When the Formula 1 license switched hands to UK based racing
specialist Codemasters, we had a few concerns about the direction in which the developer
would take the series. Whilst the studio certainly had the racing heritage,
they’re a name that, up until two years ago, were synonymous with hardcore,
realistic racing experiences. While there was no doubt they’d give Formula 1
nuts a game they’d love, we were a little bit worried about how the game
would turn out for the rest of us. Knowing how in-depth a recreation of the
sport Codemasters were going to put together, how could they simultaneously
make it a game that someone who doesn’t know their Mika Hakkinen from their
Fernando Alonso could enjoy.
The answer is... well, they couldn’t, quite – although it’s not for not trying. Although Codies have certainly attempted to make the actual racing a less intimidating prospect for newcomers, the features they've put in to try and help you tone the difficulty down - and how awkward it is to actually use them makes them feel like an afterthought. But we’ll get to that later.
From the second you drop into the game, you’ll be faced with a bunch of journalists and cameras, who ask you to introduce yourself “for the viewer at home”. After telling them your name, you’ll be asked a question that’ll determine the difficulty for the game, as this, Codies reckon, is a lot more immersive than having a menu say “How ‘ard do you like it?”. The problem is, we have a suspicion that a lot of people won’t realise that this is actually setting the difficulty for the game – people, who also probably just so happen to be the less experienced types, who’d want to make sure their race is as easy as possible.
From there, after choosing which team you want to race for, you’ll be greeted by a veritable maze of flying words and random people, in what has to be one of the most initially awkward menus we’ve seen. After your incredibly bored agent attempts to talk you through a small portion of the game’s menus, and your head’s been left spinning, you’ll just about manage to stumble into the race section, where you’ll find yourself sat in the cockpit of your car.
Dropping you into a race weekend, it's here that the more technical F1 fan will be in heaven, as it lets them fiddling with differentials, tyres, suspension, and various other bits and bobs around your car, while the rest of us are left wondering just how we get to actually race. Figuring out how to do that is about as complex as building an F1 car for yourself. With possibly the least intuitive pre-race menu we’ve ever seen, when you struggle this much getting into the game, it does make you wonder what the game’s actually going to play like.
Thankfully, when you do eventually manage to leave the pit, and get out on the track, it's clear to see where the efforts gone. Bundling you into a cockpit of a car, and letting you race your car against 23 other drivers, there's plenty going on in the races for you to take in. With a dynamic weather system that'll see the lightly overcast day turning into a torrential downpour, you can never be sure of the path the race is going to take until you're in it. With the changing weather also comes a change of conditions, as the surface ends up covered in puddles, and, if you're racing from the cockpit view, it becomes genuinely challenging to see where your going, as the rain streaks up your visor. If you're racing on the wrong tyres, you'll have to pit in and change them, or risk spinning out on every single corner. Luckily, even though the menus can be a bit daunting, it's pretty easy to choose the setup for your car from a list of options by speaking to your engineer, which means - if you check the track report - you're unlikely to be caught short.
If you're the sort of person who doesn't like the idea of being alone in a car going at 200 miles an hour, there are plenty of extra features here to try and make things easier for you. There’s a racing line drawn across the tracks, which shows you the ideal route for you to take, and changes to red when you’re going too fast to give you an indication of when, and how much to brake. And if worrying about two triggers seems a bit confusing, they’ve even thrown in an auto-brake, to make the cornering, and general driving a lot easier. When you’re throwing a car at hair-raising speeds around a track, with the rain beating against your visor, and the sound of engines roaring all around you, it doesn't make it any less intense - if anything, letting you focus on the actual race, and the scenery more, it can make it more enjoyable.
The level of detail on show here is as impressive as it is daunting, but it's a bit of a double edged sword. While it's enough to entice the hardcore F1 fan, it's also likely to leave the rest of us more than a little confused. Having to worry about stopping in the pits(which you'll have to do at least once a race, due to some official rule), weather conditions, and even the revs of your engine makes this a daunting experience - and it's a shame some of the features couldn't have been more streamlined - specifically, the rather restrictive rules.
Cause too many crashes (two seems to be the magic number – and the game usually says it’s your fault, regardless of blame), and you’ll be slapped with a ten second penalty – which can be enough to drop you to practically the bottom of the rankings. Then, there are the sillier things – automatic braking has been designed so you only have to worry about steering, letting you keep your finger on the trigger without having to worry about your speed – so why does your engine start to overheat because you’re revving it too much? Why isn’t there an option to turn off realism like that – or, better still, why doesn’t the game scale down your acceleration too, so you really only have to worry about the steering?
While it’s a nice idea, the auto-brake is also often far too conservative to actually be practical, as you’ll find yourself crawling to a halt rather than whizzing past your opponent on the inside of a bend, which kind of defeats the purpose of it. Why use an auto-brake if it actually prevents you from winning – or at least finishing as high up as you could? The racing line the game provides, too, is often so close to the walls, or the edge of the track, that trying to stick with it will end in disaster. If you stray even slightly off the track in a practice session or qualifying lap, you’ll be disqualified for that lap, for “cutting corners” – and when all you were trying to do was follow the racing line, that seems a tad unfair.
The races are split into three sections – a practice session, a few qualifying laps, and then the big day, with a few tweaks to liven things up a little. During the practice laps, you’ll be set a challenge by your pit team, which, if you complete it, will lead to an upgrade being unlocked for your car. Similarly, you'll be challenged to finish in a certain place in both qualifying and the final race, with the most important goal of all being not to finish first, but to beat your team mate. Beating your team's requirements wil lead to you being made the primary driver, and eventually being made offers by other, better teams. The problem is, you'll often find yourself coming towards the middle, if not the end of the pack, just because your team's car isn't as good, which makes the early career an exercise in frustration.
When you're stopped in the pit, or off racing round the track, you'll have your engineer (who sounds suspiciously like the Geordie off Blue Peter) giving you hints about what to do - warning you of upcoming obstacles, or when you're revving your engine too much (as happened all the time for us), and even reminding you that it's time to pit in. While it may seem like a small nicety, having these little feedback mechanisms can make what is otherwise a hardcore racing seem that much easier to understand, and is a useful feature.
But while the team at Codemasters have done their best to liven things up, it still doesn’t change the fact you’re racing around the same track, upwards of ten times, probably closer to twenty times in a row, just with slightly changing objectives. It's an exercise in simply racing the same track, and shaving milliseconds off your time, always trying to find the best route, and push your car to its very limit.
And to be honest, it’s this - the very nature of Formula One - that lets F1 2010 down. While the adrenaline pumps as you fly around the corners at breakneck speed (and if you’re using the in cockpit view, it’ll be even more of a face-melting, nerve wracking experience), the tensions starts to wear off when you’re 12 laps and 20 minutes in. The fact you can only limit yourself to having to race 20% of a real race – or at least 20 minutes of a real race, just means the races tend to drag on, and on, and on, and on - no matter how exciting they seem initially.
With the ability to trim the races down a bit further, scale back the difficulty, and a much, much more intuitive rookie experience, this could be well worth a look. The problem
is, as it stands, for anyone who’s not that well versed in racing games, F1
2010 will be so hard to get into, and then so hard to progress through, that it’ll
end up just being an exercise in frustration. An arcade racer it isn't - if you want to reap the rewards of F1 2010, you'll have to learn the ropes first.