F1 2012 review
Yearly updates are tricky. They are, of course, tricky for the developer who often has less than than a year to put a new game on the shelves. They are tricky for the gamers who are concerned about whether their limited budget should be invested in something which may not be substantially different from what they already have. They are tricky for publishers who need to balance those concerns against not only their bottom line but also the obligations of the licence; don't ship a game one year and you may not be able to make any more. So they're tricky, then. And here we are at the third yearly game for Codemasters' series of F1 releases (at least in terms of the current platforms it supports); the question is, can they pull off this tricky endeavour.
Like musicians' notorious third album, the third yearly game comes with added expectations. The first game, F1 2010, was Codemasters' chance to start a fresh, and despite being a great game there was still clear room for improvement. So along came F1 2011 making notable improvements to the handling and adding the much-requested safety car. It also benefited from some big changes in the sport that saw the re-introduction of the boost system KERS, the first appearance of the overtaking aid DRS, and the unpredictable Pirelli tyres, ending years of boring Bridgestone consistency. But this year the sport doesn't have any dramatic alterations, the introduction of the new track in Austin, Texas being the biggest change. Having built such a great game in F1 2011, it's hard to know where to go next.
Maybe you can get Caterham's first points
As a result, the initial feel of driving in F1 2012 will be rather familiar. There are further tweaks to the handling, and a particular emphasis has been put on making the game easier to drive with a controller (wheels got a lot of focus last time around), but there are no dramatic differences here. With console hardware already pushed the limits there are few visual changes either, although the lighting model does make the game more vibrant. Continue to race and you will see where the improvements actually lie, with an improved suspension system that makes the driving more satisfying, allowing you to push more into the corners and rely on the tremendous downforce that Formula 1 cars have to travel around tight corners much faster than any road car could. It should really be a risk/reward scenario when you go into these situations, so I would recommend turning traction control off when you feel comfortable in order to get the most out of the new handling.
While the changes to the handling are only found under the surface, your first impression of the game itself will be quite different. The interface has had a complete overhaul, with the 3D menus for navigating around your motorhome replaced by something more conventional, and yet also slicker and more user-friendly. You are guided into the new Young Driver's Test, modelled on the real event which took place just after the season ended last year in Abu Dhabi. It's a glorified tutorial mode, and one that does well to introduce people new to the sport or the series to the important points needed to succeed, and explain the terminology used in what is a rather technical sport. Authenticity is maintained by having you compete against real-life rising stars such as Mercedes AMG's Sam Bird.
Maldonado lines up another shot
Graduating from the Young Driver's Test you can jump into the career mode, again available in solo and co-op flavours, but the fresh meat is in Career Challenge, a cut-down version of the regular 20-race epic, that features just 10 races of 5 laps apiece. It skips over practice, and cuts qualifying down to a single lap shoot-out to offer a mode that allows everyone a chance to engage in a season. While the full experience should never go away, it is right of Codemasters to allow those of us who are limited on time to enjoy a more complete experience than a single race every now and then. I have often found myself bogged down trying to get to the third or fourth race when playing through post-review. I have seen Australia's Albert Park too many times, and yet I've hardly seen much of Korea's circuit. With Career Challenge you can actually compete in multiple races in a single session of gaming in a mode neatly separated from the classic career effort.
Between the Young Drivers' Test and Career Challenge, it seems that accessibility for a wider audience is a key focus this year, and these are joined by the Champions mode which also celebrates the fact that there are six F1 World Champions on the grid in 2012. Each of these legends has a specialised challenge tailored to their character, including trying to get past Jenson Button in the rain, and beating Sebastian Vettel not only to the top step of the podium but also taking away his precious fastest lap.
The wet weather effects continue to look impressive
Lewis Hamilton's Champions challenge, where you must decide whether to switch to wet tyres or stay on slicks as the rain begins to fall in Brazil, is a good showcase of the improved weather system in F1 2012. It feels more dynamic with conditions able to change quickly, and as in real life. The weather can vary across different parts of the track, although you really need to be running longer races to take full advantage.
Regardless of the length of the race, the on-track action continues to be highly enjoyable, and while it may not be a perfect simulation for the hardcore audience, most of the gameplay gives a real sense of satisfaction, as if you really could compete in Formula 1. Going full throttle at Eau Rouge in Spa, sneaking an overtake in at Monaco, or making your way to the front from the back of the grid are all satisfying moments in the sport that you can enjoy here too. The AI generally gives you a good challenge, although this is one area that feels like it could do with a bit more tweaking, with AI-controlled cars taking corners slower than you, and it can be hard to find the right difficulty level in which to win without feeling like you set it too low. A more dynamic difficulty would help here, but at least the AI drivers do convey a sense of being human with some erratic overtaking and occasional mistakes that you can take advantage of.
Human opponents, meanwhile, are an interesting mixture of people who want to abide by all the rules all of the time, and some who just want to take you out. There is a lively online community, and if you want to play regularly there are plenty of opportunities on the Internet to join leagues and tournaments. In fact, I would recommend these if you are a frequent online player as you'll generally avoid those people who decide that once they've messed up their own race they should mess up yours. The online racing seems to work well, with the action flowing as it does when you're offline, but with the added sense of satisfaction from beating real people, particularly if they are several ranks above you. There don't seem to be any particular changes in the functionality itself, so the online co-op challenge, along with a mixture of more casual and structured race options are available again.
The online functionality ties into Codemasters' new RaceNet service, first introduced in DIRT Showdown earlier this year, providing a link between the data in the game and the RaceNet website. There you can browse a bunch of stats and well as look at your position on the leaderboards. Another role for RaceNet is to provide a fresh challenge each week, with a single track with locked conditions and a chosen car, and these are often tied to a recent race in the real world. It's a nice feature, and should provide an incentive to keep coming back to the game, but it is little limited in scope, only varying a simple set of parameters. It would be welcome to see this expanded to allow for more varied challenges in the future, maybe with a similar setup to some of the Champions scenarios where you need to cope with tyres wearing out or conditions changing quickly.
This man might be the next champion, but it's looking less likely
So it's the difficult third entry for Codemasters' series and while this is the less revolutionary of the three games, F1 2012 is certainly a lot more than simply an update to the cars, drivers and locations. If you're the type of person who only plays full race weekends (or at least 50% distance), then there's fewer items here for you, but the handling changes and the improved weather might justify your purchase. But if you're someone like myself who loves the sport but doesn't have enough time to do those long races all the time, then the new options in F1 2012 will finally allow you to enjoy far more of what the world's premier motorsport has to offer.