Formula One is a complex sport, there’s no doubting that. Money and technical prowess will win out 9 times out of 10, but neither on their own, and with the prize allocation skewed to the most successful teams, it very often results in the same protagonists being at the front of the grid. It’s happened over the whole of the hybrid engine era and Mercedes have dominated. For this year though there’s already been a subtle shift during the opening races – Red Bull have pulled themselves into contention and are looking the stronger prospect right now, though changing the fortunes of the rest of the grid is about as slow as glacier. The F1 2021 game comes along to speed that process up and puts you in the driving seat of the latest spec of machinery, as well giving you managerial control, but does it do anything different to last year?
We’ve been impressed by Codemasters continual iteration of the franchise since they first took the official FIA license over from Studio Liverpool back in 2010, though it’s really been their work over the last 4 years that has pushed the genre on. On the surface you’ve got to admit that there’s not a lot of variety or replayability in running the same teams, drivers and tracks over and over again, yet they’ve managed to elevate the game beyond the source material and bring a racing title of substance that can genuinely keep players going between the annual cycles. F1 2021 keeps all of the tentative steps made in recent years and brings arguably the biggest innovation to the series yet – a single player campaign. Yes… that’s said tongue in cheek, but only slightly because a story driven career mode has probably been the only thing missing for a while now. The trick has been to find the right vehicle that makes it engaging without it being cheesy or contrived, and in Braking Point I really think they’ve nailed it.
Taking the point of view of rookie Aiden Jackson, you start by ending his F2 career in Abu Dhabi with a spectacular finish and get your pick of several real life teams. What Braking Point then does is sub Aiden and his seasoned teammate Casper Akkerman into whichever one you’ve picked and kicks off the action across two seasons. This isn’t making you simply race two full years though, it’s cleverly done as snapshots of races to highlight the key challenges and causes of tension between drivers and teams, and all supported by really well done voice acting, high quality cutscenes, and a believable social media presence to flesh out the team perception between events. The tone and story progression are so good it’s easy to get drawn in and actually care about what’s happening. For those that remember Devon Butler from a couple of years ago, he’s back with a vengeance in an Aston Martin and provides a link to career trajectories that’s surprisingly engaging, and even Lando Norris gets a part (and seems to be the only actual driver with a voice line). It’s the racing that’s the highlight though, and each scenario is built around an objective to achieve that will genuinely test your skills, especially on either of the higher difficulties. It’s not strictly a tutorial, though it does manage to act as an intro into the games systems proper, and is definitely the right place to start for new players and the returning ones who want to see the replication of F1 2021 handled differently.
Once Braking Point is done there’s then the plethora of content available across the other game modes. My Team is back again and feels a bit slicker this time with additional events and inter-departmental decisions to be made. Career mode is on point letting you leap into a full or cutdown F1 2021 or F2 2020 season, and then continue to build your acclaim over multiple years. There’s also the option to run a co-op or competitive career with a friend if you want to make things more social. However, the reason I’ve grouped all these together is that they all pretty much run with the same menus so no matter which one picked, it’s going to look familiar to start with. Part of the streamlining this year is walking players through the options before actually entering the mode, and once they’re locked in, going through car, team and avatar setups. When you have to go through it for each type of event you start it can get a bit repetitive, though there are some quick wins like the global options stay as a default so you can use those anywhere if needed; car and team colours can be quickly imported to avoid lengthy redesigns; and it’s possible to save a number of different careers at any one time so there’s no overriding progress. With three slots on the single player career and the same on the co-op/competitive there should be enough to keep most gamers happy.
Simplification and ease of use is key to the presentation, and the streamlining doesn’t just stick to keeping the menus the same. All options screens have a toggle that cycles from casual to expert that expands or hides the amount of configuration available. If you care a lot about the telemetry options then expert will be your default, if you’re new to F1 2021 than go with the one that lets you build up gently to everything there is to offer… and that’s quite a lot. With more configurable options than ever it’s worth taking some time to be familiar with the impact they’ll have on the simulation. Counterintuitively to the real life sport, rules and regulations are probably the simplest set, and the racing model being the most complex. Setting the tyre warming model to surface and carcass, or surface only; deciding if low fuel will restrict the top speed; or enabling faults and failures as separate entities; it all adds a depth that gives options to how you can play. Enable everything to make it as lifelike as possible and you will no doubt struggle to keep the car on the track. That, or it’ll build inconsistency into your career that takes you from hero to zero in the space of a single race, leaving you puzzling over what’s caused a dramatic dip in form. During the review period we’ve been playing a co-op career in the Codec Moments team and this is exactly what happened. Winning in Bahrain swung to being lapped twice in Barcelona, and we think (though are still not 100% sure) this was down to our tyre model selection and the cooler weather.
Adding to the new options are the Real Season Start start which aims to put you in the thick of the season by letting you select which round to begin at, as long as it hasn’t taken place already. Choose a race weekend, evict a driver from their seat, and you get the points and their current championship standing. It’s a great mode if you get bored of having to catch up to the current round each year, and with the evolving driver ratings it can mean being able to virtually follow the season as well as watching it. Speeding up the process of getting through a race weekend, Quick Practice has been introduced so that there’s no need to run every single session anymore. I’m a bit lost to why every part of a race weekend can be changed except reducing the number of practice sessions, so this is a welcome feature. It simulates the session with you setting which objectives you want completing, and instead of spending up to an hour trundling around a well trodden track, the AI does it for you in seconds and brings home the resource points. Nice. There’s so much new for this year that it almost hides that fact that there are a few bits missing… the tracks. Imola, Portamau and Jeddah aren’t there yet, and whilst it’s promised they’ll be added before too long, it means starting a like for like season leaves a big gap between Bahrain and Barcelona. At least in this mode it does drop the tracks that have been cancelled, yet keeps them available to race in custom events.
Getting out on the track is the only way to see what impact the changes have had, and even though I’m highlighting how much can be adjusted, really you’ll be fine with the defaults. In fact, seasoned players need to remember to get in and knock the assists off. Handling at 200 mph is largely what you expect it to be – exhilarating and scary in equal measure. The Formula One cars have grip and speed, though it’s on a knife edge most of the time and you have to learn how to control it. Huge amounts of torque through the rear wheels means spinning out on corners with even the most subtle of throttle changes, and a tad too much brake pressure will have the fronts lock up and strip the rubber off the tyre. Veterans will be happy with this, newcomers not so, and the assists are there to support the learning curve. Because the planned rule changes have been delayed until 2022 for an overhaul of the aero design, this year’s game is largely the same as last year’s in terms of look, feel and drivability. There are couple of restrictions like fuel mixtures and ERS being limited to one setting, though MFD options are still there albeit unchangeable, but in a race it’s broadly the same as the last time out. Unless you’re lucky enough to be playing on the next generation consoles.
Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 get their own bespoke versions of F1 2021, and mostly they’re powering enhancements to the visuals. There are graphics quality and performance modes where the former runs the game at 4K/60, and the latter ups the ante to 120fps if you’ve a display connected that supports it. Loading times are drastically reduced and waiting for sessions to load is cut to several seconds which speeds up the pace of a race weekend. Details trackside and in the surface are more pronounced, and there’s more visual damage on the cars and tyres. Seeing the rubber wear away or get roughed up is quite a sight the first time it happens, and amazes at how these little points add a greater immersion. There’s no change in the handling model because F1 2021 is designed to be played online cooperatively, and it needs to be consistent for that. Ray-tracing makes an appearance too, though is limited to replays, intros and things like the driver interviews. Seeing the reflections in the drivers caps and camera lenses is where it seems to be most noticeable, though the existing lighting model on the fresh tyres is good enough to pass muster when you’re out on the track. In all it’s gorgeous to look at and as smooth as you’d like during racing, no matter how many competitors are on screen. Weirdly, the Ego engine can’t avoid screentear in cutscenes, and when Will Buxton does the intro to My Team it’s horrendous with the images splitting in several places at a time. It’s been like this for a few titles now, and whilst there’s nothing at all to detract from driving the cars, it’s a bizarre artefact to have in the less taxing parts.
One upgrade that’s on the PS5 only is the DualSense support, and this is cracking news for pad players. The vibration and haptic feedback translates beautifully from the track surface to your finger tips, and the grip is brilliantly conveyed. Add to this the adaptive triggers which work to push back when you’re losing traction and it makes using a controller a pleasure. The throttle and brake response will take a bit of understanding as most racing games have the feedback for acceleration, but where F1 2021 uses it try and stop you from spinning up the wheels makes a lot of sense. The judder and thump of the grip being lost becomes second nature pretty quickly. There’s a whole host of controller tweaks to make too, so getting the right feel is only a matter of ducking into a menu. Unusually, the typically superb out of the box wheel settings is a touch off this time, and it’s needed a bit of fiddling to get in the right zone. It could be older wheel setups with the newer consoles, but for the last 3 games I’ve been able to head onto circuit without changing anything, this time it’s needed some of the sliders dialling back to stop overpowering effects. By no means a problem, just worth a note for those expecting to plug and drive. There have been a few issues which mostly cropped up during a co-op career session, and as it was sound or response related it could be pre-release netcode so we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt there, and hopefully it’s isolated to the Codec Moments team.
It’s the complete package then is F1 2021. Loads of tweaks to make the game more accessible (which it already was), a few quality of life changes, and a fantastic story campaign to enjoy – it’s the best instalment yet… and we say that every year. I’ve not touched on the Pit Coin and Podium Pass return, the inclusion of iconic drivers in My Team as recruitable teammates, eSports integration, the rock hard weekly challenges, or even just the basic free-for-all multiplayer, but we need to stop somewhere because if you’re not sold by now, you never will be. The bar that Codemasters have set is going to be a tough one to hurdle, and maybe that’s alright in this genre. We’re looking for the best recreation of Formula One and just the incremental updates each year that come with the rule and regulation changes, so the inclusion of a grounded and believable story with Braking Point is an absolute bonus. Oh, and for those who were worried about EA’s hand in the development, so far it seems to amount to a title card and little else, it feels pure Codemasters to me. I can’t wait to see where they’ll go next, but I know for sure that I’ll still be playing this one until then.
A PS5 review copy of F1 2021 was provided by EA’s PR team, and the game is out in deluxe format on 13th July, and standard format on 16th July, for around £50 (depending on platform).