From a F1 fan's point of view, Codemasters Birmingham is the best thing that could have happened to the official F1 video game license. The team understand the sport like a fan does. But therein lies the problem: F1 is a complex sport that, while spectacular for the casual observer, demands fairly deep understanding to know exactly what's going on. And that's what's about to change.
Above: Lewis leads from Kimi at the new-for-2012 Austin track. We raced it - it's wiiiiiide
If you're scared about your beloved sport being dumbed down, don't be. We'll get onto the new tweaks and additions shortly. But it is more accessible, across all the modes. We've played it in single-player and multiplayer and we like what we see. It's still the same great simulation, only now it's being wrapped up like a great video game.
The previous entries in the series just plonked you in an F1 car and expected you to know how it works. Not this time. There's the Young Driver Test that lets you try out in a Formula One car around Abu Dhabi in the 2011 season before starting your career. Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren are available to try, and it matters which one you pick. For the hardcore racing fan, it's your chance to create a good first impression. Perform well in a Ferrari, for example, and the Prancing Horse may be more keen to make you an offer further down the line (surreal mental image that one).
Above: This kind of pracing horse. Not a saltlick in sight... nor another car. Must be winning
But for novices, this first taste of the game also introduces you to how you'll actually be playing it. Advanced controls like DRS and KERS are explained, whereas before you were just expected to know what they were and how to use them. The pre-race garage screens are clearer too – no more sitting there in the pits wondering how on Earth you actually start the car and get on the track. Even we had to be told how to get moving when we first played F1 2010, and that's not really good enough from a UI point of view.
Similarly, one of the criticisms leveled at last year's game was that it took too long to actually finish the game. Even if you set the career mode to three-lap races, you still had to do five seasons before you could really say you've completed it – a task that could stretch into hundreds of hours if you did 100% length races and all the qualifying and practice sessions. No longer.
While that's all still there if you want it, there's a new option on the main menu (which, by the way, looks lovely in the cleaner, slicker front end) labelled 'Champions Mode'. This offers an entire career in 10 races, each of which can be tackled in around half an hour. Taking advantage of the extraordinary (and awesome) situation in F1 we currently have in F1 where six former World Champions are lining up together on the grid, this mode lets you play as each champion's team-mate in set challenges. Want to see it? Here it is:
The first is Kimi Raikonnen, as you are tasked with catching 'the Iceman' at Spa and passing him within 4 laps. It's a much more game-like experience thanks to the straight-to-the-action 'push start to play' feeling, the single definite goal and the fact it doesn't take two hours to do one race. It's reminiscent of classic racers like Super Monaco GP in that respect, only with all the bells and whistles of current gen tech. We wish there were vintage battles like Senna/Mansell Monaco '92 (as do the devs) but for now it's just modern-day scenarios.
Crucially, despite the new accessibility, the driving experience itself hasn't been simplified (unless you choose to drive with the assists on, in which case it's almost impossible to do badly). With anti-lock braking off, squeezing the brake pedal and trying not to lock up is an art that will take a lot of perfecting. Not that you'll mind if you do lock up – the tyre smoke looks superb.
Regular viewers of real-life F1 may have noticed that drivers like Schumacher keep reaching down to adjust a lever in the cockpit, sometimes several times per lap. This is the brake bias – how strongly the brakes are applied to the front compared to the back of the car. That's a new feature added to F1 2012, selectable from the d-pad at any time, along with the returning fuel mixture and tyre choice options.
Above: Finding the right car set-up can be as complex as you like - but basic settings are decent
Perhaps the most pleasing change is the driving model itself, which has been improved to give the overall look of the car moving to the apex and out again a much more realistic look. This is particularly noticeable at the two Lesmo corners at Monza (no sniggering at the back), which always felt snatched in 2011, but are smooth and measured in 2012.
That said, the cars do feel a little less stable on higher difficulty settings. The bumps around the Hotel Du Paris at Monaco have a way bigger impact on your car's balance now as you hurtle towards Casino Square, and we lost the back end several times as we oversteered on the exit from the tunnel, way before we even touched the brakes. There's much more nuance to car control this year – if you feel up to taking the stabilisers off.
The game has been given some visual tweaks. Nothing drastic, but the filters applied to it do give it a more naturalistic look. There's a lot of deliberate texture blending in the middle-distance on the track surface to eliminate jaggies. At present, it arguably smoothes out a little too much detail on its current setting, but the game's still in development so the exact balance has likely yet to be found. Also, not only do the cars look shinier, but the trackside scenery looks more rugged and realistic too.
Above: It's not often you're doing 160mph and think 'that grass could do with a cut'
Damage-wise, it's still some way from the devastating destruction we'd like to see from big accidents, but the fragility of the cars has been improved. Speaking to the game's lead designer, Steve Hood, we learned that the next generation of consoles should bring a revised damage engine to F1. We can't wait. As for now, it's still way better than Forza or GT5 so we don't mind too much.
But what about the multiplayer? Head on through to the next page and we'll tell you all about it...