Formula One in real life is finally exciting again. Sure, Vettel is winning everything in sight, but the new rules and overtaking systems have, if nothing else, at least made the races exciting to watch. That's worked out very nicely for Codemasters, who rode the crest of the wave last year with F1 2010 and are now sitting pretty to deliver a super-sequel. They were showing off the game on Xbox 360, 3DS and PlayStation Vita in London, and we played them all so there's a page about each right here. Engines on? OK, let's go.
When you've got such a great foundation as Codies have with last year's F1 2010, you arguably don't need to change much. And immediate impressions of F1 2011 on Xbox 360 are that very little has actually changed. The cockpit view and dashboard computer look the same, the track (Silverstone) looks the same… even the mechanics' animations in the garage are exactly the same as they were, only now your engineer is standing on the other side of the car. Fortunately, the reality is that things have been shaken up quite a bit.
The demo was multiplayer-focused. The finished game is going to feature full online grids this year (24 cars, to be exact), which is going to be pretty interesting come the first chicane at Monza, but we were limited to 8-player battles that ran seamlessly over system link. Fortunately, the team has worked hard on fixing the commendable but ultimately exploitable penalty system, so the game will now wait a few more seconds after incidents before deciding who the guilty party was.
Sometimes, however, racing accidents just happen. With the cars moving at this speed and both parties trying to outbreak each other in a scrap, contact is pretty much inevitable. The game is still at its most enjoyable when both drivers don't want to get involved in an accident, which can result in some ridiculously enjoyable races.
Above: The weather effects look even better than last year's, but don't help your cause in tight races like this
But if you do collide, wings and bodywork break much more easily than before, sending debris flying across the track. This year, there will also be component failures, resulting in lost gears or oil leaks. Apparently, you'll even be able to see engines smoking during acceleration if they're close to blowing.
In the career mode, this will even have a direct affect on the way you approach races. Last year's game hinted at keeping your engine good as you only had a finite number of replacements over the course of the year, but this year it should actually spill over into how you play the game. F1 racing isn't all about flat-out knife-edge driving all of the time. That's qualifying. Races need to be tactically considered too, with 'race pace' more important than pure, consistent speed.
This can also have an effect on co-op mode, where you and your team-mate will be trying to outdo each other through careful management of cars and resources over the course of the season. It's not very often that a game saves its biggest potential pay-off for a date about two months after you start playing it, but that's what could happen here. Rivalries are something I often say can make a racing game truly great – what better way than to have your real-life best mate as your team-mate? Feud time!
Above: Incidentally, Ferrari reportedly like their cars to be 'first' in any pre-release screenshot. Like this one!
The addition of Split Screen mode may sound logical (why go back to your house when you're at a mate's just so you can play F1 together?), but from a technical point of view, it can't be easy. There are very few compromises – perhaps some emptier grandstands and a slightly reduced frame-rate, but nothing to really spoil your enjoyment. Crucially, it feels just like the big-screen game.
Multiplayer, also, didn't really feel like it had the whole 'live the life' gloss of the main career in F1 2010. Here, post-race scenes play showing the winner in Parc Ferme. Brilliantly, they're seen from different perspectives depending on where you finished in the race. The winner will get to see themselves fist-pumping and throwing victory signs towards the crowd, as will anyone who finished lower than fourth. But second and third-placed drivers will see their own team's reaction to their podium finish. Different camera angles of the same event, showing jubilation from different sections of the assembled mechanics.
It works really well, and the presentation is a marked improvement in visual quality, with shiny helmets and recognisable drivers' eyes.
Another aspect that's been improved is the weather system. Speaking to senior producer Paul Jeal and chief game designer Steve Hood, I was able to ask about the weather system from last year and whether the weather would live up to the promises of the first game.
Amazingly, they admitted those occasions where the track looked wet but the grip was still there before suddenly falling away to practically zero was (wait for it…) a glitch! A bug in the game meant that, while the track surface data was working just fine as rain started to fall, the graphical interpretation of a wet track came in too quickly, meaning it looked really wet, but actually it wasn't. That's something that will definitely be fixed this year.
Above: No, really - that track is actually wet this time. Last year, it might not have been...
One thing that did make me smile was when I saw one of the cars leave the track during a wet race, sliding across the muddy grass. An achievement popped up: "Have you considered DiRT 3?" Lolzorz, eh?
So, better weather, proper failures (with components that will visually fall out the back of cars when they break)... what about qualifying? One of the other big criticisms from last year was that cars on the track in qualifying didn't represent the times that were coming in on the lap computer. This too, I am promised, is fixed.
As Paul stressed, it has to be. With multiplayer being such a big focus this year, there's no room for anything that's going to make people stop wanting to play it. As soon as smoke and mirrors become visible, it spoils the illusion and that's not something the team can afford to do twice.
At this stage, we can only trust that these changes are in place for the single-player game. The demo day was all about racing around a virtual Silverstone (that new start/finish location still throws me), and I am happy to report that it is supremely playable. The car handling, set as I chose with ABS and traction control on but everything else off, lets you positively chuck the car into corners – and it feels amazing when you nail it.
Racing lines, braking points… it probably all sounds dull if you hate simulation racers, but when they're delivered in this frantic and kinetic package, they're the keys to unlocking a very big door of fun. It's looking super slick on 360 (there weren't any PS3s at the event), playing superbly with a racing wheel or control pad and looking like being exactly what it needs to be - just like F1 2010, only tightened up in those few key areas. I'm very excited about this one.
**Update: But you want to see it in action, don't you? Check out this new gameplay footage from Codies. Note the 'SC' sign under the tellow flag indicator in the pits around the 1 minute mark. Might we actually see the safety car this year? We can but hope.**