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As the real-life Formula 1 season reaches fever pitch, Codemasters turns on F1 2010's ignition...
On booting up our preview code of F1 2010 for the first time, we were met with a press conference. A roomful of journalists had congregated to ask us questions before we'd even set foot in a virtual F1 cockpit. And they were asking us some pretty stupid questions as well like, 'What's your name?' Now, we don't want to sound self-important or anything, but that's some pretty lazy journalism. How did they even get into the press conference without knowing who they'd be interviewing? It soon became apparent, though, that this was a novel way of constructing a game profile from our answers to the journalists' questions. If, for example, we replied to one of their questions, 'We're looking forward to a challenge from the other drivers, but nothing too strenuous', then this meant that we wanted to drive at the 'medium' difficulty level.
Unfortunately though, this is all we saw of F1 2010's Career Mode in the preview code. Beyond this entry section into the game, all semblance of the Career had been stripped from the build, presumably because Codemasters wants to hold it back until reviews later this month. Instead, the preview code offered single-race, time trial (including a neat time-trial party option), and custom season options for 12 tracks of the full 19 track list for the 2010 season. Iconic circuits from Monaco to Spa Francochamps, as well as newcomers to the scene such as Korea were all featured to a mighty degree of detail. Take Spa's iconic Eau Rouge as an example: your engine struggles ever so slightly under the steepness of the hill, while the series of corners should only be driven flat-out with tyres at optimum heat and a setup that plants your car to the circuit like a magnet (otherwise you'll have to lift at turn 4).
So, already F1 2010 is ticking a crucial box: not only do the circuits look uncannily like their real-life counterparts but, more importantly, they drive like them too. But this is a Codemasters driving game after all and, ever since the original TOCA back in 1997, Codies' trademark in the genre has been offering up an agreeable mix of sim and arcade racing. F1 2010 is no different, although customisable parameters perhaps offer more scope than usual for gamers to define the experience that they want. Race weekends, for example, can be selected as 'long', 'short', or 'race only'. 'Long' weekends include full practice and qualifying sessions, while 'short' weekends include, well, shorter practice and qualifying sessions. Particularly deep car setup options throughout all of this then allow you to tweak performance as the weekend plays out, with numerous settings from ride height to gear ratios (and everything in-between) being accounted for. If this is all a bit too confusing though, there's always the option to get your race engineer to sort it all out for you.
The races themselves can be defined in terms of distance, from a minuscule 1 lap race for those gamers who want a quick pick-up-and-play experience to full race distance for players that want a complete simulation. Tyre strategies are then enforced for races that are 20% or more of the full distance, meaning that drivers have to pit at least once (otherwise they're disqualified). True to current F1 rules, the option and prime tyres also have to be used at least once during a dry race to avoid disqualification. What's perhaps not so true to current F1 rules is the selective use of traction control and ABS in the game, which can both be switched on and off at a player's will.
That said, it's not as if Codies is just doing this to spite the FIA. Instead, traction control and ABS are used as supplementary difficulty settings. Novices should definitely opt for both driving aids to be switched on if they're to have any hope at all of staying on the circuit, while more advanced drivers might be able to consider turning them off but not without a large degree of caution. Make no mistake, driving 'naked' in this sense provides one of the most challenging racing experiences we've ever come across in a game. Such is the twitchiness of these F1 cars that you have to concentrate very hard indeed to keep them pointed in the right direction, while the thin margins of error at the apex and exit to corners ensure that you will be punished harshly for taking a bit too much curve or overcooking it a bit. In this sense more than any other, Codemasters Birmingham's game really does feel like a true representation of the sport.
Driver AI also rang true in the preview build we played. That concertina effect you see in real F1 races, where cars bunch up at slow corners and then spread back out along the straights, was portrayed exceptionally well. Realistically aggressive driving from the AI wasn't a problem either. When we tried to out-brake opponents into hairpins, the AI would subsequently take advantage of any run-off areas or try to nip back inside through the exit and get their position back. Equally, opponents were convincingly unwilling to yield when we fought alongside them and would squeeze us for every inch we had.
There was one slight annoyance that we noticed though and, to be fair, it's a problem shared by numerous other racing games of this type. Whenever an accident unfolded in the middle of a tight corner, the chasing pack of cars would literally slow down to a standstill and cause utter gridlock behind the crash. It was one of the only moments during our play through that broke our engagement with the experience, so hopefully there's still time to iron out some of those kinks before the game launches later this month. There were some spectacular crashes on show though. Cars will go fully airborne and cause some pretty spectacular carnage. In fact, we found these airborne accidents more convincing than similar examples in the likes of Need For Speed: Shift and Forza 3.
Formula 1 gaming is back where it ought to be. Codemasters Birmingham has clearly crafted a game that'll be able to hold its head high above the many lacklustre F1 titles that have emerged over the last decade. We're now raring to see what's in store for the full Career Mode of F1 2010 when review time rolls around later this month...
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