You may remember in our last preview (opens in new tab) that the track textures seemed a bit flat. Well, not only has that been fixed, but everything has a new sheen of quality that's a clear leap over last year's game. The scenery is beautifully unique everywhere you look, without the repeating elements that many sims suffer from.
Above: Bruno Senna. Remember when GamesRadar met him (opens in new tab)?
The biggest improvement, however, is in the weather effects. Playing Champions mode, Lewis Hamilton's Pass Master Challenge' sees you racing at Sao Paulo, in the lead with four laps to go. You're on slicks, but Lewis is on intermediates. And it's raining. For the first lap, everything's fine – grip levels are still decent and backmarkers are easy to catch and pass. But then it gets wetter.
Above: At this point, if you're on slicks, it may as well be an ice skating sim
The track graphics change so organically, you can't see it happening. You just suddenly realise that you're on a very wet track and it's like an ice rink. That seven second gap between you and Lewis is suddenly down to two seconds and you've still got a lap left. The resulting battle to keep him behind while trying to keep pointing in the right direction is riveting.
They are the champions
And that's where Champions Mode really shines. Taking advantage of the extraordinary situation where six F1 World Champions are racing together at the same time, this mode sees you playing as each champion's team-mate in individual quickfire challenges. The clearly defined rules for success and failure plus rapid try/retry options make for a great introduction to the challenges you'll face in career mode, while working as a game in its own right.
Taking on Kimi Raikkonen at Spa is a strong introduction to Champions Mode as a few laps around the Belgian track in the dry is relatively easy. But with each challenge featuring three difficulty levels, beating all six champions on Hard is going to take some doing.
Above: All the Champions (and you) race together in the final challenge
The Champions Mode concludes with a race around the new Austin track, with only you and the six champions on the grid. It's a fitting, videogamey way to conclude the new section of the game and does feel like a special event. It will likely always be a side-game for long-term fans who just want to play career mode, but based on what we've played, it's a worthwhile addition to the game.
However, what we would say at this stage is that Champions Mode still needs balancing. We ran rings around Michael Schumacher in the 'Simply The Best' challenge, yet trying to even stay with the pack during Jenson's 'Gently Does It' race at Silverstone is near impossible – the grip levels on the wet track are just too low. And we're not just being rubbish, honest.
Above: Michael Schumacher doesn't put up much of a fight at present, but that's sure to change
The game is coming together very nicely. We have a few reservations, in particular the Young Drivers' Test. Abu Dhabi isn't the prettiest track to be stuck on doing start/stop tests (although the changing colours of that grandstand are very pretty) especially when it delays you getting to the core action, which has never looked or felt better. We'll see how it fits into the final game come review time, which isn't far away now as the game is out on September 21, as this new Developer Diary video will attest:
F1 2012 may be the 'tricky second sequel' for Codemasters, but the improvements are clear already. Pad control is better and the visuals are super-deluxe even on the now-ancient Xbox 360. And we won't be forgetting the image of that Ferrari waiting for us in the garage for a while - it's a very special moment. Here's hoping it's an equally special game.