There's so much going on in modern F1, beyond team rivalries and driving lightning quick around hair-raising bends (even if that's the main draw). There's the in-house squabbles between teammates, the attention to detail paid to every aspect of the cars and race preperation, the weather conditions and how they affect the tires and tactics, the intricacies of the rules; at the top table of the sport there's plenty to take in.
The level of extreme detail offered by the competition to its enthusiastic audience hasn't been replicated exhaustively in a video game before now, at least not to the extent that football is explored by FIFA, or basketball by NBA2K. Last year's F1 entry by Codemasters hinted that the racing specialists were flirting with authenticity with some of the physics modelling brought in following the switch to the new EGO engine, but there was still a lot missing and the game lacked depth in comparison to what's offered by its real world equivalent.
This is exactly what Codemasters is looking to fix with F1 2016, and on top of a number of little tweaks made across the board, there's a significant addition to the series in the form of a 10 year career mode that looks to facilitate this level of immersion to a degree we've not seen before from the series. This returning and much-requested mode looks to bring a bit more character to the table, as well as surfacing some of the data that previously remained hidden under the hood and obvious to only the hardcore.
It starts off with the player choosing their avatar, their team, number, name, all that stuff, before being introduced to your agent ahead of the first warm up event. Thereafter you meet your chief engineer, and you access notes from both, as well as important race info, via your laptop. The new paddock environment is the same for each team, although the logos change to reflect your allegiance. The presentation is slick, and although they're not the most detailed characters we've ever seen, your agent and crew chief certainly put a friendly face on the campaign.
Teams reflect their real world counterparts. Therefore, players will have goals similar to those you'd expect in the real world (for example: Mercedes want you to win, while Manor are just happy that you compete). It all starts off as you'd expect and the natural order of things is reflected in the way teams perform, at least at first, because over the years things will change and things will even out a little (at least, that's the impression that we got after talking to the studio).
Preparing well for a race is as important as you'd expect, and Codemasters has introduced some new practise programs that add fun gameplay to spice up what in other racers can feel like boring preamble. The most obvious is the track acclimatisation test, which aims to better teach you the ideal racing line by having you precisely pass through gates as you enter and exit corners (it feels like a nice arcade-esque distraction, almost like something out of The Crew), while the qualifying performance test gives you specific goals to work towards ahead of the race proper. There's even a tyre wear test that allows you to develop a bespoke racing strategy for the main event.
Success in these preparatory events will bag you R&D points that can be spent tweaking and improving parts of your car that you feel are lacking, facilitating the slow evolution of your car and career as you look to refine your abilities over an extended period of time.
A little tension has been added to start of each grand prix via the interactive race starts, which will focus players in those opening seconds more than ever before, especially when a sloppy button press can leave you struggling to keep up with those at the front of the grid. AI-controlled cars will also see the occasional sluggish start, which should spice up those opening corners and potentially make it easier to move through the pack.
The safety car is making a return, much to the delight of fans, an addition which should add an extra dynamic to races, with cars bunching together and creating a new challenge. The plan is that races will become more diverse as a result. Players will also have to negotiate manual pit entries, avoiding penalties for speeding and adding drama to another aspect of the race. Another feature appearing in F1 2016 is the formation lap, and although that's not a huge addition on its own, it's indicative of the attention to detail being paid by Codemasters this year.
How successful this refined career mode will be is impossible to judge right now, as we only looked at the first weekend, but the impression it left is a positive one. It's clear that the developers are trying to compensate for the fact that last year they dropped the ball, and having spoken to the devs at the event (in an interview that you'll be able to read on Gamereactor soon) you can tell that they're feeling confident about the decisions they've made, and the depth that they've added.
Elsewhere the package is rounded off by time trials and quick races (which, if you want them to be, can still include more than just a quick spin around each circuit). There's a couple of new tracks in there too; Germany's Hockenheim returns alongside the all-new Baku City Circuit (a track that Codemasters is calling their most detailed ever thanks to the urban setting). The weather conditions look well implemented, and the overall visual finish is decent. With so much simulation going on in the background it'd be unfair to criticise it too much from a visual perspective, and the frame-rate was fairly smooth all things considered.
They need to hit the podium with this year's entry after 2015 ended up being a bit lacklustre in some key areas. The career mode looks like the shot in the arm that the series needs, and looking beyond that there's a wealth of minor fixes that should please fans. But there's still more that has to be improved. We're mainly referring to multiplayer. Codemasters are upping their game by introducing 22-player races, but that won't matter one little bit if it's plagued by the same connectivity issues that hampered last year's title.
All told it looks like this year's F1 entry is going to be a big step up when compared to its predecessor. After last year's stumble Codemasters needs to deliver, but given the return to form we've seen in the imperious Dirt Rally, it's not unreasonable to think that they're going to pull it off. F1 2016 is launching on PC, PS4 and Xbox One on August 19. Here's hoping the positive first impression made during our hands-on extends over a full season and beyond.
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