It’s fourth time round and probably the last lap of the current-generation for Codemasters’ F1 sim. It’s been a massive success story, both in terms of sales and quality. But with last year's F1 2012 (opens in new tab) already polishing the formula to a sheen and real F1 maintaining the status quo in terms of rule changes, it's difficult to see where Codies could feasibly advance in 2013. So the opportunity has been taken to add in classic content from the sport's golden era of the 1980s/1990s. The result is a game that's not only worth the upgrade, but actually adds more excitement to the mix.
First things first: the core game. Little has changed in career mode, from the pre-race pit-lane menu-gazing to the recycled post-race cut-scenes. Gamers who may not have the luxury of two hours' unbroken free time will particularly welcome the ability to save mid-session, finally removing a significant barrier to entry for full-length GPs. The shorter Season Challenge mode with its excellent 'choose a rival' system is practically identical, with its 10-race season of 5-lap races able to be blitzed in a single evening, offering a perfectly weighted, bite-sized version of the full career.
There is a new ‘scenario’ mode which replaces the Champions mode of the previous version, but works in much the same way, again breaking the game down into bite-sized challenges that take about 10 minutes each. With all these quick-fire options, the game works equally well as an arcade-style video game as it does a sim. However, it must be said the tactical play of fuel conservation and tyre strategy in a full-length, 2-hour race offer immense gratification that you truly feel you earned, which a ten-minute race simply can’t replicate.
The damage modeling is still slightly disappointing compared to GRID's single-seaters, but the physics engine of the driving has been honed to a sheen. The slicker, smoother driving of today’s F1 cars makes for a clinical and precision-intensive driving experience, one that demands knowledge of racing lines to master but still lets novices potter about with the stabilisers on and still have fun. And it’s another step up, graphically, thanks to liberal use of light rays filtering through trackside fences and details like sunlight occasionally flaring off a rear-view mirror ahead.
One inspired new feature is the way Codemasters has taken a racing wheel's force-feedback features and simulated them on a gamepad. A force-feedback wheel will ‘go light’ if your car is understeering. But that can’t be replicated on a pad. Right? Wrong. A very subtle vibration effect feeds through your palms if you’re asking too much of your car’s grip against the track surface, letting you know that you’re damaging your tyres.
As a result, you’re constantly taught how to be a more successful driver. Not only will your tyres last longer if you look after them (a theme all-too prevalent in real F1 this year), but you’ll learn to respect corners more. No longer will you feel like chucking the car hard over raised kerbs on corner apexes on full lock at 150mph. Instead, you’ll set your car up for the turn, place it on the racing line and ease the car through. Your lap times will decrease, you’ll look more professional, and--above all--you’ll feel the benefits as you soar out of the turn on the other side.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of this year's F1 racer is its inclusion of some of the best fan-pleasing content out there, in the shape of 1980s classic cars. The value of this retrotastic bonus material cannot be emphasised enough. Firstly, modern F1 cars can’t hold a candle to some of the machines on offer here. These are proper racing cars. Racing cars with big fat tyres, massive front and rear wings, and cockpits that show the drivers’ heads and shoulders. Understandably, the old cigarette advertising is gone, but that aside, the cars all look incredibly authentic.
But the real joy is in driving them. Codemasters has had to take an educated guess at how these machines feel to drive in the modern day, but the result is exceptional. In trying to make these cars feel as exciting as your mind is telling you they should feel, a delicious arcade/sim hybrid has been created. The result is raw, powerful, malleable, and responsive.
Taking the 1988 Williams out around Jerez in Time Attack is a microcosm of not just everything that makes F1 so great, but racing games too. You get online leaderboards, graded medals with ghost laps to beat, and some devilish corners to master. With a pad it’s a compulsive obsession hunting for the best line. But with a steering wheel and pedals, it’s something else entirely. Grip the wheel, grit your teeth, and hurtle around those flat-out right-handers around the back of the track and feel like a real F1 driver. There’s nothing else like it on current-gen.
But while individual replications of classic cars are superb, unfortunately the same can’t be said for the collective. Sure, you can have a 1980s Grand Prix, but this pits cars almost a decade apart in time against each other, as no one year’s license has been replicated in full. The most notable omission is classic McLarens, which are not present anywhere in the game. And yes, that means no Senna either.
So you’re left with a sort of halfway house between the best fan-pleasing content ever seen in a racer and the most disappointing. Mansell isn’t dummying Piquet down Hanger Straight--it’s an anachronistic Damon Hill. Prost isn’t feuding with Senna; he’s driving a 1980 Williams behind thought-we’d-seen-the-last-of-him Michael Schumacher in a 1988 Ferrari. It’s so close to the perfect F1 racer yet so painfully far away. Best example? Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ is in the game (yes!), but only over the end credits (sigh).
There's a big catch with all of this great classic content, too. There is also 1990s content, but it doesn’t actually come with the main game. You either need to buy the Classic Edition of the boxed release, or purchase extra DLC. And when Mansell’s iconic 1992 FW14B is included in that bracket, that’s something any true F1 fan is going to need to do.
The F1 2013 package is extremely slick, whichever mode you play, and all the classic content feels like a labour of love. It's a fitting way to conclude current-gen F1, polishing the contemporary and reflecting on the old before the next-gen version inevitably brings in the new in 2014. It’s a touching ode to an era when Formula One was truly magical. So if ever you thought racing cars were cool as a kid, you need to play F1 2013. Somehow they’ve become even cooler.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360.