E3 2011 Preview: F1 2011
Racing games aren't for everyone, and simulation-type games are almost always an acquired taste. It's a particular taste I've been refining for a few years now, but having no idea about Formula1 racing wasn't going to cut it when I was preparing to see F1 2011 at E3 this year. F1 racing is complex and full of terminology, rules, strategies, and more that you simply don't get too much of in other types of sports, or even other types of racing. I got my crash course by watching the first race of the 2011 season, and the next morning I stood in Codemasters' E3 meeting room, bleary-eyed, ready to use what I'd learned to apply to an F1 2011 preview.
It was going to be a bit difficult starting out, seeing as I hadn't played the 2010 version of the game and didn't know what its problems really were, but the developers threw a lot of interesting stuff at us as a laundry list of fixes for this second game in their most modern series. The online play's racing has been expanded to the full 24 cars (up to 16 controlled by players, and 8 more as AI) and full season play has been opened up, so you can get a racing league together to simulate a full F1 season. Lots of teams and manufacturers are in, although we were asked not to mention brand names due to the licensing issues. The one specific thing I can point out on this front is that the steering wheels now accurately reflect which make of car you're in, so they're not all using one generic skin. The whole element of driver interaction with their garages as well as the media is getting re-done and made much more realistic - apparently, this is a pretty big deal for F1 fans, although I'm much more interested in what happens behind the wheel rather than seeing a driver storm off into the garage when his car breaks.
The visuals have been updated or redone entirely to more accurately reflect the tracks, and apparently a few functional changes had to be made to accommodate the track changes in the 2011 season. The biggest new stuff to the real races this year are the inclusions of KERS and DRS, and those will be included, too; I should explain them since they've added a ton of excitement to the real racing, and probably will for the game as well. KERS is Kinetic Energy Recovery System, and it's essentially what a hybrid engine in a Prius would do - when you use your brakes, energy is stored into a battery. But unlike a production car which automatically decides when to use an electric motor to save you gas, in F1 you get to press a button to unleash it when you want, up to about seven seconds per lap - and it adds horsepower instead of making your car more fuel efficient. DRS is Drag Reduction System, and it's another button that drivers can press to flatten out and open up the rear spoiler wing on their car, giving them less downforce and control but also reducing drag and increasing speed by quite a bit. By F1 regulations, DRS can only be used in situations where you're less than a second behind an opponent you wish to overtake, although that actually happens quite a bit. Both of these new technologies together have done wonders for adding an element of unpredictability and excitement to the real F1 2011 season, so it will likely do the same for the game itself.
All that said, I got into the Fanatec-branded wheel and cockpit setup that Codemasters set up to give us a crack at the game. First things first: F1 is fast. You thought that Lamborghini in Forza was fast? Nope. These things accelerate like a damn Space Shuttle and dart around the track like hummingbirds, so your reaction times are going to have to be impeccable. There are a lot of rules to follow, too, so seeing that bit of grass as a shortcut is going to cost you a lot more in time than you'd gain in taking it, and in general, just bashing into people is going to net you some penalties, too. (You'll probably also have to head to the pits to have your crew replace the damaged parts, too.) All of this, along with a full range of driving assists, can be adjusted and disabled from the menus as well. Yes, you can drive like a total douche if you really want to.
F1 2011 does include a visible racing line so that you can see the best places to be and the right time to brake, and there's a nice change here where the line widens wherever you need to brake really hard - for my red-green colorblind friends that can't see the line change colors in other racing games, that's a nice touch. From what I understand, you'll be able to rewind your mistakes like we've seen in previous Codemasters-published racing games, although I neglected to try it when actually racing. Overall, though, the action was hyper-fast and very competitive, and I think this game has a great chance at starting up some wonderful online rivalries and such when it's released on September 20th. American audiences still find F1 to be a bit of a niche sport, as they focus much more on NASCAR and Indy car, but with the building of a new F1 track in Austin, hopefully this game will find a fully worldwide audience in the coming year.