Codemasters’ decision to annualise their modern take on Formula 1 racing wasn’t received so well when they announced it. That was over eighteen months ago, and not long after that they managed to release F1 2011, a sequel that not only proved its worth by fixing the original racer’s many issues but improved drastically upon its framework.
But despite this, I still find myself asking the same questions about their newest iteration of the series, F1 2012. I was not alone in wondering whether there was anything more Codemasters could do with such a precise and regimented sport that would warrant a second F1 game in twelve months. Whilst F1 2012 makes a big effort to try and inject freshness into the series, with plenty of new additions both immediate and subtle, it never quite shakes the feeling that Codemasters could – and maybe should – have taken a year off.
One of the main drawbacks of the previous F1 games was that they were nigh-on inaccessible to beginners. Sure, it was easy enough to whack all the assists on and begin driving, but the game offered no help to players looking to expand their knowledge of tactics and actually understand what makes a successful race at more realistic difficulty settings. All the way through this game, you can see that F1 2012 was designed with the Formula 1 virgin in mind. From the new Young Driver’s Test – a bona fide tutorial mode that automatically launches when you first boot the game – to the helpful track analysis videos in career, there’s information all over this game designed to ease players in. That’s not to say Codemasters have skimped on any of the series’ technical depth. There’s the wide array of R&D goals, car modifications and tech jargon that F1 fans will be familiar with, but they’re presented in an easier-to-understand way. This is particularly apparent in the pit-lane menus, where it’s now much easier to see just what effects the subtle tweaks you make have on your car. I was hopeful that the incredibly deep, team micro-management from Codies’ free-to-play browser game F1 Online would be incorporated into career, but this was unfortunately too ambitious or late to make any appearance.
Racing is more fun than it has ever been in 2012. Codemasters have successfully managed to combine the realism and finesse of Forza, the thrilling fun of Race Driver: GRiD and the pure speed of WipeOut into a race engine that is as rewarding as it is challenging. The handling system has been tweaked in a way that’ll only be apparent to those – like me – who put hundreds of hours into the series’ previous iterations. F1 2011’s cars were a little too light and skittish for many, and it was instantly apparent to me that Codemasters have dialled back the deftness of touch needed to make it round the track this year. In many ways, it feels more similar to their original effort, F1 2010. Cars automatically reduce speed upon leaving the track and feel noticeably weightier. This isn’t saying that they’ve dumbed down the game. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Whilst it’s slightly tougher to send your car into a big spin this year, it’s also much harder to correct it without losing masses of time. It means that you’ll be focusing more on car downforce instead of tyre wear, and every year it becomes more thrilling attempting to push the limits of your vehicle. A few gameplay niggles from the past are still present and correct, most prominently highly schizophrenic difficulty. AI skill and aggression can vary wildly between game modes and tracks, so it can be initially jarring until you figure out on which tracks you might want to consider tweaking difficulty setups.
Whilst F1 2011 was really quite a barebones affair, with just career, time trials and online play, F1 2012 has a whole bunch of different modes and quirks in an effort to entertain. Challenge scenarios that ask you to overtake a certain driver within an allotted number of laps, numerous time attacks and Codemasters’ fantastic leaderboard-integrated time trial system give longevity to a series that didn’t have a lot of it beforehand. Whilst playing racing simulators in multiplayer isn’t always a recipe for fun, an effort has at least been made with F1 2012 to give a good framework on which to hang your 24 car, first-turn pileups. 16-player online races are a blast, and connectivity is excellent provided you can find a group of people who won’t verbally abuse you or T-bone you for the sake of it.
F1 2012 is in every facet a striking game. F1 2011 was the last game in which Codemasters used their “virtual trailer/paddock” menus. DiRT 3, Showdown, and now F1 2012 all have similar, crisp menus which are a joy to navigate. This is perhaps not the most coveted of compliments, but those guys at Codies really are making the best menus in the business right now. Considering they now have to cram over half a dozen different gameplay modes into the main menu, it doesn’t feel cluttered, and I never find myself getting lost. EA Sports, take note.
Likewise, the on-track action has never looked so beautiful. Tracks are bright and sunny most of the time, but there are also some excellent dynamic weather effects. Weather conditions can now vary across the circuit, and having to adjust your driving strategy because a small section of the track is receiving more rain than the rest adds extra realism and tactical depth. The only downside is that there appears to be a negligible amount of motion blur added that initially played havoc with my ability to spot braking points. This, however, is quickly dissipated through practice and will only be a problem to veteran players.
For all that Codemasters added, and as great as the racing in this game is, I can’t help but feel the third iteration of the series could have been so much more. For very little reason, Codemasters have chosen to remove or hide some features from the game. Players now only get one Friday Practice session instead of the proper amount of three, career races can only be raced at 25, 50 or 100% distance but, most concerningly, all progressive scaling of tyre degradation has been removed. For those not familiar with Formula 1, tyres, and how fast they wear out of grip, is maybe the single most important tactical aspect of racing. In last years’ game it was implemented very well, and when you selected a career race of, say, 50% distance, the tyres would degrade twice as fast. This led to realistic numbers of pit stops per-race, and gave players without the time to play full length races the whole F1 experience.
This year, every tyre in every race degrades at 100% race distance, as if it were real-life. This is a real problem for players who race shorter races of 20-30%, and I just count myself lucky that I like to race long enough endurance runs that this isn’t an issue. The removal of the practice sessions and degradation scaling caused quite the uproar this week amongst fans, and Codemasters hastily assembled an essay-length response as to why they chose to do so. Although they have some valid concerns, most of lead designer Scott Hood’s argument came down to “not enough players are using it, we can’t focus on all this stuff, and maybe we’ll make a bigger game that has all the things you’re demanding in future”.
That last sentence is what continues to bug me about F1 2012. It seems to me like the guys at Codemasters Birmingham are clearly hitting the end of the road with what they can achieve in their yearly timescale. There’s no doubt F1 2012 is the best game in the series, in both content and execution, but it still feels to me like this franchise needs a year off. This is an open, free suggestion to Codemasters: leave 2013 alone. Bring F1 2014 out as a release title for the next generation of consoles and then you’ll have time to incorporate all these features you say you can’t wait to include. See you in a couple of years.