Review

F1 2011 Review (Xbox360)

Before we get started, I should probably tell you that I have not played F1 2010. While I am a big fan of F1, this is my first encounter with Codemasters’ handling of the franchise. I’ve done a bit of research so that I’m aware of what’s new and what isn’t, and although I’ll undoubtedly mention them during the course of things, that isn’t primarily what I’m going to discuss because it makes for a lazy write and a boring read. If you want a list of new features then go rub your eyes against the game blurb on Play.com. If you would rather know what my experience of playing F1 2011 was like, take a seat on my rear wing and for the love of Senna hold on tight.

As my prior experience with F1 was limited to watching preposterously fast cars drive around in a circle, and there being a lack of any obvious tutorial, I opted straight for the career mode. It’s everyone’s favourite story of a young white male starting with nothing but the racing suit on his back and grotesquely rich parents who gradually works his way to becoming some sort of world renowned hero figure, but with wheels and G-force and lots of funny acronyms added in. I decided to sign with Lotus because their car is that lovely shade of British racing green (no really). From there it was off to sunny Australia for the first race of the season.

The cars look lovely, but the tracks have something of a megablok vibe about them

The first thing that struck me is that the presentation of the game is, frankly, a bit bland. Visually, the cars look fantastic but that’s about it. The tracks are doggedly faithful in terms of their corners and angles and metric dimensions, but there’s a distinct lack of atmosphere. The same goes for many of the trappings of the career mode itself. My driver’s trailer is a depressing white space. From its window-wall I can see all sorts of bustle and excitement going on outside, but I have no access to it. My only contact with the world is via the emails on my laptop.

In addition, my pit crew are faceless automatons, and my engineer has all the passion of a eunuch. In fact, that’s what’s generally missing from F1 2011. While everything that is Formula 1 has been painstakingly recreated, it hasn’t been passionately recreated, and the racing world in which I temporarily exist is all rather lacking in vibrancy.

All, that is, except for one thing, and thankfully it’s the most important thing of all, the racing itself. When I drove out for the initial practice session, that insipid life became a vague and trivial blur. From then my existence was nought but a ceaseless battle for dominance between me and the twisting, looping tarmac. And to begin with, it was a battle I was destined to lose over and over again.

F1 2011 has left me with a new appreciation of how phenomenally difficult the sport is. The handling of the car is extremely smooth (allegedly much improved from 2010), but there’s also a lot more weight to it than I initially anticipated. Thus my first three races were consumed entirely by trying to keep the damned vehicle under control. Put it this way, in Australia I crashed fifty eight times and battered more wings than Colonel Sanders. Malaysia was even worse, an endless succession of long, looping corners in which to brake is to lose and accelerating is death.

There’s no doubt that F1 2011 leans more toward the simulation side of things. Fortunately, the game also anticipates your dreadful initial performances, and so its expectations of you are fairly low. In practice sessions my engineer gave me simple objectives like completing a lap below a certain time, or simply outperforming my teammate Jarno Trulli, succeeding in which resulted in minor upgrades to my car. In qualifying and the race they set realistic goals such as achieve eighteenth place. If I succeeded the bar was raised slightly, if not, it was lowered for the next race.

Codemasters clearly understand how to give the player a sense of achievement even when he has no hope of winning races. Also, there are plenty of driving assists to help out such as the dynamic racing line that indicates when to brake, when to accelerate etc.

By the time I reached Spain, I was handling the car with moderate confidence, and I could actually begin to enjoy the act of racing. Incidentally I recommend using the cockpit camera. It’s tougher, but the immersion is so much greater. You can feel the track rumbling angrily beneath your wheels, and see the state of your front tyres with your own eyes.

But when it rains, it all gets a bit yummy

Best of all, when you dive into the first corner melee on race day, the sheer thrill of trying to avoid the seemingly impossible number of cars around you is simply unrivalled. The AI of rival drivers is excellent, and throughout the race they are a constant challenge. They’re never overly aggressive, but if you drive aggressively at them you’ll end up facing the wrong way with a shattered front wing and a ten second time penalty.

In Spain I managed to attain fifth place. Then I had a disastrous race in Monaco, a track I found so frustrating that in the end I deliberately drove into a wall just to end the torture. I never understood why F1 drivers love it so much, and it wasn’t until afterward I realised it’s because there is no room for error in Monte Carlo. A wrong turn sends the car careering into a barrier, and only an utterly perfect race will see you across the finish line.

The next race was in Canada, and on my favourite track. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a speed-freak’s Valhalla, with huge straights and sweeping corners aplenty. The Lotus excelled itself here, and I managed a blissful podium. The best was yet to come though. In the sun-drenched European grand-prix at Valencia, I qualified in third. Then race day came, and the heavens opened.

Much like the sport itself, on a clear day F1 2011 can be rather dull, but when the rain comes it transforms into a thing of slick, soaking beauty (which is of course the best kind of beauty). In Valencia those glorious blue skies were now the colour of rust, racked with ferocious lightning. The rain washed along the car’s aerodynamic curves, and spray kicked up from the track by other cars blasted into my visor, blinding me as we entered the first corner. When the water finally cleared, I had somehow squeezed into first place, and by the grace of Thor I clung on until the end.

Ok, that’s enough about the single player. We’re back at the pit lane. You can climb off the car now and change into a dry set of clothes. I want to talk about the multiplayer for the remainder of this review. There’s an up-to sixteen player online mode available, which I would strongly advise you leave well alone until you’ve done a season or two in the single player. Knowledge of the tracks and how the cars handle is the only way you’ll succeed against other human beings who would like nothing better than to feed you the rubber off their rear tyres.

If you really don’t want to explore the game alone, there’s a split-screen mode and, most interestingly of all, a cooperative career, which allows you to play with a friend as team-mates. The natural structure of F1 teams allows for a fantastic cooperative experience, mainly because it isn’t entirely cooperative.

The Lotus, officially the best green car in Formula 1

Sure, you’re on the same team, but there’s personal glory at stake here. For the first half of the race you might conjure a clever team strategy to get you both into first and second, but once you’re in those positions, the question becomes who deserves first and who deserves second. In short, it’s coop with a competitive streak, and has laughter and high-fives and petty tantrums written all over it.

F1 2011 is very much a Codemasters racer, technically brilliant but tonally just a bit off. Their games tend to be either po-faced and bland or in-your-face and kitsch. F1 2011 errs perhaps too far on the side of the former, though ironically the game really shines when the raindrops fall. I’m not saying I want it to be all shouty and American like the incredibly annoying DiRT 2, heaven forbid. But it needs more bustle in the career mode, more life to the tracks. I want to almost smell the petrol and the burned rubber and the offensive amounts of money that go into this sport. F1 2011 has got the talent, but it needs to learn to love itself before it can be truly great.

Top Game Moment: Battling for position in that first corner in torrential rain. There’s no greater thrill in racing, simulated or otherwise.

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