"'If' is a very long word in Formula One; in fact, 'if' is 'F1' spelt backwards." So said legendary commentator Murray Walker, and he was absolutely right. After all, if Codemasters could apply the gloss and quality of GRID and DiRT 2 to their newly-acquired F1 license, success would be automatic. But that's a pretty big 'if'. Those games' OTT style isn't necessarily the perfect fit for F1. Thankfully, it has worked, but not quite as perfectly as we'd hoped.
Let's ignore all the bells and whistles for a minute and look at the most important part – the driving itself. If that's not up to scratch then everything else is meaningless. On Easy setting, auto-brake and driving line assists allow you to keep the throttle floored and just enjoy steering the car around these magnificent courses. It's fast, it's smooth, it's fun. Medium gives you back the brakes but keeps auto-gears, which makes the game feel like a classic arcade racer. All good so far.
Above: Flying into first place at Kuala Lumpur. Beautiful circuit, but I haven't seen any koalas. YET
Once you get up to Hard, you'll have to manually change gear and learn the tracks in order to prevail. Getting on the throttle too hard or too early out of a corner will result in a spin, but most moments can be caught if you've got the reflexes to cope with it. It's amazing how you find your own rhythm over longer sessions – and how catastrophic the results can be if you lose your concentration.
Above: It only takes a split second of daydreaming to turn your race weekend into pretty crash physics
Finally, Expert mode is extremely punishing. With no traction control, a novice will spin on the exit of every corner because you really have to behave as though the throttle were made of eggshells. But, once you start learning how to tame the 1,000 horsepower under your big toe, nailing clean laps is incredibly rewarding.
Round the outside
Where the game really shines, however, is in the racing itself. I honestly can't remember the last racing game that really gave me such a thrill from racing in an offline mode. Rounding the last corner of Melbourne to start the final lap of a 12-lap race and realising you might just be able to catch Hamilton to take the win is ridiculously exciting.
Above: Side by side into one of the scariest corners in the world... bravery, or stupidity?
The length of the races and preparation that goes into them makes it feel like it means more. When you've gone through three practise sessions (reaching target times for team testing), then competed in three qualifying sessions, the race itself feels like a big event. So in the situation above, you don't feel the desire to make a rash, videogamey decision. You want to do it properly – and that's something that F1 2010 gives you better than any other current-gen racer.
Thanks to the Ego engine's ability to rewind the action and resume from a point in the near past, those rare occasions when you do feel cheated – by being punted off the track by someone else or losing your wing on a double-braking opponent's rear wheel – can now be discreetly erased. You get fewer chances to do this the harder you set the difficulty, but even one rewind is enough to alleviate massive frustration.
Above: It's all gone just a tiny bit wrong. But that icon on the right means you have one more rewind left. Yay!
While the AI can often make mistakes that end up in race-destroying collisions, the quality of its defensive driving is superb. As it sacrifices its own speed to take inside lines into corners and block your moves, suddenly you realise the cars ahead of you both have pulled away, and someone else is now snapping at your heels. Again, this is something loads of games claim to do, but simply don't deliver.
Zombies ate my driving gloves
So, with a big check against 'is racing awesome?' we should examine all that peripheral 'live the life' craziness. Codemasters has made a determined effort to recreate the feeling of actually being an F1 driver, and the finished result is pretty close to those early concept shots. Not all of it works, mind. The agent woman in your trailer is hella creepy, especially when she calls you by your own name.
Above: Zombies aren't that well known for their love of F1 contract negotiations, but you can't argue with this
The press conferences are a nice touch, with multiple choice answers to questions that will help shape your career and contract options. It's also very refreshing to have a proper rivalry with your team-mate. Beating the supposed 'number one' in the team in qualifying and race positions really puts the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons.
There are a few missed opportunities. The lack of a champagne-spraying sequence when you win is a surprising omission, especially as I expected it not only to be there, but to be interactive, given the rest of the immersive features the game has. Maybe the reason for this is that you never see any of the other drivers in the paddock. Despite the full license for driver names, you only ever see photos of them, which makes this quite a one-man show.
Also, physically walking around the pits and getting into the car would have helped make the transition from menu to game even more seamless. Maybe next year?
In the end, it's the attention to detail that makes F1 2010 a consistently surprising and rewarding experience. "Remember to brake for the pit box," says the guy over the radio. I didn't bother because the car appears to be on complete autodrive, then promptly flattened the poor mechanic on the front jack. Ouch.
There's so much that's worthy of note, like the visual distortion when you get in the spray from another car in full-blown wet weather. Look at this screen - it's not a pre-rendered press shot, it's one I took a moment ago:
Above: The spray effect from following a car in the wet. Whichever way you look at it, that is sensational
Then there's the visible drying line on a wet track, the ability to change engine and wing settings on the fly using the D-pad, the way you see rival pit crews scrambling out of the garage to meet their cars as you cruise down the pit-lane… it's almost perfect. Almost.
Mirror, signal, wait for it...
There are some issues that may be fixable with a patch, but need some attention. Pitting during a 20% distance race almost always puts you last because everyone's pitting at the same time and your crew isn't aggressive enough in letting you rejoin the busy pitlane. Longer races are less crowded during pit windows, but this really should have been ironed out, especially with the investment of time you're putting into each race.
Also, while the game is undeniably beautiful to look at, it's definitely not as slickly presented as DiRT 2 or even GRID. There are some very minor lapses in frame-rate and occasional jaggy to spoil the view, but I appreciate a lot of people won't even notice these. I have robot eyes.
Above: F1 2010 has many more cars on-screen than either DiRT 2 or GRID, and holds up surprisingly well
Finally, the difficulty could do with one more setting between 'Hard' and 'Expert'. I love the controllability of Hard, but the AI is a bit too easy to beat compared to Expert. You can tweak settings, of course, but I'd rather feel like I'm beating the game at a recognised level.
Honestly, though, these are all minor irritations. And I'm certain the experience you will get from F1 2010 will be completely different to mine, because that's the way the game is designed. This is your F1 game. It's your timing monitor sat on the front of your car as you wait in the pits. Your team mate to beat. Your racing lines to find. Your engine to overheat by spending too long in the dirty air of another car. Your Eau Rouge to attempt without lifting the throttle.
Above: Winning is the ultimate reward after all your hard work. Achievements are the icing on the cake
The game has a frankly obscene amount of content to discover, all of it measured and absorbing. Whether the more arcadey difficulty levels will be entertaining enough for casual racing fans is debatable. You'll undoubtedly get the most out of it if you have the patience to approach it as a serious racer and learn to use gears, brakes and progressive throttle. But then, 'if' is a very long word in F1...
17 Sep, 2010