Codemasters’ first F1 game, F1 2010, enjoyed huge sales and won a BAFTA award.
Doubtless part of that success was motivated by the lack of an official F1 game for four years. But it’s clear from the activity on the F1 Fanatic Forum players haven’t put the game down months after it came out.
But what can Codemasters do to entice people to buy the sequel, due out in September? I went to a preview event on Wednesday to find out and try the latest version of the game.
The 2011 update
Naturally, the game boasts updated content to reflect the 2011 season.
That means a new track to play with in the shape of India. As last year with South Korea, the developers have had to model the game based on expectations of how the Buddh International Circuit will look, as the game will come out before the inaugural Indian Grand Prix takes place.
The German Grand Prix sees the Hockenheimring swapped for the Nurburgring, and of course there’s no longer a Bahrain Grand Prix.
The teams and drivers are updated – those keeping score in the ‘Lotus vs Lotus’ war will note Renault and Lotus are referred to as “Lotus Renault GP” and “Team Lotus” respectively.
As last year, the data is based on the start of the season. So the McLarens sport their distinctively bright early-season rear floor, and don’t expect appearances from Pedro de la Rosa or Daniel Ricciardo.
KERS and DRS
The new rules for 2011 have been faithfully recreated too. You get limited KERS boosts and DRS use is also true to life: it’s unavailable in the first two laps of the race and only available for use when you’re close enough to another car.
However it’s never been as difficult to overtake in an F1 game as it is in real life, and while playing I seldom had the opportunity to use DRS in a race situation.
Lee Mather, chief car handling designer, said the DRS has been modelled closely on real life, including the ‘forbidden zone’ in the tunnel at Monaco:
“It’s authentic, we do it correctly. There’s a DRS activation zones, we have them marked one the circuit. In some instances we have boards at the side of the circuit as they do on certain tracks. We do it exactly as it is.
“For the circuits that haven’t been announced we make a very educated guess.”
“Things like KERS and DRS are incredible for a racing game because they lend themselves towards a game incredibly well,” he added.
The developers are keen to stress that the game is more than just an update of the content from F1 2010. One of the main areas they’re focussed on this year is multiplayer.
The addition of an offline multiplayer mode, where two players can race each other on one console with a split screen, will surely please the many people who asked for the feature last year.
Online players can now race a full grid of 24 cars of which up to 16 can be player-controlled, the rest run by the computer.
But the most interesting and original aspect of the multiplayer mode is the new co-operative championship, where two people can play through the game together. This should add much greater depth to the experience than the usual online crash-fests.
What’s in, what’s out
At Wednesday’s press event the developers faced the usual barrage of questions about what’s in and what’s not in the game.
Those hoping for the introduction of the safety car are to be disappointed. It’s clear from talking to the developers they feel players would only enjoy following the safety car briefly before getting tired of it and choosing to skip the interruption.
Mather told me: “The safety car is one of those things we’ve been asked about a lot.”
“If we can get a safety car in the game which we feel enhances the experience, we’ll have the safety car in the game. If we can’t, if it takes away from the enjoyment of the game, then we won’t have a safety car.”
Red-flag scenarios are also not modelled, and nor is there a pre-race formation lap. There won’t be any download-able content for the game either.
However the team have addressed some of the criticisms of the previous game, starting with the use of sector times during qualifying laps for that authentic, high-pressure hot-lap experience.
Seeing the whole race
In F1 2010, the inability for players to scroll through rival cars in replay mode to see how their race was progressing led to speculation that the races were being ‘faked’.
This feature will not be in F1 2011 either. Mather said: “You still can’t scroll between the cars, but you can see their progress. The ability to swap between the cars is still, technically, very difficult to do.”
However the developers say they understand the complaint and have made other changes to allow players to better appreciate the race going on around them:
“It’s something we’ve given a lot of consideration because we felt exactly the same way about it,” says Mather.
“Obviously in Formula 1 you can be out on your own, completely in the lead, it’s your race to win. But there’s somebody behind on a different strategy and in the end he bumps you down to third or fourth.
“There’s a couple of things we’ve added to help that. The race engineer is now present in online races, so he will be able to update you. Let’s say for example you’re doing good pace, the engineer will come on and say your race pace is good so you’ll know you don’t have to push any harder, and you’ll know that when the pit stops and everything play out you’ll be in a strong final position.
“We’ve also added additional element to the on-screen display. Previously you had a spot that showed you temperatures and damage. There’s now an additional one which shows you an idea of how much fuel you’ve got beyond and below the optimal points, and also the projected rejoining position should you pit.”
He adds they didn’t include a list of positions for all drivers because of a lack of screen space. However, players can now pause the game and access data on the drivers positions, pit stops and major events that have happened during the race.
The switch to Pirelli tyres has meant significant changes to how the cars handle.
This opens up the opportunity for more varied tyre strategies, as Mather explains: “We’ve run quite a lot of long races while testing the tyre durations out.
“We’ve finished within a second of each other after starting on different compounds. Steve [Hood, chief game designer] won a race at Spa running on a one-stop strategy while I ran two or three. He just wanted to try it out to see if it was possible. At one point in the race he was significantly slower than we were, we were taking seconds out of him on every lap.”
I took the opportunity to get a first-hand feel of how the cars handle in F1 2011. They feel more challenging to drive – twitchier, and more likely to catch you out if you get too greedy with the throttle on corner exit. Unless you’ve got all the driver aids switched on, of course.
The variation in their performance between different types of tyre compound is much more noticeable – unfortunately I didn’t have time to get much of a feel for how long the tyres last.
Some of the improvements made to the handling are left over from developments that were planned for F1 2010 but never made it, as Mather explains:
“We were working on an improved suspension model. Unfortunately due to some other technical difficulties we couldn’t get it fully implemented.”
They settled on a compromise solution for the first game: “It was very good, but it wasn’t quite where we could get to.”
The new model is implemented in F1 2011: “It makes a big difference to the feel of the cars. It allowed us to start with a clean sheet on cars set-ups.
“It gives the feeling of a car that’s in contact with the track surface. That was one of the biggest things we really wanted to gain – the feel.”
Aside from the inevitable updates, the tracks have been enhanced with further details.
This seemed to have a consequence for frame rates in the game, which appeared to stutter when many cars were visible at once, but I’ll reserve judgement on that until I’ve played the finished version.
The garages and paddock have been the focus of considerable work and can now be viewed in much greater detail than before.
The level of detail extends to the cars, where players will now see differences between the steering wheels authentically replicated. This is especially important, as your virtual drivers’ hands will be busy flicking the gear lever and jabbing the KERS and DRS buttons.
We were shown side-by-side comparisons of the new and old versions of the game, which demonstrated the finer details very well. Unfortunately they cannot be shared here because Formula One Management have not signed off the graphics used for public release.
The finished product
It was clear from the mixed public reaction to last year’s game that many have strong opinions about what features should be included. Mather explains: “The way we have to look at it is we want to take as much as we can from Formula 1 and make the game as close as we can to that.
“But not at the penalty of taking away the enjoyment of playing it.
Codemasters had dozens of machines running the latest build of F1 2011, described as a “beta” version which still had “two months’ polishing” left to do.
From the half-dozen chances I had to play it’s clear there is plenty of work to be done on elements such as crash damage, graphical glitches and bug fixes – the latter a significant source of frustration for early buyers of the first game.
F1 2011 will be released on September 23rd for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. Handheld console versions will appear later. F1 Fanatic will have a full review of the version for major consoles.
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