F1 2011 is the latest racing title by Codemasters, based on the world's premium motorsport. Last year's BAFTA-winning F1 2010 carried the slogan "be the driver, live the life", referring both to the core driving experience and the extra gubbins associated with being racing superstars like Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button or Sebastian Vettel. The follow-up claims to retain and indeed improve on the first two aspects, while also adding a third slogan, "go compete", referring to the excitement of jostling for that vital podium finish with other drivers, both computer-controlled and real-life. So, let's race.
Where to go from F1 2010
This week, Codemasters rolled out the red carpet for the launch of F1 2011, drafting in Radio 5 Live Formula One commentator David 'Crofty' Croft, Nick Hamilton, brother of McLaren's Lewis, and a full-size Lotus Renault GP racing car for a revved-up blitz of publicity. Last year, the new team at Codemasters Birmingham developed F1 2010, the first game since the British publisher picked up the licence. It proved a marked success, shipping two million copies and also picking up a BAFTA for 'Best Sports Game', beating FIFA 11 and Football Manager 2010. Now the team is back for the 2011 season, promising a more engaging, immersive and, crucially, competitive racing experience in both single and multiplayer. Digital Spy got under starter's orders to put the game through its paces.
F1 2011 screenshots: Silverstone in action
"Be the driver"
Barring a few tweaks and a slightly revised set of drivers to reflect the 2011 lineup, the core campaign in F1 2011 closely follows the last game. All 12 teams and 24 drivers starting the 2011 season will feature in the game, along with all 19 circuits for the season, including the new Buddh International Circuit in India. The cars still handle really well and Codemasters Birmingham has clearly worked on the physics and the core gameplay to add an extra layer of responsiveness. Heading into corners now brings the danger of locking up the breaks, seeing the tyres send out white clouds of smoke, just as in the real sport. We played on a work in progress build but the game already seemed polished and sharp, retaining and improving the core business of racing.
New features include a variety of mechanical options, including the Kers system, which gives a much needed power boost on long straights. The DRS system is also present and correct, allowing drivers to tweak the angle of the rear wing to reduce aerodynamic drag and more easily enable overtaking moves. There is also a new driver AI system that is claimed to more accurately track real-life race conditions, including computer-controlled cars lapping in the same rhythm as the player. Following fan feedback, the game features mechanical faults to reflect the drawbacks of driving these powerful yet fragile dream machines. Random problems will now occur in races that must be sorted out by the race engineer, who also gives constantly updating information over the team radio on who is leading the race and how your teammate is doing.
F1 2011 screenshots: A drenched Shanghai
"Live the life"
The life of a racing driver is filled with perils, but not all come hurtling around the race track at 200 miles per hour. A criticism of the last game was that the "live the life" component was a little stale, with the interview system feeling limited and weak. Codemasters has therefore introduced a more dynamic approach, involving any comments made in interviews being reflected in press reports, presumably with occasional misrepresentation and controversy (Prince Harry dating Jenson Button's ex-girlfriend, anyone?). There has also been an effort to introduce the "cinematic moments", such as the drivers doing signature moves in the parc ferme, or interacting with their team in adrenaline-fuelled victory celebrations.
Elsewhere, the graphics have been sharpened up considerably, with a lot more detail around the tracks. Codemasters showed screen grabs to demonstrate the difference between the 2010 and 2011 games, indicating much cleaner lines and more elaboration around race circuits, particularly in the paddock area, which became a touch dismal in the first game. The steering wheels have also been given a huge amount more detail to reflect more closely their real-life inspirations. But the presentation changes are not merely cosmetic, as there is a gameplay dimension as well. Damage to the tyres is now reflected in much greater detail, showing the gradual degradation over the course of the race, an important factor in understanding when to come in for a change. The game will also be released on Sony's new PlayStation Vita handheld console and a build running on a prototype version of the device looked and played really well. The graphics, in particular, were excellent, almost getting close to resembling the high definition console versions.
The biggest change by far about F1 2011 comes in the multiplayer. The last game was very much about the single player experience, but the new game has a solid focus on competing with others, both online and offline. The game supports 16 players instead of the previous 12 on a full grid of 24 cars (the remaining drivers being computer controlled), along with offering a brand new split screen mode for two players competing locally. There has also been a greater effort to introduce the same challenges from the single player game to the multiplayer, including target positions for race finishes to meet the requirements of your team. There are various other new challenges available too, such as a Time Attack mode backed by leaderboards.
A really strong feature is the opportunity to play an entire season with a friend, either as teammates at McLaren, Ferrari or other famous Marques (team orders are optional, we'd imagine), or on opposing teams. This feature was probably one of the most broadly welcomed new aspects in the game, as it potentially adds a new dimension to the main campaign. Players will no doubt feel much more engaged in outdoing their buddies and snatching victory than they would competing against just computer-controlled bots, but likewise the chance to join forces and make a run for the constructor's championship will surely prove compelling. Codemasters said that both players need to start the season, but only one needs to finish if the other person finds something else to do.
Just as with other long-running sports franchises such as EA's FIFA and Tiger Woods Golf, Codemasters has realised that the ongoing strength of the Formula One licence rests with tapping into the need for gamers to compete together. The tweaks and new ideas to the main campaign, driver experience and presentation are welcome, but it will be the options for joining others on the grid that will really make this series enjoyable and sustainable. With just a few months left of polishing before the game is under starter's orders, the team at Codemasters Birmingham appear set for another podium finish with F1 2011.
F1 2011 is released on September 20 in the US September 23 in the UK for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Versions for the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita will become available later in the year.