Another year, another sports game reflecting the latest roster of teams and players. We sometimes forget about the Grand Prix games being yearly iterations even though it’s blindingly obvious that they need to update with each season. Maybe it’s because they don’t get the fanfare of franchises like Madden and Fifa, or maybe it’s because they release mid-season rather than at the end of a year. Whatever the reason, Codemasters are releasing their ninth consecutive Formula One game under the official license and it feels like they’ve really hit their stride. F1 2017 not only brings driver and livery changes, but also the return of classic cars, some new game modes and even a couple of additional track layouts. There’s a lot to go at for the discerning fan, but can they finally manage to convert the casual racer?
Do I really need to explain what F1 is and how it works? Do we have enough space on this page? It’s a complicated and technically demanding driving series where the driver is the most visible part of a race weekend, but cannot deliver anything without the multitudes of people in the race support team and the factory. F1 2017 continues to put the main focus on you being the driver (because I just don’t think they’d sell copies of Front-Jack-Man 2017), yet manages to pull off that feeling of you being part of a greater whole. Taking your first steps in career mode with your chosen team has you introduced to agents, team bosses, pit crew and technical boffins – it makes it very clear from the start that this is not a lone wolf operation. Information comes thick and fast, along with optional video tutorials to get you up to speed with the latest controls and rules – all of it ensuring that by the time you get behind the wheel there’s no mystery to what you need to do.
Making an extremely welcome return are the practice programmes that do a great job of teaching you the track you’re racing on, how to manage the tires and fuel, and work out what the best race strategy for your driving style might be. Embarking on a career means you’re going to want to take part in each session because it’s a great way to boost the resource points needed to develop your car. Giving a distinct levelling up mechanism, the resource points can be spent in a number of different areas to improve engine, chassis and overall performance, as well as significantly improving the reliability of all the components that get put under that slick monocoque shell. It’s a detailed development tree too, and costly, so gives a clear reason to take part in multiple seasons if you want to max everything out and have the ultimate racing machine. It’s needed too, there are limited parts for the engines and whilst you can swap them in and out to manage their life and effectiveness, a single failure could mean penalties later in the season. Make it through practice and there’s qualifying and the race to take part in, with choices of doing the full sessions, or trimming them down for those who don’t have 3 hours to spare. Qualifying is unchanged, but the race incorporates all the new elements of the current season, and borrows from DiRT 4 with the manual clutch release for the start. Formation laps, full rule sets, virtual and physical safety car periods, manual pit lane controls – it’s all there for the Grand Prix enthusiast.
What if you’re not a hardcore fan through and just want to go racing? Don’t worry, there are plenty of options on hand. In fact, more than in any other instalment, you can play everything as you want. Controls, options, assists, weather, session length and just about everything else can be adjusted to suit you. If you have an F1 2016 save it’ll pull in your driver profile as well. Strangely, they only session you can’t tweak is the practice where in career it forces you to do all three (even if you can skip them). Given the option for single lap qualifying and 5 lap races, it’s a bit incongruous that you have to do at least three 15 minute practice sessions. However, you can ignore all of this and just hit a hotkey on the main menu to jump straight into a randomly generated race. I tried this out during the preview event as the first thing that I did, which is where I discovered possibly my favourite innovation (and one that more games need to think about)… the options menu is accessible during the loading screens. Being able to tinker and tweak at any stage, including waiting for a race to boot up, drives home the customisation aspects and really encourages you to play around with the settings more. Where in the past you might head to the settings menu, fix your preferences and never visit again, in F1 2017 you are dipping in and out on a whim depending on what mode you’re playing, or which vehicles you’re in.
With more variety in game modes it feels like a deeper experience this time out. Obviously there’s single race weekend, time trial and the already mentioned career, and on top of that is Championships and Events. The first is a series of bespoke race series designed to test you on different tracks in different cars, and is where the historic machines really come into play. You can run a standard modern day F1 championship from here if you want to go for it without all the technical aspects of career, but you’re most likely going to want to jump in a classic McLaren or Williams and prove you’d be better than Senna or Hill. Probably. It also adds some challenges with the classic cars that link back to career mode and are unlocked as you progress – so there’s more incentive to explore and take part in each game mode, without being forced down a one way street to complete them. The second, Events, is more like a scenario you need to beat and are put up by the dev team weekly. The launch one, coinciding with the Belgium GP, is Verstappen leading the race but losing his front wing at the 3/4 distance point. You come in here, getting the car to the pits then recovering the positions lost, whilst managing the rain showers that invariably come to the Ardenne forest. It’s a neat idea that gives some variety and shows off more of what the game can do than you might see if you just stick to quick races. I’m hoping these expand out to key moments in F1 history over the coming weeks and months, and will tie in the licenses for the cars from yesteryear too. They’re quite a lot of fun to drive and take a different approach to master – for the life of me I can’t control the oversteer on the 2006 Renault, but get on brilliantly in the 1994 Williams.
Getting into the cockpit of an old Ferrari or McLaren also highlights one of the key differences in the racing today – the onboard computer. There’s a wealth of information in the modern F1 cars and lots of settings to adjust on the fly, with fuel management being just a small part of everything that you can play with. The visuals are there in the older cars for tyre wear, etc., but you’re just racing with the wheel, pedals and engine in the back. There’s no playing with brake bias into a corner, you have to manage it for yourself. Being able to actually talk to the pit crew is back, and there’s satisfaction in doing a Kimi and telling them to leave you alone. If you want to go the extra mile though, Codemasters have included the UDP options again so you can transmit your telemetry to the right bits of software on your network, ready to analyse in infinite detail how you dealt with the last session, then feed this back to the detail car setups. For novices there are the same 5 basic setups at to choose from at each track, but you can always go deeper if you want to. If you can’t be bothered, then just hit the time trial mode and take it from someone who’s faster than you… that feature returns in F1 2017. The balance between hardcore and arcade is pretty much perfect, you can get to full simulation as testified to by real life F1 drivers; and you can play casually because the handling model and assists available are so flexible.
So, we’re at the penultimate paragraph and you’ll have noticed that I’ve not mentioned at any point graphics or sound. If you’ve played last years game you’ll already know how it looks and if you watch the races you know the engine noise. They’re both good, and visually you can’t really want much more from the tracks, cars or weather modelling, just check out the screenshots. However, you’re looking at still images here, and I have to warn you that F1 2017 has some of the worst screen tear I’ve seen since Grid Autosport. It’s not just a corner on a certain circuit under specific conditions, it happens a lot whether it’s teaming it down with rain, whether you’re on your own in a time trial, or whether it’s under full race conditions. The only time it seemed reduced was during night races. I was hoping that given there’s been 2 patches since I started playing, and that I’ve reviewed on the PS4 Pro, we’d have seen some improvement, but unfortunately not. There’s a huge amount of content for a game that really only has 20 tracks and 10 teams with the same machinery; the developers have finessed the handling model to within an inch of it’s life; it’s immensely accessible, and yet it’s marred by the fact your view chugs along when you’re turning a corner. Except in multiplayer, I don’t remember seeing it present there, but then I was too busy raging about the inconsistent penalty system that has seen me hit with time penalties or disqualification for no reason at all (not just me either, many of the other racers have it happen to them too).
This could well have been the definitive version of an F1 game, there’s almost everything here a fan could want, and 99% of it is implemented wonderfully. Having played the series for years and seen it move between different developers, Codemasters are without doubt the best place for the F1 licensed games. For all the attention to detail that’s gone in to crafting this experience, I can’t help but wonder who signed off on the performance issues? Racing games, like first person shooters, need to deliver a smooth experience, and whilst slowdown and unresponsive controls would have been far worse, surely there’s a better option to slicing the image in two or three places? The sport demands focus, concentration and control, and the game needs to offer the same. Sadly, two of those are taken from you and it spoils the rest of the presentation. F1 2017 is very good, but it could have been perfect… and it’s the same gripes as I had with last year’s game.
A PS4 review copy of F1 2017 was provided by the Codemasters PR team, and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4 for around £44.99.