Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheels and pedals, system link with a room full of journos and devs… a great way to enjoy multi-player F1. Not that joypad control has been overlooked – the team appreciate most people will play the game with a pad, so pad control has been overhauled to make it a smoother and more enjoyable experience.
To show off the new streamlined game options, we all participate in one-lap qualifying. You set up your car (if you want) within a time limit, then you're all put on the track at the same time, appearing as ghost cars on each others' screens. One lap decides the starting order for the race proper. Impressions? It's great – probably because we take pole at Monza.
Above: Hey - that's not Monza! No, it's still Austin. Note: Austin is not the only track in F1 2012. Honest...
The race itself immediately showcases the new and improved penalty system. Just like in any online F1 race ever, we're shunted from behind as we actually brake for the first chicane. Unable to stop in time, we're shoved across the new raised boundary (maybe two inches high – not enough to stop you, but certainly a big deterrent) and across the grass. But we only get a warning.
We experienced similar contextual lenience in the offline mode: Overtaking a car through cutting a corner now gives you an on-screen timer, giving you the option of letting the car you just passed unfairly back through before the stewards penalise you for being a prat. It's very welcome and appears to work well. The dev team is reluctant to explain exactly what the parameters are for fear of it being exploited. But on this first go, it's already a big improvement.
The pit stops have been given some attention too. Last year's tyre degradation was scaled poorly over medium distances, which means the 40% distance races we usually go for in career mode need two pit stops per race just to get around the track in one piece. Now, not only is the scaling more balanced and 'the cliff' more pronounced, tyre wear is actually programmed to mirror real life teams' characteristics. Saubers may not be massively quick, but they can sure go a long time between stops.
Above: The colour-banded tyres are visible in external views so you can see what type of tyres your opponents are using
Throughout the race, we get notifications at the bottom of the screen that Car 5 has been disqualified, then Car 3, Car 6… cutting the chicanes is not doing anyone any good. As for us? We win and it's great – especially as the post-race celebration screens from F1 2011 have been given a more realistic make-over, with better character models and faces. Still not quite LA Noire, but a definite improvement.
Overall impressions? Very strong. The new menu screens are slicker, being talked around the track by former F1 driver and current Sky analyst Anthony Davidson in the tutorial looks promising and the racing itself looks like being even more accessible without losing any of the hardcore depth so beloved by fans of the sport. It's still the same sim at heart, but can be played like a videogame when you want some quick gratification.
Wot no Vita?
The game will be available through boxed and digital releases on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on September 21. But you know what? There's no Vita or 3DS version planned. Odd considering Sumo told me a year ago that they'd already started work on them. Perhaps our 4/10 score for the 3DS version didn't help. Hmmm. Still, it's a big thumbs up so far for the 'big' version – we can't wait to get on it again.