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'And it's go, go, go!' as the red lights go out and Codies' F1 2010 launches off the grid...
There really couldn't be a better time for Codemasters to release what is undeniably the best Formula 1 videogame since 2002. As the F1 season heads to Singapore next weekend and the final five races of the season, no less than five drivers are still in with a realistic chance of winning the championship and the vast majority of races so far have been unpredictable battles which were fought for with tooth and nail. Guaranteed thrills and spills now come bundled with the experience of an F1 race weekend, which is far more than could've been said of the sport eight years ago when Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix 4 was released. So, Formula 1 is back atop the mountain again from the armchair enthusiast's point of view and we all know how much couch potatoes like a decent game to supplement their viewing.
In the trademark style that Codemasters adopts for its driving games, F1 2010 is an agreeable mix of arcade and sim that will appeal to a wide crowd of gamers without disappointing hardcore fans. It's hard to see either F1 nuts or driving game enthusiasts being underwhelmed by F1 2010, while casual F1 followers will no doubt be able to find an agreeable level of gameplay throughout the customisable difficulty settings. It's certainly true that F1 2010 is a lot more skewed towards realism than Codies' other driving titles (Colin McRae: DiRT, Race Driver: GRID etc.), but much of that comes part and parcel with a more visible form of motor sport that loses much of its appeal without a suitable amount of depth applied to the strategies and challenges underpinning it all. Ignoring the relevance of wet race conditions, pit stop strategies, and the balance of an F1 car through its setup rips away most of what makes this type of racing so encapsulating to many.
F1 nuts will be glad to hear, then, that everything from brake balance to gear ratios, downforce to ride height, and anti-roll bars to tyre pressures are tweakable in F1 2010's copious car setup options. More distant followers of the sport will be equally glad to hear that you can get your Engineer to deal with all of these complicated settings through a 'Quick Car Setup' option that makes the process somewhat semi-automatic. Likewise, gamers can opt for either the full race weekend or a 'short' one during the championship season. While the former has the three-tiered knockout format for qualifying that's prescribed by the FIA, the 'short' option limits this to a single 20 minute session. Similarly, race distances in the Career mode can be customised from anywhere between 20% race distance to the full distance, while the game's single race Grand Prix mode can even be configured to one solitary racing lap and no qualifying or practice sessions whatsoever.
Wet races, on the other hand, are truly something to behold. Codemasters Birmingham has nailed the technology here, not only in terms of the visuals but also the way cars handle and the dynamic weather system behind it all. A torrential downpour threatens any qualifying session or race, either at the very start or mid-way through the proceedings. What's even more impressive is that the system even appears to have been tailored to specific tracks, so Spa Francochamps' notoriously unpredictable weather conditions are just as hard to negotiate in the game as they are in real life. We could've sworn that one particularly wet qualifying session at Spa produced areas of track that were noticeably wetter in some places than others, almost as if there was an actual micro-climate rolling across the track.
All of this wouldn't mean a thing though if the racing itself wasn't up to scratch and, thankfully, it is. The tracks have clearly been painstakingly designed, making infamous corners such as Eau Rouge, the Parabolica, and the Senna 'S' doppelgängers of their real-world counterparts both visually and in terms of the sheer driving experience. AI is reassuringly aggressive as well so that it'll move off the racing line to defend a position, counter-attack back across the inside once you've overtaken at a hairpin, and squeeze you onto the curbing if you have the outside line. One tiny criticism is that the AI tends to brake disappointingly early at some of the game's slower hairpins, which can allow you to leapfrog multiple positions at one time. That said, this has always been a problem with racing games and F1 titles in particular, so perhaps it's a little unfair to single out F1 2010 for it.
Car handling is another area of the game that gets two thumbs up. Depending on the driving aids that you use, it's either a mild challenge to keep the car pointing in the right direction or a nigh-on impossible one. Driving by official FIA rules (no traction control or ABS), the cars are incredibly twitchy at low speeds and high revs, making it very difficult to get the power down early out of corners. Likewise, braking late and hard will result in lock-ups, while keeping tyre and brake disc temperatures up is essential to keep your braking smooth and balanced. However, dialling up the traction control and ABS will result in a considerably more manageable driving experience albeit one that's not without its challenges.
One minor niggle with the handling is that the controls could perhaps have been slightly better translated to a joypad. A more graduated approach to throttle, brake, and steering on the thumbstick and trigger buttons (a la Forza 3) would have made the handling a little less snatchy and twitchy – we do get the impression that a steering wheel and peddle rig will be a lot more complimentary to the experience. All in all though, it's a great representation of how we'd imagine an F1 car to handle, which has no doubt been helped considerably by the consultancy of former F1 driver, Anthony Davidson on the project. If anybody tries to tell you that it's the cars rather than the drivers that win races in Formula 1, just point them towards this game as ironclad evidence as to why that's an entirely ridiculous argument.
Codemasters' trademark arcadey feel to its driving games comes through most strongly in F1 2010's time rewind function. It's a feature that was used in Race Driver: GRID quite well and becomes all the more valuable in a racing format like F1, where one tiny mistake in an otherwise perfect performance can cost you everything. There's nothing worse after a stellar performance in practice, qualifying, and an almost flawless race than to have it all taken away by using a tiny bit too much curb in one corner and spinning out. Because of this the time rewind feature is a welcome one, particularly as Codemasters limits the number of these 'flashbacks' to only two or three in one race (depending on the difficulty setting). After all, the big problem with Forza 3's time rewind settings was that you could use them as much as you wanted with no upper-limit.
Despite all that's great about the game though, there are a couple of problems with F1 2010 that go beyond little niggles and essentially hold it back from a perfect score. The game's Career mode ambitiously offers you far more than the standard fare for a game of this type. Gamers start off in one of the smaller, less technologically advanced teams and must prove their worth by achieving goals set by the team (qualify 10th or above, finish 8th or above etc.). Better performances earn technological upgrades for your car, a better standing in the team, and ultimately contract offers from bigger teams in subsequent seasons. This all works well enough and does add to the long-term appeal of the game, but it's the press conferences and interviews with journalists in the mode that ultimately got us riled.
We tried, oh Lord how we tried during these interviews to be the most petulant Formula 1 driver a team could possibly employ and the only feedback we ever got was, 'The team is pleased with how you handled the press'. If we directly criticised the team, essentially saying that their car is rubbish, all we'd get is praise in response (without exception). In fact, you'll only be asked one game changing question during a whole season of these press conferences, which is 'Who do you think your main championship rival is?'. If you manage to finish above the driver you identify as a rival at the end of the season, then it can lead to a contract offer from that driver's team to replace him. What's more, it can allow access to teams beyond the experience level that would normally be required, which certainly gives you something to race for. Beyond that though, the interviews literally add nothing but empty padding.
The only other significant criticism is F1 2010's damage system. While crashes in the game can verge on the spectacular and cars going airborne is handled more convincingly than in the likes of Forza 3 and NFS: Shift, we couldn't help but feel that Codies had the chance to go a touch further on the damage modelling. Front wings appear to be the only piece of bodywork liable to damage, while particularly big crashes might lose you a wheel or two and result in retirement. It's decent enough for a first attempt but we're certainly hoping for more detail when Codemasters Birmingham releases its next F1 game. Fingers crossed that'll be next year...
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