Sebastian Vettel has made this year's Formula 1 championship less than nailbiting, so it was up to Codemasters to bring something truly special to the table with F1 2011. The KERS and DRS systems - not to mention the new Pirelli tyres and their artificial lifespan - have fundamentally changed the sport, leaving the studio with more to do than just add a fresh lick of a paint and rearrange the roster.
Thankfully, Codemasters have delivered on the promise of a 'more realistic' Formula 1 simulation, and in the most part recaptured the sense of glamour and occasion that come with the sport, making for a game that's infinitely more exciting than its current real-world counterpart.
Fans of last year's title will feel instantly familiar with the game's structure. As well as single races and the usual time trial options comes a comprehensive 'Career' mode, where the real meat of the game lies. Opting for 'Career' will throw you into the rookie world of Formula 1, where you will be given the choice of one of five starting teams, and informed that you have five seasons in which to work your way up the ranks and into the cockpits of the fearsome Red Bull, Ferrari or Mclaren Mercedes machines for the chance of snagging the Driver's Championship.
As with last year's title, you'll be spending your time between races in the team trailer, where you can access emails from your manager, view the current championship standings, and of course select the next race from the calender. It's a much prettier solution to the menu system, but a little less elegant, with a whole bunch of loading screens to sit through before you actually make it to the track. It's a minor niggle, and one that will quickly be forgotten when you finally get behind the wheel of the world's most fearsome road machines.
A Divn't Leyk That, Man
When you do get to the garage, you'll notice what I consider to be F1 2011's most heinous exclusion from last year's game: That Geordie bloke what did your engineering. This cheery chap, who was always quick to scream excited appraisal at you after a win, or chastise you for a terrible practice session has been replaced by a po-faced and lifeless Southerner, who simply mumbles brake temperatures and fuel mix settings over the team radio. A silly gripe, perhaps, but the enthusiastic Northerner brought a real sense of gravitas to your actions in last year's iteration.
Regardless, leaving the confines of your garage and hitting your first practice session immediately demonstrates where the biggest improvements in this year's title have been made. The handling is much more robust this time around, making the cars feel weightier and less jittery out of the corners. Curbs will no longer flick the rear end of the car out at the slightest provocation, with downforce imposing a much greater sense of grip and balance. The weight of the car itself also shifts as you throw it into the apex, acting upon the camber of the wheels and presenting a much greater sense of precision and authenticity.
Then there's the aforementioned KERS and DRS systems, both of which do a fantastic job of elevating the excitement level. Both are available at any time during practice and qualifying sessions, but DRS can only be deployed after two laps have been completed in the race, and only when you're no further than one second behind the car in front. Getting hands-on with these systems is great fun, but the game never really gives you any instructions on their use, relying instead on the fact that you must be a fan of the sport and already understand their advantages. A little more guidance might have gone a long way.
Overtaking is as satisying as ever, and competitors are much more aggressive in their response this time, meaning defensive manouvres are every bit as important as they are in the sport itself. Pirelli's terminal tyres add an extra layer of tension to races, punishing those that don't make a conscious effort to look after them. 'Out' laps are vital, with brake and tyre temperatures having a much greater impact on performance than they did in F1 2010 – you'll be nursing the car around the track until you've reached optimal temperatures, or suffer a collossal spin as a consequence.
When you do finish that all important opening race, you'll be treated to either a celebratory animation, or a dejected shot of your avatar being chided by the team, depending on how well you've done. This, unfortunately, seems to be the one big change Codemasters have made to the Career mode, with everything else staying pretty much true to F1 2010's sensibilities. Contract offers and their requirements are a little less cut and dry, but you'll still end up plumping for a lower offer as a result of holding out too long.
Lack of change aside, the Career mode is as thrilling as ever, and provides an extremely strong foundation for Codemasters to work on in future iterations.
A Beautiful Sport
The tracks themselves are much more vibrant this time around, with the greys and browns of last year's game moving over for a much broader colour palette. Spa truly is a sight to behold, with its dense forestry presenting a tunnel of spectacular green as you soar past it at over two hundred miles per hour. The cars, as they are in the real world, have become objects of desire; their glossy finishes and fighter-jet-like silhouettes rendered in beautiful detail. And that's without mentioning the weather effects, which to be frank, are some of the best I've ever seen. In short, F1 2011 is a fantastic looking game.
These luscious visuals do come at a cost though, with loading times interrupting the races themselves - infinitely infuriating when you're about to hit the apex of a particularly tight hairpin. Leaving the garage nearly always brings the game to a grinding halt as it renders the world you're about to traverse at a quarter of the speed of sound. Whether it's something Codemasters can fix with a subsequent patch remains to be seen, but for now we'll just have to put up with the frustrating issue that's been rearing its ugly head since last year's title.
I Get By With A Little Help...
One of this year's biggest additions is that of a co-op championship mode, allowing you and a friend to fight it out for the number one driver's spot, as well as the Constructor's title in a team of your choosing. For me at least, this mode is the highlight of F1 2011, upping the competitive stakes as the pair of you battle not just in the races, but also in practice and qualifying sessions to be the apple in your team manager's eye.
In addition, F1 2011 features the usual competitive multiplayer races, with up to 16 players (and 8 AI drivers) able to pit themselves against one another and earn experience points to level up your profile. Finding other players can be a bit of a chore, with each game featuring its own ruleset as decided by the host. Often you'll be spectating the last five laps of a race just to be a part of the next lineup, only for everyone to bail out and leave you sitting in the lobby alone. Still, this is more of a community shortcoming than any real fault of the developer, and the online options are enough to extend the time you'll spend with the game.
- Unsurpassed vehicle physics
- Absolutely gorgeous to look at
- Co-op championship
- In-race stuttering under loading
- Career still lacks some flair
- Where's the Geordie guy?
Despite some minor technical snags and a career mode that hasn't advanced too far beyond last year's offering, Codemasters have delivered the definitive Formula 1 simulation. Fans owe it to themselves to get their hands on this game.