The world of Formula One celebrates its 70th anniversary this year… by not starting the season until nearly halfway through due to the Coronavirus restrictions on live sporting events. However, as if it couldn’t be timed any better, just as the championship gets the green light to get underway, the new F1 2020 game is released by Codemasters. When was the last time a tie in F1 title launched at the same time as the first events? A while ago probably, and never after a period of so much focus on real life drivers taking part in Sim Racing to fill a live sport void. Suffice to say that we’re looking at a perfect set of reasons for fans to buy into it, especially those who have race ticket money spare and want to experience the new Hanoi and Zandvoort tracks from the cockpit. There’s a lot to live up to from the last one and it’s going to be interesting to see if the development team have pushed it to the limit to bring the most authentic experience they can. Fear not casual racers, they’re also promising the most accessible game to date, so let’s find out how it performs under pressure.
I’m celebrating my own anniversary this year too – it’s my 5th official Formula One game review and it feels good to get racing again. This means I could spend the next paragraph going on about the sport, the rules and the basic setup of a race weekend, or maybe copy some bits from previous year’s write ups and pass those off as new. Nope, I won’t do that. Chances are if you’re reading this then you know about the sport and what to expect of 20 cars zipping around twisty high-speed tracks, so we can skip those bits. What’s important here really is knowing if F1 2020 can put you in the shoes of your favourite current racing driver to see if you can take them all the way to the championship win; and will it be convincing too? Well, yes, it does do that, but it goes one better this time. Codemasters have added in the MyTeam mode which has you create, run, expand and drive for the 11th constructor on the grid. It’s perfect for those budding Bruce McLaren’s or Jack Brabham’s of the world.
Like most of the iterations recently, the first couple of steps in F1 2020 are setting up the driver avatar who’ll feature on screen celebrating on the podium, or dejectedly walking back to the pits. Where you’d then expect to go racing in some form of familiarisation test, it’s a choice of which mode to plump for: Career or MyTeam. Both have the same objective – to win the world championship over a number of seasons through hard work, car development and quite a bit of skill – the former is driver focused, whereas the latter is much more about team management. That’s not to say it’s looking at budget sheets and deciding which wingnuts to use, it’s still about the racing, but there’s a demand to keep the team happy and productive as well as score points each GP weekend. There’s a thrill of choosing how the car should look, what the team colours will be, and where all the sponsor logos will go, then seeing it all come together on screen in the HQ, pits and even on the team uniforms. I’m not sure it’s meant to be the core game mode given the official license on hand, yet I think most will put their efforts here and you won’t miss much in the career which is really just a stripped back version.
Progression is handled in a couple of ways. For the driving it’s using an Acclaim score based on performance of you and your teammate, and for the constructor it’s the returning resource points that can be ploughed into R&D. A good change in F1 2020 is that points are generated by the different team departments, cash comes steadily from the sponsors, and there’s a calendar of activities to run through between race weekends. Some are arbitrary “team building” weekends that boost departmental efficiency for a short time, and some are Acclaim boosting invitational challenges, and they all tie together to make it feel like a coherent effort. You’re never flush with cash and resource points, these are metered out so that you know you’re in for a long haul build, yet you do feel the fruits of labour when new parts arrive on the car or departments quality control improves and they make more parts right first time. Saying the right things in interviews can also boost the egos of the technical teams, and each department can be upgraded as well if you’ve enough cash, so you can focus on faster development in power units, aero, reliability, marketing or even your co-driver performance. They can also be replaced at will, assuming there’s enough draw in your team capability for a new driver.
If the specific MyTeam aspects are too much like running a business for you, then the career skips all those elements and just lets the existing teams decide whether they want to hire you or not. As introduced last year, F2 is used as the feeder series and impressing there can open up doors to the big teams early on. With options for a shortened or full F2 career before stepping up, and then full or shortened F1 seasons, there’s no need to spend the next 6 months getting through the first of 10 championships either. In fact, choice and customisation are at the players fingertips more than ever before. Session length, assists, and damage can be adjusted, as can flags, parc fermé and assisted starts, plus just about everything else. There’s an addition of a casual mode too that features as a big obvious button in the corner of the screen so it’s hard to miss. Select it and the handling model becomes easier, traction is more manageable, and running off onto grass and gravel isn’t as punishing. There’s the opposite too with pro-mode for those that want to try and drive the real thing. The only other difference between Career and MyTeam are driver perks which are buffs to improve reliability or handle the media interviews with more diplomacy. They cost cash to buy and add a level of depth to the character side as it makes you more bankable with other teams.
Striking that balance between sim and arcade has always been a challenge though it feels like in F1 2020 it’s pitched just right. It definitely seems easier to play than previous years, and this might be brought on by the level of customisation. The cars are still torque filled monsters that want to throw themselves into the barriers if you more than breathe on the throttle, yet they can be tamed. Any time you’re on track there’s an almost tangible confidence that exudes from game – the team behind it have years of experience and have fine tuned the gameplay to be as exciting as it can be within the confines of the rules and regulations of the sport. It starts from the feel of the tyre contact with the ground, moves through the inch perfect recreations of every track, and finishes with the official overlays that are capable of fooling YouTube’s licensing AI’s into blocking gameplay vids for copyright infringement. Every frame screams this is F1 and you’re playing a major role in it, and there’s no higher praise than that for an official tie in.
It’s not perfect though. The single player options are huge this time around with the two well put together careers, Grand Prix weekends, Invitationals, Time Trials and Classic Championships; so there’s plenty to be occupied with, but there will come a time when the online multiplayer beckons. This is where the cracks show. The game engine is perfectly capable of hosting races and making sure there are 20 cars on the grid, as well as holding stable connections and translating track positions correctly, but there’s a lot of visual noise going on too that’s at best a niggle, and at worst distracting. “Connecting to online services…” is a phrase you’ll get used to as it appears at every menu load, and nearly every 10 seconds in the top left corner of the screen when you’re trying to race online. Track limits are strict and rightly so, but penalties for improper conduct, like deliberately ramming opponents, go unpunished. The positions and timings are never accurate, and your physical finishing position is no indication of where the game will ultimately place you. For example, running in one race in a solid 4th with decent gaps ahead and behind, the timing screen had me in first place, but the race results dropped me to ninth. It needs some working on and quickly.
Fortunately, there’s decent hope that the long term support is planned for F1 2020, and not just because eSports popularity has rocketed in the last 4 months. There’s a podium pass feature that acts a little like the daily, weekly and monthly events in DiRT Rally 2.0. With a click of an analogue stick the podium pass is on hand and gives out daily challenges to achieve and earn XP. Build enough XP and you rank up a tier and unlock customisation options like liveries, clothing or helmets. There’s a daily one and a set of long term challenges to tackle that will mostly come through gameplay, and then there’s the VIP section. Here, as you might expect in this world of monetisation, you have to pay for access, though nicely it’s with the in-game currency Pitcoins (get it?). l think these are earned for podium positions in Ranked multiplayer races, and I say “think” because I was awarded some for a second place once, but haven’t seen any more since and haven’t come across any tutorial tips that mention them either. They can be bought from the PS store if needed, and the decision on whether to spend real world cash will be how much you want a pair of star spangled gloves. Flippancy aside, I really like this idea and have already spent a fair amount of time doing various challenges that I wouldn’t necessarily have attempted without this type of prompting.
This is the biggest content offering in an F1 game to date in terms of the modes, and that’s before we get to the returning classic cars and the inclusion of Michael Schumacher’s likeness, championship winning cars and special liveries. Unlike the Senna/Prost rivalry in F1 2019 though, it’s missing the chance to get in Schuey’s shoes and it could have done with some scenarios to attempt to really make the most of the use of name. There’s definitely joy to be had in taking the Jordan 191 up Eau Rouge and trying to keep the pedal flat to the floor, and firing up the all conquering early 2000’s Ferrari’s is special, but it could have done with a little more to it. Maybe those will come in the Podium Pass challenges later, or at least here’s hoping. During the wait though at least there’s the chance to view the machines in detailed 4K and HDR which brings an extra sheen to the visuals, whilst the DTS audio pumps the roar of the engines around the room. If you’re lucky enough to have a wheel then the usual standard of support is available, and joypads have had a lot of love, particularly in the vibration transmission to simulate grip. Again, it’s all fully adjustable and customisable to meet most controller needs and get the right feel through the device of choice.
On booting up F1 2020 you might not be wowed with fancy moving menu screens and raucous action, and might not even register the amount of content right away, but this game is immense. For enthusiasts of the sport it’s near perfect, and it’s now accessible to those who’ve always found the handling a bit too twitchy. There are a few issues that aren’t of Codemasters doing – Mercedes livery isn’t up to date, the car performance needs adjusting to match the real world counterparts, the widely publicised driver ratings don’t have enough data yet; and there are few that are their fault like photo mode being useless when it keeps the online connection message permanently on the screen, and multiplayer needing timing fixes. It’s down to niggles though because each year these games get better and get scored higher and higher. If they continue with the yearly iteration improvements then we’ll have to invent a new scoring system for them in 2022.
A PS4 review copy of F1 2020 was provided by the Koch Media PR team and the game is available now in the Deluxe Schumacher Edition for around £65, and in the Standard Edition for around £55 from Friday 10th July 2020.