran Prix online, block out some time. For a quicker play, try Sprint, a three-lap race with no prior qualifying event. Formula One purists, enthusiasts and gluttons will likely enjoy Endurance the most: It's the same as Sprint, but at 20 percent of real-world race distance, which requires pitting at least once during the competition.
The big change to the franchise's multiplayer is the addition of Co-Op Championship. If you have F1-fan friends, and you've wished you could drive an entire season as teammates, competing against one another and opposing drivers, Co-Op Championship is exactly what you've wanted. The new mode significantly improves the game's season experience. Driving a whole Formula One season, you're no longer stuck by your lonesome self in offline Career mode. Codemasters manages to make F1 driving fun, and they've now designed an option that makes the game not only competitive, but more social, too.
F1 2011 is a good game built on a solid foundation that is only improving with each annual installment. Still, Formula One racing is not every gamer's cup of tea. It's strangely addictive, but it doesn't have the pick-up-and-play nature of a Burnout game. Dirt and Grid are more down to earth than Burnout, but F1 makes them look a lot like OutRun. The Forza and Gran Turismo franchises aspire to greater simulative heights, but their hook is a vast variety of cars with deep customization, down to body decals and alloy wheel rims. All these other racers appeal to people who like cars and speedy thrills, while F1 2011 is ultimately a title for those in love with, or at least have a big crush on, Formula One racing. Though many gamers could wind up spending more time with F1 than they'd imagine, it's doubtful they'll stick with it as they do their racing favorites.
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