The closed beta for Codemasters' new browser based, free-to-play Formula 1 management/multiplayer racing game has begun in earnest, and I managed to snag myself a closed beta invite. After spending a little time with it, I've a few thoughts, both positive and negative. All in all, it's a neat little game that shows some promise and also offers some potentially interesting mechanics that Codemasters should look to implement into their bigger franchises.
F1 Online is split into two different facets. One half of the game is a Formula 1 management sim. You play the part of team principal, head engineer and PR manager all rolled into one. You get to customise visual features such as the car liveries, but the real meat of the experience comes in upgrading your vehicle. Upon starting the game, you'll be handed the lowest-class of vehicle possible, but you can upgrade it via a complex and strategic development system. There's a whole separate hub representing the team paddock, and the way you advance feels very much like a strategy game, with frequent and lasting decisions to be made over how you use your resources. Do you keep your xp points to buy something juicy down the line, or do you focus on smaller, more frequent upgrades to get your team expanding quickly?
It provides an organic experience and there's a wealth of different paths available for the player to take. It's the stronger half of the game by far, and is pleasingly well-developed. One of the only criticisms I could make of Codemasters' last core F1 game was that it didn't delve deep enough into the team management aspect. There's no reason why F1 Online's blueprint can't now be expanded upon and put into the upcoming F1 2012.
It's the other half of the game - the racing - where it really falls down. F1 Online is something of a massively multiplayer online experience. Now, whilst online racing games aren't exactly known for their mature and polite communities, a lot of the races in F1 Online aren't representative of the sport whatsoever. Multi-car pile ups straight off the start line aren't uncommon, and without any penalty system many choose to rely on shoving opponents off the road instead of using speed and skill.
However it's hard to blame these players, because the control system maims the racing experience so catastrophically that it took all my willpower not to quit out of F1 Online after my first race. The car accelerates, brakes and steers using the mouse, and it is an incredibly twitchy and unresponsive handling system to have in a game that should require precision and accuracy. The steering is particularly difficult to handle, and anybody hoping to play this game using a laptop will find themselves incredibly frustrated. A trackpad is not going to be appropriate for controlling this game.
Still, if you can look past all of that the races are almost endearing in their own chaotic way. The reward system provides ample incentive to continually enter new races, and seeing your car go from a backmarker to a powerhouse brings a real feel of success. For what it is, F1 Online is a neat little package. If Codemasters can fix up a few issues with the racing - ghosting opponent cars and gamepad support would go a long way - then it'll be worthy of the studio's prestigious name. It provides a good amount of new features that could easily fit into their bigger racing titles, and brings something new to the Formula 1 gaming experience that has been lacking.