F1 2012 is fast approaching and we've got an almost-finished version of the game replete with the new Young Drivers Test and Champions Mode to play around with. And play around with them we have. Schumacher? Smashed him. Hamilton? Hammered him. Button? Er... well, he was a bit difficult. So anyway, F1 2012. Shall we take a look?
Above: See the front wing? The sun effect from GTA Vice City lives!
The first thing that you notice is how different the approach is to the basic premise compared to the previous two F1 games. The Young Driver's Test sees you arriving at Abu Dhabi and heading for the garage of one of three teams, depending on which one you want to try out with. We picked Ferrari. An in-engine cut scene then sees you being prepped verbally by one of the mechanics as you see through your driver's eyes. This is how we thought the much-vaunted 'live the life' presentation was going to be two years ago, but at least it's here now.
You may not have control over your movement, but the bustling garage does an excellent job of setting the scene. The mechanics may still have a touch of that 'uncanny valley' zombified look to them, but it is a vastly improved zombified look. Faces look better, the lighting is more realistic and the textures on the your driver's overalls are super-sharp. It's a big step forward.
Above: The level of detail is phenomenal - 360's really being pushed now
The talk ends and you're told to put on your helmet. As you do, the view is letterboxed accordingly, before the mechanic gestures to your waiting car. And there it is. A real F1 Ferrari – and they want you to drive it. Just for a second, we're there. It's the dream. All this build-up has made us feel like this is going to be our first time driving an F1 car.
This moment of pure excitement at the prospect of what's about to unfold was missing from the first two games - you were just suddenly in the car and getting ready to go. It's not just F1's problem - it's arguably missing from most racing games in general. Sure, it isn't real, but we were pulled in enough to care. And at the very least, it's a statement of intent that this is going to be a special experience.
Come on, there's work to do
However, after this lavish introduction, it's actual work that you'll be doing, not necessarily having instant fun. Sure, there's an immediate free practice mode available on a wet or dry track, but the Young Drivers' Test day is designed to talk you through how the game works. It does this through a series of Gran Turismo-style license tests.
You're given simple instructions, one test at a time, from an initial straight line run through to cornering, KERS and DRS. As a neat little touch, the other drivers on the lap times are unfamiliar names, including 'Rossi' - presumably Alexander Rossi, who tried out in the real 2011 Young Drivers' Test. That's attention to detail.
Above: How do they test different weather? By hosing the track down of course! No, really
There's a definite new emphasis on explanation. In fact, every option in the game's cleaner new front-end menus now seems to have an explanation underneath it. But F1 is a tough sport to explain to a novice and we do wonder if all this extra effort is really going to make everything universally accessible. For instance, DRS' rules are explained as succinctly as possible, but how it works and when to use it is only really brushed upon.
On the flip-side, all the explanation is unnecessary for the existing fanbase, and it feels strange to be asked to drive the game's own optimum driving line when you're perfectly happy with your own. Still, there is a simple grading system and you can earn gold medals for flawless tests, so your own OCD might stop you from moving on to the game proper if you're not careful.
He's off! He's off! And he's back again
On the track, things have changed. But actually the biggest change happens off of it – in particular when you run wide. In previous games, cutting corners would see you incur a penalty (and rightly so), but going off on the outside of corners often went unpunished, allowing you to use some run-off areas as easier lines of racetrack. No longer.
Running very wide in F1 2012 appears to cut power to the engine. It's only a small penalty, but it should be enough to deter exploit-seeking cheats from using more than the width of the track during races. The high speed Pouhon left-hander at Spa may have more grip on the road than last year's game, but push it too hard and you will lose time on the green run-off tarmac. It's better.
Above: Use the full width of the track, certainly, but no more than that
Did we just say 'more grip on the road'? It certainly feels that way. Perhaps it's the revised tyre wear algorithm but, playing on hard difficulty, there's definitely more traction compared to last year's game, particularly from the back end of the car . We played this preview with a joypad too, and while the analogue steering may be a bit too twitchy for our liking (small corrections are too pronounced), actually driving the car round the track feels smoother.