Play F1 2012 like last year’s game and you will fail. Why? Because it plays completely differently. To be honest, we didn’t expect any massive changes three games into the series, especially when the evolution of Formula One itself is so gradual. But F1 2012 is a very different game, and the changes don’t just stop at the handling. From the front menu to the final showdown against all six world champions, there’s a wealth of new content to talk about. Which is good for us, otherwise this would be a very short review. So let’s get to it.
Check out the review of F1 2012
The front end is all-new. The paddock area from the past two games may have added authenticity, but didn’t work so well as an intuitive game menu. So it’s gone, replaced with clean, traditional menu screens. Everything is explained as you go, in a deliberate attempt to ease more casual fans of the sport into the game. With no motorhome to be shown around, the first thing the game asks you to do is complete the Young Drivers Test.
Above: Do well in the Young Drivers Test and they'll remember you later
This is something that happens in real F1. Young drivers get to try out for a specific team (you get to choose between McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull) around the dusty track at Abu Dhabi. We covered this in depth in our preview, but suffice to say it’s a rather strict introduction to F1, requiring you to complete Gran Turismo-style tests successfully before continuing.
It’s an undeniably strong start for the ‘live the life’ presentation as you’re shown to your car in first-person, but after that initial thrill of seeing it waiting for you, the driving tests themselves are not a terribly exciting way to start the game. Abu Dhabi isn’t the most visually stimulating circuit in the world and - irony of ironies – this new introduction might even turn off casual fans before they’ve started the game proper.
Above: Lots of dust and concrete on show. It does get more scenic, honest
You’re told how to use KERS and DRS (these are temporary speed boost systems and each have their own button), hit apexes and learn about the different tyre types. Important stuff, so it won’t help you to quit early, but it’s a lot to take in. Fortunately, it only takes 20 minutes or so to complete, then the fun really begins.
Last year’s excellent, if daunting, simulation has now been turned into an enjoyable video game that can be played for short bursts instead of taking an hour or three to complete a full race weekend. There are streamlined gameplay options everywhere you look, but before we get onto those, there’s an even more important and fundamental improvement – the way the cars handle.
The last game was a constant fight with for grip, with success mostly coming from chucking the car into turns and hoping there was enough space on the exit of the corner to drift safely onto the kerb on the exit. This time, no matter how violently you chuck the car into a corner, it just doesn’t stick. There’s never enough room on the exit.
Above: Understeer isn't just something to put up with - now you need to avoid it
You’ll hear the tyres squeal, the car will understeer and, if you’re using a force feedback steering wheel, you’ll feel the steering go light in your hands. That’s because the tyres are no longer gripping the track, so you may as well be driving on ball bearings. The game is trying to tell you something – and you’d better start listening.
The answer is to smoothly coax the car through the turns with smaller movements of the wheel or stick. Drive with this in mind, listening or feeling for the moment the tyres lose traction, and suddenly 140mph corners are no effort at all. And the fast chicanes of Maggotts and Becketts at Silverstone are now frightening as you hurtle into them - you know how to make it stick, but it really better had.
Above: Keep the tyres in good contact and the cars are amazingly responsive
It’s a massive, fundamental difference to the way the game plays. It takes some practice, certainly, but when you drive the game properly it’s one of the deepest, most rewarding handling systems in any racer ever. You can push its limits, but must respect its boundaries. And driving properly also has the added benefit of conserving your tyres.
The new Champions Mode has been well-documented as it allows you to compete against each of the six world champions racing in F1 this year (Button, Hamilton, Raikonnen, Alonso, Vettel and Schumacher) in turn, before facing all of them in a single race at the enjoyable new Austin track. Each challenge has three difficulty tiers, and the bite-sized four and five lap races are the sort of thing you restart until you succeed. It works really well.
But for all the fanfare around Champions Mode, it’s Season Challenge that's undoubtedly the best new addition. Taking its cues from legendary racing games like Super Monaco Grand Prix, this mode sees you selecting a rival before the race. Beat them twice in three races and you get signed for their team in their place. Not only that – you even get to wear their clothes! We beat Grosjean, then his name was on our racing overalls in cut scenes for the next race. Perhaps it’s another punishment for causing that accident at Spa…
Above: This slightly off-centre TV Pod camera is a new, playable addition this year
Season Challenge condenses the action down in almost every area. There are 10 races taken from the regular season’s 20, with each race preceded by a single qualifying lap. This one-lap qualifying is an option for online races too, and shows a ghost of the fastest car at any one time. So you might be following Vettel’s ghost through Eau Rouge, then suddenly it’s Alonso as the Red Bull’s lower top speed gives up the position down the straight.
With races only lasting five laps, playing and restarting each race like you would an arcade-styled videogame fast becomes the norm, not to mention heavy use of the now familiar ‘rewind’ button. It’s so engrossing, we finished the whole mode in one evening. But again, maintaining that video game sensibility, you’re awarded a score based on qualifying and race positions, urging you to play through again and beat your record for the season.
Above: If you can beat Schumacher, you get his car... and he gets nothing! Mwahahaha...
It’s not quite a full-fledged ‘arcade mode’ as it’s still very much grounded in simulation-land, but turning on the assists can make it start to lean that way. It’s entirely possible to win on Easy without using KERS or DRS, so add in automatic gears and anyone can play the game and have a good time.
The weather system has been overhauled. While we haven’t see anything to support the claim that it can be raining on one section of the track and not another, that doesn’t mean the feature’s not in there. What definitely is a feature is variable track conditions that change so realistically, you don’t see it happening.
Above: Hard to imagine this drying out, but it will do, given time
For example, we started one race at Monaco in blazing sunshine but on a wet track. After a few laps spent trying to avoid the barriers, the sun dried the track and suddenly we realised we were on dry tarmac - on the wrong tyres. Tyre choice in these conditions has a huge impact on lap times, so it’s more than just window-dressing.
Tyre degradation was one key area that turned out to be a long-term issue in last year’s game. At Codemasters’ own admission, the degradation was scaled poorly if you chose to race mid-distance instead of full-distance races. This year, not only do the tyres last easily until scheduled pit stops (if you’re driving properly as above, that is), you’ll also occasionally receive an email from your mechanics telling you what the tyres were like after the last race and how you could drive to better conserve them. That’s just brilliant.
It’s this kind of detail that’s been piled on this year. And, for all the new explanations and more arcade-like game modes, it’s the Career Mode that’s still the star of the show. Choosing tyre strategies, adjusting fuel consumption settings on the fly with the d-pad… it’s a brilliant simulation of a sport that’s recaptured the imagination of its worldwide audience. But all of the default set-ups and strategies work perfectly well, meaning you don’t have to go into any of it if you don’t want to.
Above: You can just select 'Easy' and floor it through Eau Rouge, just for fun
It’s not perfect, though. There is a nagging feeling of sterility in the presentation (which, to be honest, could be made almost completely better for UK-based F1 fans by just having the bass riff from Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain play before each race), and the exacting Young Driver’s Test day is a pretty bad way to start the game, despite the good intentions.
Damage can be spectacular if you catch a car at the right angle, but in general is still too conservative. That said, mechanical damage and failures are integrated perfectly into the gameplay balance. It would be nice to see some more new cutscenes too – several here are re-used from last year, albeit with improved graphics.
Above: Grosjean causing trouble at the start? Well that's not very realis... oh
But these few small niggles are nought compared to the majesty of the new car handling, the compulsively playable Season Challenge and the very welcome fact that the PS3 version doesn’t suck this time round. Last year’s game was visibly sketchier on Sony's machine. Now, aside from an occasional frame-rate dip in busy areas, it’s as-near-as-dammit to the 360 version, which itself looks superb. It's way better.
It’s hard to see how core F1 gameplay can be done better on current-gen and there’s a wealth of gameplay challenges to explore. If you passed up F1 2011 because it was too similar to F1 2010, you’ll find F1 2012 a massive leap forward. The aim this year may have been to make it easier for newcomers, but the best advances are still for the hardcore. They are a tricky crowd to please, but they should love this – we do.
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