F1 2011 Review
When it comes to racing sims, I thought that Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo were the fastest and most intense, but after spending some time with Need for Speed SHIFT 2, I found its in-car experience to be even more exhilarating. There's a new challenger in town now, though, and its name is F1 2011.
Last year, Codemasters kind of shocked everyone, including themselves, with just how good F1 2010 was. Later described by the developers as something like an experiment, no one seemed to expect the first game in a new racing series to be so great - especially one that had to adhere to a very complex and nuanced kind of motorsport, with the biggest egos, most technical racing, and a highly dedicated fanbase to please. Codemasters almost seemed embarrassed for F1 2010, a game that didn't even attempt to get some of the core elements of the sport right, yet it still was one of the most accurate F1 games of all time. This rather quick follow-up plugs a lot of holes and does plenty more to try and shore up their vision of what an F1 video game should be.
F1 2011 includes a number of major changes over last year's edition. Not only has the whole handling and physics model been revamped, but the visuals have been significantly improved, the field of cars has moved to the full 24 (with a minimum of 8 AI racers and a maximum of 16 players in online play) and the new rules and gadgets of the 2011 season are included. The big differences in that last case is that front wing changes are no longer allowed, but the inclusion of two of the 2011 season's two big technologies makes things much more interesting. First, there's KERS, a boost of stored power that can be triggered after charging up a battery through regenerative braking, kind of like a hybrid engine that adds discretionary horsepower instead of fuel economy. Then, there is DRS, where drivers can open the rear wing when passing an opponent to increase speed but reduce handling and downforce. These systems add a lot of depth and strategy to races, especially once a few laps are down and cars have created a little space for themselves; it also makes a big difference in battles for position all over the track.
The developers got to make use of all the biggest manufacturer and driver names in the current F1 season, and in the career your dealings with the media can affect in-game relationships. Unfortunately, the drama and history of F1 racing is tightly woven into how the whole sport works, and it reflects in the drivers' attitudes, their performance on the tracks, and in the post-race media circus. As a game developer, Codemasters is clearly out of their league in trying to reproduce all of those more human interactions. Frankly, that's a huge undertaking for any developer; putting some real emotion on a character's face is the kind of goal that you build whole games around, and an F1 game that devotes too many resources on that would probably have some pretty poor racing. Instead, Codemasters got a few basics down and spent most of their time on what happens when you're on the track. For fans of the sport, I doubt we'll hear many complaints about this approach.
It's important to point out that F1 racing is extremely unforgiving. These machines can rev to over 18,000RPM and can hit 200mph in mere seconds, so be prepared for your knuckles to whiten and your heart rate to soar. With 24 cars out on the field and some of the tightest, meanest courses you've seen in a racing game, it's almost guaranteed that someone will fail to finish in nearly every race. Of course, that's a 60+ lap race, and while you can do the full hours-long races if you like - there's an option to cut the lap count down to a reduced number, all the way down to a lunch-break-sized three lap race.
There are plenty of other difficulty-adjusting options, too, including four AI settings ranging from brain-dead to brilliant, along with tweaks to the standard F1 rules and the chance to adjust the number of flashbacks (which allow you to rewind mistakes when playing alone) available during a race. Then there are a number of in-car driving assists you can turn on, including ABS, auto-braking, two racing line options, three traction control settings, and more. And in case you're wondering, if you're not terribly experienced with racing games, go ahead and enable all the assists and make everything else as easy as possible. Maybe after a few hours at the first track in Melbourne, you'll have gotten through practice, qualifying and onto the race where your goal is simply to make 18th place or better.
Yes, 18th - unlike most racing games where making top three is barely acceptable and first place is where real men always stand, F1 2011 has a more realistic look at organized racing. Here, you're not expected to immediately come out in first in such a competitive sport, and players need to realize when taking on F1 2011 that hitting the top of the podium in your first real race is not at all necessary. I do think that if you're making first place easily, it's worth it to turn up the difficulty (or disable assists) and instead struggle to make 12th place or better, as doing so often makes things even more exciting and challenging.
One question I've heard repeatedly is whether a racing game fanatic that hasn't done much in F1 games can even get into this. All I can say is that it's certainly worth a shot; I am only a casual F1 fan, but I've spent plenty of time in a wide range of arcade and simulation racing games with assists turned off. What I can say is that Codemasters has given me all the tools I need to become a fan, and they've unleashed me into a world that's so twitchy, so high-speed, so completely insane that I can't even imagine having fun in the upcoming Forza Motorsport 4's early races which will almost certainly be limited to 130hp econoboxes and lukewarm hatchbacks.
I'm looking at the Xbox 360 and PC versions of F1 2011 for this review, and while the 360 version is fully functional, I spent most of my time playing on PC as I'm using a relatively powerful gaming PC. The game looks fantastic on a fairly wide range of PCs, and while the 24-car races will put a strain on your CPU, the video performance is fantastic. Otherwise, the features between the two versions are pretty close to equal, with the biggest difference being that the PC version's Games for Windows Live-based online play makes for some very iffy online games - along with including all of the annoyances that GFWL bestows on every game developer that gets duped into using it. This can include re-entering product keys, slow responses when using the GFW interface, and my favorite, the corruption of your game profile that requires you to start over entirely. (This happened to me in DIRT 3, as well.) I don't know if anyone from Codemasters' development teams is listening, but they should start considering it a moral imperative to drop GFWL, because it causes far more trouble for its players than any other middleware I've heard of.
Online play on PC has a number of issues, and there are even some suspension setups and other bugs that are skewing lap times heavily and making online leaderboards nearly useless. Jumping into games may be easy, but I found it's almost impossible to get one game where you don't see a car floating two feet off the ground as it drives, weird clipping between cars, or some other issue that can cause your car to crash or lose positions entirely unfairly. The PC version's online play is going to need some serious work to make it usable for most.
Many gamers out there simply don't have an extra couple hundred bucks to spend on a nice steering wheel for their racing games, and it's tougher on 360 where Logitech's best selections simply don't work due to Microsoft licensing issues, but I will say that the PC version interfaces very well with the Logitech G27 wheel. Fanatec's wheel reportedly works great on 360, but that's a pretty hefty cost, but everything else works pretty much proportionally to the money you spend on the hardware.
While F1 2010 was a breakthrough game, it was almost by accident, and 2011 goes a long way towards fixing the faults of last year's edition. There are some technical issues and other problems on the PC that hold it back from greatness, and only some of them are going to be fixed with patches - we've never seen a game ditch Games for Windows Live after release, after all. Still, if you're a fan of F1 racing and don't mind playing a fun, if slightly wonky simulation, then run out and get F1 2011 right now. If you're a PC gamer that's looking for the best visuals and smoothest play, be aware of the bugs and, if necessary, wait for Codemasters to issue some patches before you plunk down your cash. One thing that's not in question is just how frantic and challenging this game is, so if you're ready to bring your A-game, F1 2011 just might be exactly what you're looking for in a racing title this fall.