I'm in a Lotus and running tenth at Valencia in a 20% distance race, with 'hard' opponent AI. Tenth is crap - I know this. But it also represents an opportunity to bag my first world championship point. However, due to a killer lack of KERS in my Lotus, I'm flagging and doing everything possible to keep the guy behind me at bay. I move right to block and suddenly a hell of a noise starts up in my right ear. What's happening? My engineer comes on over the radio. A puncture. In one instant, the whole weekend has come undone. This is F1 2011, and I love it.
Above: It was all going so well... but the team could still be satisfied if I can get back to 14th
Being a Codemasters racer, of course, the game features a 'Flashback' rewind option so I could just go back and let the guy through instead. To me, that would feel like cheating, but it's a happy safety net and one which I applauded in last year's game when I gave it 9/10. That game has numerous bugs (hey – I called the pit bug first) but its values are well placed and the sequel needs only subtle improvements and fixes to make this truly essential. Well, they're here - and some of them are real eye-openers.
For starters, the cars now have suspension. The reason you kept spinning at the right-hander (Portier) after the hairpin at Monaco? You rode the kerb, dummy. F1 2010 doesn't let you attack kerbs because they throw the car off balance to the point that you'll almost certainly spin if you try it. The new game is totally different. You can chuck the car over apexes, feeling the 'thump thump' through your controller or racing wheel as you go. You have greater confidence in your car as a result – and that means more freedom to enjoy the ride.
Above: Traction control on medium... and it let me use the kerbs at Portier? What dark magic is this?
There are several difficulty levels, from an idiot-friendly 'Easy' mode which brakes, blinks and breathes for you, through to a ludicrously-challenging Expert mode which is controllable (just) but will make your lap times look like they were set by James May. I settled for the next one down, Professional, which has moderate traction control, manual gears and no racing line. And boy, is it a handful.
In this mode, the car handling is completely different to last year's game. On default settings, the cars suffer from pretty severe oversteer through fast corners, which means the back of the car likes to step out as you turn, which will turn into a full-blown spin if you don't correct it in time. It makes every corner a challenge for a racing fan, and feels terrific when you get it right – or when you start tinkering with the set-up and fix the problem at its source.
I didn't bother much with the car set-up options last year, as they didn't seem to make too much difference and I'm normally happy with a simple soft/hard tyre choice and front and rear wing angle. But F1 2011 somehow makes the more minor tweaks fun and now I'm all over them. Using the practice session to take the car out on the track, get a feel for its handling then come back into the garage and adjust roll bars, ride-height and the aerodynamics is surprisingly entertaining.
Above: No, don't run away! It's all explained as you go and the slider bars are easy to use
Incredibly, I even started altering gear ratios – something I normally leave well alone – to avoid hitting the rev limiter halfway down the longer straights. Don't worry if this sounds too much for you. A novice racer can simply turn the traction control to full and do just fine. But if you have even a basic interest in getting the car to handle how you want, you'll be in car geek heaven with the options available.
However. No matter how low I set the wings, I always seemed to be driving defensively in my first career season. The reason? KERS.
Above: Looks innocent enough, doesn't it? It's new for this year's game and makes a huge difference
If you're unfamiliar with the term, KERS is a system used in real F1 cars to store kinetic energy from braking, which you can 'retrieve' by pushing a button to gain a few extra horsepower. It was banned last year so it wasn't in F1 2010, but now it's back. Only… not every team has it. So, in my Lotus, I could get up to about 9th at the start, but then I was pretty screwed, constantly watching my ass and occasionally looking forward to see everyone else disappearing into the distance. Lower teams, I feel your pain.
The idea, of course, is to advance through the teams until you're in a competitive car, but if you're racing on 20% race distance or longer, it's going to be a long time until that happens. It's worth noting that drivers don't migrate between other teams at the end of the season – probably down to licensing issues. It doesn't bother me, but it might irk some hardcore fans.
At least everyone has access to the Drag Reduction System (another new feature for F1 2011), which opens the back wing on request to reduce drag over the aerofoil. It's basically a 'go faster' button, which you can use as much as you like in qualifying, but is limited to specific sections of the track during races, and even then only when you're less than a second behind the car in front of you.
It's designed to increase the number of overtakes (and therefore exciting bits) during real F1, and perhaps it works too well. There is a lot of overtaking in both the virtual and real-life versions of the sport – some would say too much. In the game, it works well, however, and it is perfectly possible to 'do a Maldonado' and open the wing too early on the exit of a corner, spinning as a result.
Incidentally, I did have a go at Belgium's famous 'Eau Rouge' with the wing open. Yeah, that didn't end well.
Above: Your life flashes before your eyes and you realise none of it was rendered quite as nicely as that wheel
So, while racing on Hard, I was having fun, but struggling. Fortunately, you can tweak the difficulty to create a custom setting. So you can have medium-strength AI racers, manual gears, full traction control and no racing line. Or ultra-hard AI but ultra-easy handling. And that's where the game truly wins out. It might take some tweaking, but anyone can find a setting that's fun. Ironically, though, I think I had the most fun when I was struggling.
Above: You've got to feel like you earned it, otherwise there's no point
Take, for instance, the three straight wins I had when I switched to three-lap, short weekend races with the traction control on full and medium opponents. Three easy wins. Sure, Silverstone, Nurburgring and Budapest are still great tracks, but they deserve so much more than this shallow experience.
In fact, I rate the Hungarian track as one of the best in the world, so it's an absolute crime to fly around it in three laps and move on to the next country. F1 2011 is a game that should be savoured, whether you're finishing 1st or 14th. I went on to win the rest of the season by playing on medium (and knocking off Vettel and Alonso a few times *cough*). But it just didn't feel the same.
The game is balanced to reward personal victories. Do well against your team-mate in single-player and the team might put you on level pegging with him. Do even better and you might take over the team's number one driver spot. Likewise, qualifying and races come with targets for places, so even a drive that ends outside the points might be seen as a huge success.
If the rivalry system between you and your team-mate works well in the single-player, having a split-screen co-op partner racing alongside you makes it even tastier. I'm amazed more games don't let you do this, especially when it works so well here.
Sadly, offline co-op is restricted to races only, so there's no practise or qualifying. However, you can race for the same team and you can do full-length GPs. Better still, each driver's assist level can be altered on the pause menu, meaning a newbie with brake assist, racing line and pacifier can have a decent race with their F1-crazy mate. And it works.
Above: The green racing line may be on in the bottom pic, but look how close our race is
In fact, given the harshness of the more simulation-style driving modes, newbie will probably finish higher up the field… unless you take each other out like we did when we raced each other in the office.
Technically, the split screen is incredible, running at full screen and with very few lapses in frame-rate. Even with the rain pouring down at Yas Marinas with all the reflections in the track and a full grid of cars, it still runs at a respectable rate. A lot of people won't even care for its inclusion, but if you do, it's everything '90s-era gamers dreamed of.
Above: This has no right to run as well as it does. Just look at it!
Online racing is improved over last year it does allow you to do full co-op races with practise and qualifying with your online buddy. There are also interesting side-modes like a 20-minute pole position shoot-out – a qualifying session with the fastest recorded lap determining the victor.
In quick race, there's also less of an emphasis on being the sole winner this time in terms of online rep points allocated. F1 isn't a Ricky Bobby-style 'if you ain't first, you're last' – there's a lot to be said for even a top 6 finish. Not that that matters to me, mind – I'm with Ricky Bobby on this one.
Above: The first, and probably last, Talladega Nights reference on GamesRadar
Interestingly, the pre-race screen gives you a target position like it would in offline career mode, but here it's based on rank. If you're in a high-rank room, it might suggest 'finish higher than fourth', but if you're the highest rank, it will suggest at least second – possibly even first. It's a neat addition.
Above: First place, purple sector... this one's in the bag
Online racing is heart-poundingly exciting, especially when you're in the lead on the last lap with someone hot on your tail, although these bursts of adrenaline are dampened by long load times and needless pre-race cut-scenes between the action. The latter are skippable, but only save time if everyone else skips them too. Hint: They won't. Still, 16-player races are bolstered by AI cars to make a full grid of 24 cars so at least there's plenty of action when you do finally make it to the grid.
In the end, it's the little details and moments that make F1 2011 better than last year's game. The 'marbles' of worn-off rubber that start to litter the track off the racing line are visible from the cockpit and stick to your hot tyres, tangibly affecting your grip for the next corner or two.
Above: The game stops short of making you drive through marbles on a slow-down lap. Shame
You can also change the fuel mix (like a turbo… kinda) if you think you've got enough left in the tank to allow it. I even ran out of fuel on the last corner of a particularly hot lap during Silverstone qualifying to miss out on Q2 by a few thousandths of a second. And being told over the radio that there's a problem with DRS cements the fact that the new failures system works, but I've got to ask - who the hell would want less downforce at Monaco anyway?!
Finally, the new post-race cut-scenes are a really nice touch, showing you the same celebrations from different perspectives, based on where you finished. And the 'fail' cut-scene where the mechanic puts his hand over the camera is awesome.
Above: Move along, nothing to see here. Just an epic failure and probably some tears too
However, the presentation overall is still slightly lacking. This whole 'live the life' idea is still missing a podium scene, presumably because driver likenesses haven't been put into the game properly. Everyone keeps their helmets on in the post-race Parc Ferme celebrations, which is pretty telling. And, while the press interviews are slightly improved, Codies still can't do convincing humans. At least zombie girl is gone from your trailer – she was awful last year.
So are there any major bad points? The difficulty balancing comes to mind. I spent so much of my time driving defensively on Hard, I was a Senna-esque expert on making my car as wide as possible come the midway point in the season. It does start to grate, especially when the Professional handling mode is so damn thrilling. I do want to be fighting the car this much, but while on someone's gearbox at the same time. Playing with the assists on just isn't the same. You'll find a balance eventually, but expect it to take time.
Also, the damage system doesn't actually seem to be significantly ramped up over last year's game. Cars still seem a little more robust than they should be, although back wings do break more easily now.
Above: Hard to imagine this being 'understated', but look at how undamaged Hamilton's McLaren is
Even losing your front wing on the back of another car is less frequent thanks to some forgiving low-level knocks, which couples with the new penalty system. This gives you more leeway and fairness in minor scuffles, but harsher punishment for being a twat.
Like its stablemate DiRT 3, F1 2011's off-track presentation is a little lacking. But unlike DiRT 3, the on-track atmosphere is never dreary. In fact, wet-weather races are some of the most spectacular in the game, with gorgeously reflective wet tarmac and sensational spray effects... at least when the camera lens is clear enough to see them.
Above: We can see this much and the next turn is Eau Rouge? Who's idea was it to do this?
F1 2011 is an absolute triumph on the track. The new KERS and DRS systems give you welcome extra tactical ammunition and the new improved handling is beautifully weighted. Every corner feels like a challenge to be won, and with 19 tracks to race on, that makes for an almighty swathe of quality content. Get it, love it – and give each track the time and attention it deserves. It'll love you right back.
F1 2010? Yes. The weather system is better, the graphics are better, the
damage is (slightly) better, the cars have suspension and therefore
better handling. The 2010 version is still brilliant, though, and the
lack of KERS and DRS doesn't hurt it dramatically. So if you already own
it or see it for much less than the new version, you'll probably enjoy
it just as much. But really, you should be playing the new one.
DiRT 3? Yes. The EGO engine is looking just as impressive here, especially
when it's throwing around 24 cars and all of Monaco's buildings at
30fps, but despite F1 2011's slightly disappointing presentation, it
still feels like more of a big event come race day. DiRT 3's a bit more
graphically spectacular, but it has less to do.
Gran Turismo 5?
Yes. Notice how nobody's talking about Gran Turismo 5 any more? That's
cos it's not as good as other modern racing games. I would say I told
you so, but, well, I told you so. Simulation-wise, I suppose the driving
in Gran Turismo runs at more frames per second so is technically more
precise, but it's incredibly dull. F1 2011 is not.
Every major issue in F1 2010 has been addressed, making an already great game even better. We'd still like to 'live the life' a bit more off the track, but in terms of racing, it's just an absolute blast, whichever skill level you approach it from.
16 Sep, 2011
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