Another year, another spectacular season of Formula 1 racing, another Codemasters tie-in. F1 2014 is out next month on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, giving racing fans their authentic simulation fix without having to buy into any new hardware to calm the shakes.
Having tested the in-development project at Namco's UK headquarters last week, I can report that it is indeed an F1 racing game. I'm not sure what else really needs to be said on that front.
Despite being a relatively early build awaiting visual polish and optimisation, it's clear that the handling is still delightfully scalable and the experience feels authentically F1 thanks to the updated team rosters, cars and the addition of the Sochi Autodrom. New players can leap straight into a one-lap evaluation, which automatically grades their skill level and sets the rebalanced difficulty appropriately, whereas veterans can get to grips with ERS and the new fuel limits.
However, rather than slogging away at a full season (which can now be approached in marathon sessions or smaller chunks), I decided to revisit my favourite feature from F1 2013: the Scenario Mode. Newly expanded in F1 2014, it's another selection of bite-sized challenges that throw you straight into an exciting situation and forces you to overcome increasingly long odds -- many of which are drawn directly from recent racing history and feature some well-observed cutscenes whether you win or lose.
Once again, I suspect that completing your gold medal set is going to be one of the most compelling parts of the package. Since I'll be describing many of these challenges in detail, I suppose you could argue that we need a spoiler alert. Maybe.
Scenarios are graded into difficulty categories, with 'Very Easy' and 'Hard' unlocked in the build I tested. The first threw me into pole position in the Australia Grand Prix (2012, I believe, likely playing as Jensen Button), but then forced me into the pit to throw on a new set of Options. Vettel then overtook me, as he's wont to do, then the game relinquished control and challenged me to win the race with two laps to go. The time limit made this a nervy and seriously exciting endeavour, though naturally my fresh tyres gave me a distinct advantage once I got re-used to the handling (having come fresh out of Forza Horizon 2, the temptation to cut corners and slide sideways was overwhelming!).
The next challenge was an authentic simulation of Pastor Maldonado's Spanish win back in 2012. Starting in first place with Fernando Alonso breathing down my neck; desperate to win and secure his national pride. Naturally I was having absolutely none of it. One victory later and I was thrown into into Red Bull livery in this year's Canadian Grand Prix, charged with taking advantage of Lewis Hamilton's defective brakes and Kimi Raikkonen's fuel conservation to pip them to the post. This one felt more like a dramatic re-imagining, to be honest, but was still a lot of fun regardless, especially since the race started with watching Hamilton limp off the track from a first-person viewpoint.
Recovering from a spin in a rainy Austrian race challenged my ability to stay cool under duress, while this year's Bahrain race threw me into a fantasy battle between Jensen Button and Rookie teammate Kevin Magnussen. After cheekily overtaking and leaving me with the back markers, it was up to me to put the new boy back in his place (and forgetting about the fact that both cars didn't finish in real life due to clutch issues).
These were child's play compared to the Hard Challenges, though. A Malaysian race threw me into heavy rain on a set of intermediates while the other drivers pitted for full wets. Was I resilient enough to hold onto 8th place in the Hungarian Grand Prix after a piece of my wing snapped off, massively impacting on handling and speed? Was I skilled enough to turn at bad day at the office into a big win at Silverstone by staying out on intermediate tyres after a break in the rain? Could I win in Japan despite starting in 17th on prime tyres, or deal with a slick Singapore track to turn 7th place into an emphatic victory?
Erm, no. In the interests of full disclosure, you should know that I came out of these Scenarios with only a bronze medal under my belt... or more commonly a commiseration cutscene of an emotionally-charged pat on the pack from the pit crew.
But practice will make perfect, and these scenarios are designed to be a great way to relive (or even remake) some hair-raising moments from recent F1 history from the perspective of drivers all the way through the grid, but in accessible little chunks rather than marathon sessions. We'll find out whether F1 2014 is the complete package on October 17th.