The 2014 F1 season started as a shake up of the old order – Red Bull Racing’s dominance over the last couple of years ended, Ferrari didn’t look like they could recover their position as front runners of old (again), Williams were reinvigorated from the few years of slumping, and McLaren were borderline embarrassing considering the pedigree. Mercedes have shown themselves to be a force to be reckoned with, and the sport became interesting again… for about 5 races. Since then it’s pretty much been a whitewash, and the ease with which Hamilton or Rosberg are beating the field isn’t really entertaining. So how does a game based on that kind of season fair? Pretty well actually.
F1 2014 is the latest release of the annual Codemasters franchise, and the first I’ve played in a couple of years. My last foray was in 2012, which proved to be competent but not outstanding, so having skipped an iteration I was keen to get into the game again and see what’s new. Last years game included classic F1 cars, this year ditches that and focuses squarely on the current season. The full roster of drivers, teams and cars are here, as well as every track from this season, and as they should be for a fully licensed game. It’s also built with the Ego engine again, which made me wince a little considering GRID Autosport’s screen tear woes. Fortunately things look great from the intro movie onwards, and in game is pretty solid with only the odd dropped frame every now and again.
Back to the menus though… Option-wise you are extremely well catered for, with the starting point of the game getting you to set your visual moniker and audio nickname, then throwing you into a timed lap to assess your open-cockpit formula skills. Whilst it’s good for giving you a suggested options setup and difficulty level, you’re not tied into it and you can tweak to your hearts content to make it the game you want. I think this is actually the best feature of the game – before you even get into any of the game modes there’s a feeling that you’re in full control. Whatever you choose can be changed at nearly any point too, even mid-race for some of them.
Make it through to the actual game screen and your options are effectively single race, challenges, time trials, or career. All are pretty obvious, but are well explained by the excellent David Croft (F1 commentator), and there’s never a point where you’re confused or unclear. The meat of the game, and what you’re really here for, is career mode. Pick a team which determines the difficulty, then get cracking on your 19 race season aiming to win the Drivers and Constructors championships. Not everything works sensibly, such as the email system which always takes you to the 3rd email you ever received by default, meaning you have to scroll through tens of read messages to find anything new (and basically ignore that entire function), but it does work very smoothly. If you don’t want a full calendar of events, there’s Season Challenge that gives you 10 races to perform, and you can retake your “test drive” any time you want. Multiplayer is there, and with a full season co-op option too, but I couldn’t find anyone to play along with pre-release to tell you what it’s like (decent I suspect given previous games).
Enough menu and mode talk, on to the racing. Simply put, Codemasters have nailed it. Alright, maybe not nailed the actual experience of driving a Formula One car because you can’t do that in a living room, or without years of experience and tremendous ability, but they’ve made it easy to play at being a top class driver. Handling is not easy – traction feels like it’s about to disappear on you every time you turn the wheel half a degree, wheels lock up when you think about braking, and bodywork drops off at the slightest touch. Feedback on all of your inputs comes right through the controller and into your palms. You *feel* the tyres sliding across the track instead of gripping. The pad rumbles in your hand as the tyres light up. Everything judders as you fail to brake for a corner. It’s challenging without being punishing, and great for helping figure out both your own driving style and where to go with car setup.
Getting the right setup is not crucial in F1 2014, and if you’re playing casually you can get by with the quick options from the race engineer before each session starts. That’s the practice sessions, once into qualifying you’re subject to parc ferme lockdown. If you don’t want to do full race weekends, there’s a few different options to shorten it, even a return to one-lap qualifying. If you like tinkering and eeking out that last 100th second improvement then there’s a decent amount of car adjustments to play with, without it being too complicated. Each has a tangible impact on the performance on track, not like some games where it feels like moving numbers around with no impact. Some options are available whilst you’re trundling around, even though it’s just fuel mix, brake bias and tyre choice for your next pitstop. It all works and feels well implemented. The fuel’s an interesting one because you can run out, as I found out after running too long with a rich mixture!
All the rules from the current season are in force, including the safety car and DRS zones, and it’s a nice touch when you’re driving through yellow flag sectors to see marshals waving the right flags at the side of the track. I’m not sure why the ERS part of the formula is missing, maybe because it would add an extra complexity that would detract from the gameplay, though you do see rear lights flashing as energy harvesting is happening in your competitors. We can’t forget them now can we? AI is good and will fight with you, but also keeps it clean most of the time, and gets out of your way if it needs to. Monaco qualifying and race is a prime testing ground for this and in the tight, twisty confines of the principality’s circuit you realise how well they do operate. It’s great to be out in front pulling away from the pack, but you feel more like a racing driver when it’s nip and tuck into each corner, spending several laps lining up an overtake. The game really shines in these moments.
Graphically it looks nice on the PS3 (the screenshots on this page are for the PC version), and doesn’t suffer too much from frame dropping, or even much in the way of screen tear. Weather effects are great, and the handling model adjusts according to the water. Sunlight and shadow play across the environments, and the floodlit night races feel good when whipping you down a straight at 200 mph. Garages and pit crew are realised nicely to put you in the driver frame of reference; and all is complimented with menus and loading screens giving you a sense of quality and precision – exactly what the sport exudes. Sound is also good, and as I’m not one of the ones who’s complained about the V6 Turbo noise this year, I quite like hearing the roar of the crowd and squealing of tyres as well as the screaming engines. Your race engineer is verbose and with a variety of phrases of encouragement, though I wish he didn’t always compare me to Hamilton (it’s like there’s no one else in the race); and that he’d tell me how many laps remain rather than me having to figure it out from the always present Race Director option (this is simply a lap history screen in the pause menu). I drive with no HUD in the game aiming for no distractions so I can hone my trademark smooth and precise style (read that as really being an enthusiastic liability).
So what don’t I like and what stops this getting full marks? I’m not keen on the amount of autosaving, it takes too long and seems to happen a bit too often, though once you’re in a race weekend it doesn’t interrupt the flow. It’s not on the current generation of consoles, and even though we know there’s a new game coming next year for them, I can’t help but think Codemasters are missing a sales opportunity here, like they did with GRID Autosport. It also doesn’t offer anything outside the current season, so if you get bored of the events then there’s not much to be done. These are all minor gripes though, F1 2014 is without doubt the best F1 game I’ve ever played. It’s fully featured, hugely customisable, and accessible to all players. There’s no innovation in the series at the moment, but it doesn’t need it because the iterative approach is refining the games to make them the best they can be. If you’re a fan of the sport, buy it.
A review copy of F1 2014 for PlayStation 3 was provided by the Codemasters PR team and is released on the 17th October for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.