Codemasters has one eye on the rearview mirror in this year's version of their long-running Formula One series.
Codemasters is one of Britain's oldest developers having started their life way back in the 8-bit computer era. These days they are mostly known for their popular racing games, earning their title as the masters of the genre. Due to the company's legacy, it was quite a shock when EA bought the developer earlier this year in a deal worth more than a billion dollars. This naturally worried some of their fans, as they feared the developer would be turned into another EA factory. Those fears cannot be put completely to rest yet, but after having seen and tried the new F1 2021, I must say the future still looks bright for the franchise.
As could be expected, Codemasters plays it safe this year as, instead of constructing a brand-new engine to take advantage of the next-gen consoles, they have opted for minor tweaks and adjustments.
Just to make it clear, the game basically features the same content as last year. That means you can take control of any Formula 1 or Formula 2 driver and compete on 21 official tracks from around the world including the legendary Monza and Silverstone. Three of these tracks are brand new, including the Jeddah Street Circuit in Saudi Arabia (The Formula One circuit has a strange tendency to always swing by where oil and money is to be found). The Game Modes include Career, My Team, Quick Races and of course Online Play. A much-requested feature has been improvements of the lobbies in online play, and now you can quickly jump into one that suits your playstyle and skill level.
As part of the preview, I was allowed to race on six different tracks in a couple of modes, and, as a rookie driver, I must admit that I couldn't feel much difference compared to last year's version. The cars supposedly have even better traction this year giving you a bit more control while cornering, and avid fans will no doubt appreciate the more realistic behaviour of the AI drivers as well as some sharper looking collisions when things go horribly wrong - as is often the case, when I try my luck with these games.
Yet the main improvement takes place off the tracks. The new Braking Point story mode aims to tell an ambitious and dramatic tale spanning three years of racing, during which you progress from F2 to F1. There is also going to be a lot of drama off the tracks the developer promises. "The story is driven very much by the behind-the-scenes action we've seen in the Netflix' Drive to Survive," Game Director Lee Mahler told during the presentation. "We've really generated what we think is a compelling, interesting, exciting and drama-filled series that you will be able to play in the Formula One series, something which we've never done before."
In Braking Point you play as the young Aiden Jackson and can chose between five smaller teams including Alfa Romeo and Haas. Along the way you will meet a lot of characters, both friends and foes, and you even get to race against the fan favourite Devon Butler - your rival from the story mode in F1 2019. Yes, this isn't the first time Codemasters has dabbled in a story mode, but it is certainly their most ambitious attempt yet as the story back then only focused on the arguably less exciting Formula Two.
Diehard fans will perhaps be a bit disappointed that the EA coffers so far primarily have been used to bolster the game's marketing and this story mode that primarily will appeal to more causal players. But Codemasters hasn't forgotten their most loyal supporters.
F1 2020 introduced a casual race style to help new fans get into the series. Here the car could reset itself onto the track and there you could enable a wide array of assist tools to improve your driving. The casual difficulty is still present, but this time Codemasters goes in the other direction and introduces an expert setting sure to delight sim fans. "This is essentially lifting the curtain on some of the really advanced features that we have in the Formula 1 Game," Lee Mahler tells us. Instead of having Codemasters balance the game for you, you can now do the tweaking yourselves adjusting various aspects such as car damage, engine faults and even the AI behaviour in Career mode. The F1 series already had a plethora of options, so enthusiasts will have a field day.
There are other improvements as well. You can now race with a friend in a 2-Player Career, or you can jump into the current Formula One season (results will be updated after each race) and help your favourite driver to the championship. Also, My Team has seen the addition of new events such as department meetings and expanded press conferences, and the research and development section has been revamped, so it looks less like a skill-tree.
F1 2021 is the first game in the series launching on Xbox Series X and PS5, but it doesn't take full advantage of the new platform as Codemasters has promised feature parity across the generations. Still, we do get the usual Performance/Graphics option, and Ray Tracing is supported (but only for Replays, Broadcast and Show Rooms). PS5 players can also take advantage of the DualSense features if they choose to play with a controller.
Even though Codemasters is a very experienced developer this in many ways feels like a rookie season what with a new publisher and a new generation of consoles. Therefore, they can be forgiven for keeping the foot a bit of the pedal and having one eye on the rear mirror to make sure the last-gen games are not falling hopelessly behind. You will still get a brilliant experience when the game releases on July 16th - just don't expect any radical changes.