By Nicholas Simonovski
It’s been three years since Codemasters released F1 2010 and made Formula One a multi-platform video game franchise once again. While I’ve often had mixed views about recent Codemasters games, they’ve always treated the F1 franchise with the respect it deserves -- both F1 2010 and F1 2011 being excellent games in their own right. Recently I’ve jumped back into the driver’s seat to check out the latest instalment in the franchise: the aptly named F1 2012.
The first thing I asked myself when I started playing this game was, “is it worth it?” When it comes to franchises with annual releases, we often hear gamers complain that not enough has changed between the last game and the most recent to warrant a $60 price tag. This got me thinking though: realistically, what should I expect would change between this game and F1 2011? Customisation options? More tracks that don’t exist in the actual F1 calendar? The inclusion of vehicles that aren’t F1 cars? When I’m playing a game which is based off an actual motorsport, where licensing is a major determinant of what is included or not, the developers don’t exactly have all the freedom in the world.
In this situation, the best thing Codemasters can do is to make each game as authentic as possible, improving whatever features it can. With F1 2012, I can safely say that the developers have done just that. While it should be noted that Codemasters Birmingham already had a solid platform from which to work off, it’s good to see those minor improvements and additions that have been made to this game. For example, when you return to the pits you’ll see your crew not only push the car back inside, but prop it up as well as they would in real-life. Sure, it’s nothing more than a few seconds of additional footage, but it adds to the atmosphere the game does so well in creating.
An obvious element worth complimenting in F1 2012 is its physics. For starters, racing in the wet has never required such patience and finesse! Watching your throttle and turning inputs are paramount in maintaining control on the track, even for those courses you feel you are most familiar with (as I discovered on the second last corner in Malaysia, lap after lap after lap). When playing on the higher difficulty levels, understanding how to not only utilise the most of the track but also pushing your car to the limit to maximise its performance is essential in qualifying with the fastest lap time to secure pole position and that fighting chance for the race. Push too hard and you’ll lose time from wheel-spin or while attempting to straighten the car; it’s not impossible to drive a F1 vehicle, but it’s far from a breeze to master one.
Continuing on with the physics, F1 2012 features a new mode called "Young Test Drivers" – a tutorial-esque set of challenges that the user plays through before they start Career mode (but which can also be accessed from the main menu). I’ve played the last two F1 games -- so I’m not exactly a novice to how the game plays -- but it was great to see Codemasters include something like this to not just ease newcomers into the physics and how to handle an F1 car, but also re-enforcing those racing techniques and concepts to the fans of the franchise. Yes, we all know that you should approach a corner slow to maximise the exit speed, yes we all know to take corners wide and kissing the apex and yes, we know to not smash the throttle down coming out of a corner to minimise wheel spin, but it’s the fact the game gives you these tips and allows you to practice them before you start racing, as simple as it may seem, has certainly improved my driving in the game. It also explains how to use both KERS and DRS in more detail than was explained in the last game, which is a very welcomed addition!
Furthermore to the assistance provided in the Young Drivers Test above, each race in Career mode is accompanied by a video narrated by (who I think is) Jensen Button, as he discusses how to approach and handle each corner as he goes around the track. We saw a similar thing being done for the actual F1 season last year when Mark Webber would run a simulated lap of the track and discuss his strategy, and this too provides a great deal of valuable information to the player. For those gamers who don’t have the time (or the patience) to complete multiple seasons in Career mode, F1 2012 offers another great new mode called "Season Challenge." This allows players to experience everything the full career mode offers, but in a condensed form - with the ability to progress to better teams throughout the 10-race season as long as they complete various objectives and rival drivers along the way.
In addition to the additions that have been made in F1 2012, Codemasters has also done well in refining the game by cutting out those features which seemed somewhat unnecessary. For example, gone are the interviews which you used to be able to partake in during the race weekend and after the Sunday race. I understand how the developers implemented them in the first place to try and re-create what it’s like to be a F1 driver, but they were always the same boring questions with no obvious affect on the game – good riddance I say! There have also been other changes such as reducing the number of practice sessions for a ‘full’ race weekend from three to just the one. Those that feel they need more than an hour to practice can reset the session at any time, while those who want to get right into racing needn’t skip/fast-forward through two unnecessary sessions. Having to signal your pit crew before entering the pits has been removed as well. While some have complained that this has detached the game somewhat from the actual motorsport, it’s nothing which will really affect the way you play this game.
Despite what’s been said above though, there is one main problem with the game which needs to be discussed, and it’s a problem that has plagued the franchise since F1 2010 – the timing system. In playing most racing games like Need For Speed and Forza Motorsport, when qualifying isn’t a feature of the game, you can get away with not caring about, nor being affected by the way the game either records/predicts the lap times of your AI opponents. That said, in games like F1, MotoGP and SBK, when qualifying affects which position you’ll start the race from, it can be as important as affecting the chance you’ll have of finishing on the podium (particularly on the harder difficulties).
While I was in the final qualification round for the Chinese GP I noticed that despite giving it my all, my best times were being beaten by other drivers by almost two seconds! Of course, I’m not suggesting it can’t be done, but considering that I’d been able to stay ahead of the rest in the previous sessions it just seemed ... odd. The interesting thing I found out was, as long as I stayed on the track, the AI wouldn’t beat my time – it was only until I returned to the garage during the session that as soon as I checked the lap times, someone would have beaten me while the game was loading. I decided to test this and sat the car by the side of the track and let the timer expire in a new session – surprise, surprise, the fastest time of any AI driver was a second or two behind mine! When lap times is so integral to a game like this, to see that it hasn’t really improved since the last game (or F1 2011) is somewhat unacceptable. It should be noted that the rewind system used in F1 2012 -- as in all Codemasters games -- is sometimes lacklustre by not providing long enough time periods to reverse back to, to correct a mistake.
In conclusion, to answer the question I put forward earlier – yes, F1 2012 is most certainly worth it. The game is a great example of the quality that Codemasters can produce when it comes to racing titles, offering both an engaging and authentic racing experience, improving upon the already solid foundation that the previous two F1 games had set. Gameplay-wise, the game is a pleasure to play and re-enforces everything that racing fans love about... well, racing! The attention to detail is fantastic and apart from the timing system and the rewind feature, there isn’t much else I can really fault about this game. F1 2012 is a solid racer that newcomers will enjoy, but also a game that fans and racing enthusiasts will find satisfaction and a challenge with.