The cynical amongst us will probably see the release of this year’s iteration of Formula One as just another excuse for cashing in on an a sport that’s losing its appeal to the masses as it gradually buries itself under the weight of technical regulations, struggling to stay relevant in the ever changing world in which we live. That would be a mistake. Sure, it takes a fan of the premier racing series to go and buy the game, you’re unlikely to dip into your pockets for something you’ve no interest at all in, but make that choice and F1 2018 will reward you with the finest version of the game to date. Not just a set of nicely updated face scans and liveries, there are significant changes under the hood, and a wealth of events outside the marque championship that make the investment in your cash and time worthwhile.
For those that are new to Formula One games, F1 2018 is the officially licensed tie in that recreates the teams and drivers from the current season. Featuring all the tracks, borrowing some of Sky’s commentating team (for the UK version at least), and using assets from Liberty Media who now run the sport, you get to take part in some of the most expensive, glamorous and tough events on the sporting calendar. It’s circuit based open wheel racing at its most competitive where the team and driver must work together to bring home the results. A loose cannon might make it so far on skill, but if you don’t have the backing of your paymasters you’ll be out on your ear. This year the game aims to bring that element into play to truly make it feel like you’re the driving force behind your career.
After creating a driver avatar and selecting all the pertinent bits like helmet design and nickname – though it’s not the greatest list of options this year to be fair – there’s a choice of manufacturers to pick from, with very little stopping the best teams being selected. Dive straight into the four time constructor winners Mercedes without even a single lap on the track or choose to start nearer the back and cement a position in a team that needs developing; taking this approach seems to lean more towards you as the player deciding your own objectives and scenario. What goal do you have in mind, and what challenge do you want? Previous iterations have asked for a flying lap to assess your core skills then offered contracts based on that one off performance. It might be more similar to the actual route into F1, but it’s not the most accessible way to bring enthusiasts into the game. Free reign in the beginning feels right to kick things off and build the experience needed to either keep your seat safe or progress to being the greatest.
Fortunately, the highly flexible options from last year return, and there’s customisation for just about everything. Every skill level is catered for because all assists, rules and AI behaviour can be changed, most of them on a whim whilst in a loading screen too. There’s no penalty or reward for making it a true to life simulation, something that the current crop of young F1 drivers say it’s pretty close to, and the game doesn’t look down its nose if you want a more forgiving experience. Being able to configure everything just makes it easier to dive into and decide what kind of racing is in store for that session. Codemasters know that if it was just the races for the season on offer with simple easy, medium, hard settings there’d be no incentive to keep going through multiple championships, and that’s what it wants you to do to see exactly what’s on offer. Unless you’ve opted for the halo cockpit, in which case you’ll be dealing with a blockage to your view, though it can be switched off in the camera options if you want.
The career mode is designed to take several seasons and feel like the progression of a driver through the ranks, coming up against all the highs and lows that are part and parcel of top tier motorsport. Immediately noticeable are the media interviews that ask questions about driver and team performance and have the answers feed into your perception to other teams. There’s a feeling of influencing your own destiny by balancing inward and outward answers. Interestingly it’s not just the team management that notice what you say, the R&D departments gain boosts when they are lavished with praise, which is definitely worth considering as the upgrade system is back. Initially it looks overly complicated, but it’s relatively straightforward and is fuelled by experience gained on the track.
There’s a lack of a proper tutorial mode that maybe total newcomers would benefit from, though there’s plenty of text to read that covers the rules and systems on hand. However, the testing programmes return that feature in the practice sessions of each GP and teach you not only how to drive each track, but also how to conserve fuel and manage tyres – things that are essential in the longer distance races. They also reward the points for spending on development so there’s a natural feeling of a feedback loop in play. Just be careful which areas are targeted for improvement, rule changes come up between seasons so keeping an eye on that can engineer a jump on the rival teams… or trigger a switch over to them. The career is well put together and offers up hours and hours of absorbing detail for those that want it, including again the superb UDP support for virtual dashboards. For those that don’t want to get that granular there are quicker ways of getting into the thick of it.
Championships mode gives a choice of set scenarios to conquer that also feature in the career as side events, or series races based on specific themes like street circuits and classic cars. It offers a great diversion from the standard season. Sprint races spice up the action dramatically, though I’ve not been able to figure out how the qualifying and reverse grid works because regardless of performance I seem to start at the back. Grand Prix mode just sets up a single race weekend if there’s a particular one that floats your boat, and Event mode returns which is an online fed scenario designed to test skills in tricky conditions. The pre-launch one was playing as Carlos Sainz on a damp track around Spa – an honestly terrifying prospect of trying to keep your foot planted through Eau Rouge. Of course, the flashback feature to rewind those nasty trips into the barrier returns with no limits on use, but you’ll score higher if you keep it to a minimum. These Events update regularly and are usually well tied into the official real life racing calendar.
Another area that’s had a upgrade is the multiplayer, this time there are ranked races available that award points for levelling (of course), and a rating for safety alongside one for skill. Beat better drivers than yourself and you’re awarded a higher skill rating and it can go down as well as up; whereas safety determines the time between incidents and is calculated from a severity rating if you are involved in a collision. It’s hard to not get caught up in an accident in some races, and it’s good to know that if it’s not your fault the other player is going to take the hit. It’s not perfect yet does encourage more sportsmanlike racing, and it’s easy to see those that are just there to play an expensive game of pinball. All rules and flags are in effect and it’s here some tweaks are needed as some of the penalties are overly harsh, or difficult to understand why they’ve been applied. Fortunately they don’t impact your super license standing too much. With options for LAN, full championship or unranked customisable races, it can keep things fresh for some time. It’s also smooth, quick and easy to access and invite friends, even before the day one patch and the servers are fully populated.
Whether it’s pad, keyboard or wheel controls, there are a multitude of settings to play around with, all there to help fine tune the driving experience. Without doubt this game is best played with a decent force feedback wheel, the sensation of grip it provides is unparalleled and really shows off the different tyre models. That’s not to say it’s unplayable with a pad, F1 2018 is still excellent under thumbsticks and triggers. There might be less of a feel to recover a slide or understand when the wheels are locking up, but it certainly doesn’t mean spending all the time missing body parts… though that at least highlights the detailed damage modelling and performance impact. The ability to speak to the engineer to get car information mid-race is still great, even if it can be a little temperamental with background noise – which is usually the case because it’s best with the audio cranked up to get the most of the sound design. And the image quality continues to get better with virtually no stutter, slowdown or screen tear in sight during racing (though it can be seen in the pits or semi-static screens weirdly).
F1 2018 is an iterative improvement over the last few games and may not be immediately obvious for the casual player. Compare this one against the 2016 version though and it’s easy to see the jump in the presentation of the racing and the mechanisms that underpin the whole experience. With full rule sets, safety car implementation (including virtual), manual race warm up, starts and pit stops, ERS management as well as all the other elements you’d expect to have to deal with, there’s no stone left unturned in delivering what fans expect to see from the sport today. It feels as if it’s hit its peak and it’s very difficult to see how it could innovate until the major engine changes due in 2021… barring actually getting you a drive in a Formula One team. If you get drowsy at the thought of cars running in circles then it’s not for you. However, if you want to get a game that approximates the thrill of driving these immense machines, you can do no better than this.
A PS4 review copy of F1 2018 was provided by the Codemasters PR team, and the game is available from 24th August on PS4, PC and Xbox One for around £45 depending on platform.