Codemasters return with their yearly update of the Formula One franchise, bringing the latest teams, drivers and circuits to the game playing public. With an expectation to deliver a new and innovative experience every year so that it warrants the investment for the players, it’s a challenge the development team have risen to this year with numerous new features not seen before. It’s not just something new that’s wanted either. In a sport that’s notoriously slow to change and update, where the same team is dominating again, how is a true feeling of competitiveness delivered? Fans want to live the full experience and manage the intricate differences that cause performance advantages; and casual gamers want something accessible where they can pick their favourite driver and win. It feels like F1 2016 has got its balance just right.
Having taken a break from series by skipping last years game, F1 2016 is my first foray into the current console generation’s efforts to replicate the high cost, high speed, high pressure world of Formula One; and there’s a familiarity that’s reassuring. Without doubt, opting to present and manage the core career mode in a very similar way to the TV coverage is the best idea for building engagement and hooking you in. Pulling you into a season long campaign and making it mean something is much harder, but putting you in the shoes of a new driver, yet letting you choose which team you want to drive for rather than forcing you to start at the back, definitely helps. Customisation is limited to some preset faces, a couple of outfits and a few helmet designs, though it’s not really an issue because it’ll always be your name you see on the timing screens – which is far more than you’ll see you avatar. All activity is managed through you sitting at your laptop in the team lounge, and if you choose to look around the lounge instead sticking your head in a huge amount of data, you’ll see your teammates or commentators having a chat. It all adds up to trying to build an atmosphere of a race weekend, and is pretty well judged given that there’s not much you can do to expand a game which is really about circuit driving.
Avatar customisation might be limited, but the game options allow everything to be set to how you want things to play out. Regardless of whether you’re in the career or quick race, every option and feature can be tweaked to your liking, and even some altered during a race itself. There’s an emphasis on points scoring during the career mode, so switching various options on and off either increases or decreases a points boost. Because the points are only used to measure yourself against the global leaderboard, you don’t have to worry about it hampering progress up the grid or in the race itself. All this means that it doesn’t matter what your skill level is, you can race with and beat the top flight with the kind of dominance that Mercedes are displaying, or you can languish at the back of grid praying for some rain to give your team a chance of a point. How difficult your season is depends on you, and this makes F1 2016 one of the more accessible entries in the series.
For novices there are detailed tutorials on what each of the features and rules of the sport mean to you, and helpful hints appear onscreen as and when appropriate. Car setups are no longer journeys into a baffling world, as they’ve been simplified so that you only have to pick one of five core options which are variations on combinations of downforce and speed; though the tweakers amongst us can get into fine detail easily enough if the nose of the car is a little too high, or the rear wheel camber off by half a degree. It’s also surprisingly easy to communicate with the pits because despite the plethora of options, hitting a single button then saying what you want works really well (assuming you’ve a camera/mic setup that is). A pleasant surprise came when I was racing in Australia and the question about changing strategy came through the controller speaker – a simple “Yeah, let’s do that” was easily recognised and I was in the pits at the end of the lap. Whilst there are some issues if you’ve a lot of background noise, it’s far easier to speak than read the small text in the extensive menu that pops up… especially if you’re in the middle of a corner.
From a driving point of view it’s familiar territory again with what must now be the patented Codemasters F1 car handling model. Stripping out all the assists and trying to play with a controller must give you an idea what it’s like to really drive one of these immensely powerful machines. The huge amount of torque in the engine threatens to spin you off with the slightest miscalculation of throttle, whilst locking wheels and flat spotting your lovely shiny rubber is caused by applying 1 gram too much pressure on the brake pedal. You also better be heading in a straight line when you flip the DRS slot open too, otherwise there’ll be a far too intimate moment with a barrier. Joypads might not be the best things to use if you’re wanting to use F1 2016 as a pure racing simulator, but it works absolutely fine once you’ve set things to your specific tastes and abilities, and includes fully mappable control schemes as well as multiple levels of traction, steering and braking assists. Face it, without these, none of us armchair enthusiasts would get off the start line… especially with the new launch mechanism, or when the tarmac’s sodden and the white track lines are treacherous.
Adding to a more immersive game this year, F1 2016 now has parade laps and manual starts, and includes full virtual and real safety car periods. Three of these things have a use, one is a great idea that fails at the implementation. The parade lap is billed as getting your car prepped for the race to come, bringing brakes up to temperature and keeping tyres warm, all of which it does. However, after about 90% of the lap where you’ve spent time getting everything working, the game takes control for the last couple of corners and parks you in your grid slot, removing all feeling of getting an F1 car ready for the action to come. Couple this with a fade-to-black and pause whilst the game does something (I’ve no idea what) to transition to the actual start, it seems like what should have been a seamless integration of warming up and moving straight into the race ends up being a bit pointless. You may as well just skip straight to the manual start, at least that’s implemented well enough that if you don’t drop the clutch when the lights go out, you’re mugged off the line by virtually everyone. The safety car does work really well, and for those times where an incident clogs up the track with debris, managing your lap times till you end up in the queue is straightforward and gives you a slightly different challenge to deal with.
Debris is something we all watch Formula One for, even if we don’t admit it, and banging wheels or hitting front wings in F1 2016 certainly looks like the real thing. Front wing end plates fly off, tyres get punctured, and in the worst of crashes you’ll see everything not tied on get smashed to pieces. Fortunately, flashback returns so that any terminal damage can be rectified as you zoom back in time a few seconds and try again. Turning this off will net you higher points at the end of a race, though that’s again only linked to the player leaderboard, so it’s more of a preference on how you want to play the game. Major damage is visible, and in some cases still drivable, but minor damage and wear all add up too. Tyres are a huge focus of the modern sport, and are rightly captured here too, with specific practice programmes structured around teaching you how to drive the lap without wearing your tyres too much, as well as understanding when they will lose grip and need you to change them. In fact, whilst initially I was put off by the race weekend in career mode forcing me into three 30 minute practice sessions each time when I was only doing one-shot qualifying and 25% race distance, once I got to grips with the development objectives, they became quite refreshing.
Each practice session has three work programmes to go through – track familiarisation, tyre wear and qualifying pace. Successfully achieve the goals in all three and you’re likely to also meet all the team objectives which gives you bonus development points which you’re free to spend on whichever area of the car you want to improve, as long as you can afford it. Track familiarisation is perfect for learning the cornering, braking points and DRS zones and gets progressively more demanding with each lap; tyre wear sets you the task of keeping as much life in the rubber as you can; and qualifying pace means you get some practice for going flat out with the knowledge you’ve picked up. All three together really do make a difference to your performance, and because they give you something to do in the practice sessions you feel more like you’re moving the team forward rather than just setting up for the race. Of course, if you finish all the objectives in P1 then there’s not need to run the rest of the sessions and it’s best to jump straight to qualifying. Bonus development points can be earned for completing miscellaneous team objectives, as well as beating your teammate and finishing above a certain position – though these are really stingy. Given that there’s 175 points on offer for the practice sessions, as well as 10 extra for taking part in a practice session; coming in first after being set lowly finishing target will only give you 1 point. Surely they could have added more for when you significantly exceed expectations?
Outside career mode, and I say this loosely because you’ll be in the same cars on the same tracks in any of the other modes, I spent a lot of time in quick race and time trial, mainly because they’re easy to pick up and play if you’re short on time. I particularly like the way time trials have persistently evolving target times based on the live leaderboard, and if you’re trying to beat a certain player you can adopt their car setup by selecting it from the in-game menu. It’s a great touch that removes the excuse of not having the right tweaks if you can’t improve on your time. Quick race is as you’d expect and dumps you straight into a race weekend of your choice, playing as one of the 20 drivers on the grid this year. The draw of full grid multiplayer races had me intrigued, but I have to say that getting into one is not all that easy. If you’ve a lot of friends with the game and you can align schedules then this would be perfect. If you’ve not then there’s a lot of sitting in lobbies venting your frustration at the owner who’s clearly left the room, or is just sitting there and not triggering the race because they’ve a sadistic sense of humour. You can jump into any ongoing race, though it’s spectating only and if time’s a factor you’ll be better off just matchmaking into a quick game and going through the track rotation. It might not have the full race features on, but at least you get competition and some good racing.
F1 2016 is not perfect, and I don’t think there’s ever been a perfect Formula One game. There’s always something that isn’t quite right, or doesn’t do what you think it should. Here, the presentation is as slick as ever, the background music fitting for a Codemasters game and building the right F1 racing atmosphere, and the attention to detail throughout is spot on, even down to David Croft and Anthony Davidson’s representations in the paddock. However, the missteps in the parade lap gameplay, the overzealous penalty system (if you get hit, you get penalised), and the regular screen tear in the sky box during races are all too visible to elevate this iteration into the “perfect” category. Codemasters’ last racing game in DiRT Rally earlier this year got so close to being the best example of that genre that I expected this would do the same. It very nearly does, which I suppose is the best outcome, because we’re going to need something to improve on for when we get the game again next year.
A PS4 review copy of F1 2016 was provided by the Codemasters PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.