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One of the best racing games of last year returns with gusto...
It's almost as if Formula 1's top brass – you know, Bernie Ecclestone and alike – sat down at the end of last year and said to themselves, 'Right... what can we change in the sport next season to make the officially licensed video game even better?' Perhaps Bernie is a gaming man himself – after all, he has mulled over the idea of adding water sprinklers to tracks so that wet weather racing can be simulated – the sport itself may just be one big debug console to him. Whatever the case, Codemasters has lucked out this year with KERS, DRS, and Pirelli's fast degrading tyre compounds. The new rules that have made F1 racing more exciting than it's been in decades have also given you, the gamer, a very good reason to go out and reinvest in a copy of this year's game – updated teams, drivers, and tracks are but the tip of the iceberg of what F1 2011 offers over its predecessor. If you're reading this, Bernie, then next year we'd suggest you add homing missiles, oil slicks, and drunk pedestrians to the rulebook.
You see, it's not just about nailing apexes and hitting braking points from one lap to the next in this year's game; it's also about KERS-boosting up behind the guy in front of you and unleashing DRS as you enter the alotted zone, slingshotting yourself into their slipstream and pulling off one hell of a well strategised overtaking manoeuvre while you're at it. In the real-world of F1, detractors claim that this isn't genuine overtaking; that it's artificially induced for the fans' enjoyment. In the game, none of that matters – it's just damn good fun. And the same goes for the Pirelli tyres: the 'Option' compound, although incredibly grippy and quick for 10 laps or so, will fall off the 'cliff' into no grip-at-all within as little as a lap if you're not too careful. Likewise, the 'Prime' tyres can drop you as much as a second or two per lap off the 'Option' pace and have to be used at least once in each dry race.
The upshot of this is that races are a lot more exciting and tactical in F1 2011, all of which benefits gameplay greatly. You could argue that all Codemasters Birmingham had to do was add a bit more code and a few corresponding user-interface prompts into last year's build, so maybe they shouldn't be given too much credit as a result. But, as has often been the case in other F1 games of the past, it's all too easy to tack-on features like this in a gimmicky way (who can forget the slipstreaming effect in some of EA's F1 games) and we're glad to say that there's nothing of the sort here. As it did last year with effects like wet weather conditions and the way debris stuck to tyres whenever you strayed off the race track, Codies Birmingham has implemented KERS, DRS, and the Pirelli tyres with impressive authenticity. True to the publisher's rich heritage in racing games, it doesn't go too far down the path of simulation but instead treads the very fine line between fun and realism with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat.
Where yearly racing games are concerned, you'd think that all of the new features listed above would be enough. After all, getting all of the teams and drivers updated, ironing out bugs from last year, and refining existing features is enough of a challenge in itself for most studios in a mere 12 months (see our MotoGP 10/11 review for a perfect example). But Codemasters Birmingham hasn't rested on its laurels, instead adding considerable depth to its multiplayer offerings, refining the graphics, tweaking AI, smoothing-out the handling, and even adding a safety car for good measure. This isn't the stuff of press releases either – we've seen comparative track-side screenshots of F1 2010 and F1 2011 first-hand, and the added detail is impressive. Where there was a patch of featureless grass on the hill above Eau Rouge last year, there's now loads of flowers and stuff. Of course, it's not the sort of thing you're likely to notice at 180mph, but it adds to the general ambience of the experience nonetheless.
Likewise, AI has taken a step-up this year and it's in the finer details that you'll notice it. Where it was the aggression that impressed us last year, now it's the restraint and defensiveness. When a CPU car is on a warm-up or warm-down lap during practice or qualifying, it'll intelligently veer off the racing line to let you past if you're on a flyer (the same is true for backmarkers during a race). KERS and DRS obviously result in more overtaking down the straights, and signature moves have been added to deal with this too: AI drivers will move to block the inside line very early on if they think you've got a tow on them, forcing you to take the long way around. This really is the stuff of refinement, and not merely 'refinement' being used as shorthand for glitch fixing. Developers can spend a good few years just trying to get glitches ironed-out of their AI systems in our experience, so to see F1 2011 come this far in one year is very encouraging – presumably next year it'll be sentient, or the AI will be able to beat Schumacher in a computerised F1 car like Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov at chess.
Handling is better too: tinkering around in the car setup menu will result in a more noticeably obliging front-end, while an oversteering car is a touch more likely to agree with your attempts to correct it. However, there are still a couple of criticisms that we had of last year's game which, though improved, remain something of a sticking point. Most prominently, using a racing wheel really is the only way to get a 'true' experience of the handling simply because the gamepad controls are so heavy-footed – when games like Forza 3 manage to nail their driving experience on a pad, you do have to compare other racing games to that yardstick and F1 2011 falls quite a way short unfortunately. It's a problem that's further exacerbated by a traction control system that's not far off driving on icy ball-bearings when set to “off” or “medium”. Yes, we understand that F1 cars have a ludicrous amount of revs and really are that hard to drive, but the “medium” setting would do well to be a bit more forgiving (particularly as the “full” setting feels like driving on stabilisers).
Onto the multiplayer and, although we haven't had the opportunity to test it at the time this review goes to press, we can say that it's much improved in terms of features and modes. An all-new Co-op Championship mode is the major new addition – it allows 2 players to take on the role of team-mates online and fight for car improvements throughout the course of a full season while also racing towards the constructor's championship. Traditional competitive multiplayer, on the other hand, has been bolstered to 16 players online and full grids thanks to the addition of 8 AI cars (last year it was 12 players and no CPU cars). Split-screen multiplayer for 2 players also makes it into the game this year for those of you with real friends. Keep your eyes peeled on TVG for more info on the multiplayer as we go hands-on with it post-release...
All-in-all then, it was harder to dissuade ourselves from reaching for the perfect 10 this year than it was last year, although admittedly there are quite a few niggling areas for improvement that remain and keep the game at a solid 9/10. You'll still find AI that's clumsily slow in the braking zones for hairpins and slow corners, allowing you to effectively leapfrog multiple positions and bring down the suspension of disbelief that's so well achieved across the rest of the game (it's a problem suffered by most racing games, but a problem nonetheless). Again, similarly to last year, we can't help but feel that the damage and collision system could be improved – it's good as it is and we understand that there are certain licensing issues which restrain what Codemasters can do, but a bit more detail with things like suspension and bodywork damage would certainly help to knock the game up a notch. The presentation enjoys marked improvements – cut-scenes have been added pre- and post-race, there's a paddock hub to mull over, and David Croft now asks the interview questions – but all of the media stuff still feels a bit like empty padding and a few scenes for the podium wouldn't go amiss. And finally, loading times are very, very long (we're talking '90s Champ Man games long, but thankfully with equal reward for your patience).
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