There’s many great things about videogames, chief among which is their ability to allow you to immerse yourself in a new world and create your own stories. And sports games are excellent at doing just that. Whether it be taking Carlisle United to the Champions League in Football Manager, winning the Super Bowl with the Cleveland Browns in Madden, or beating Manchester City 4-0 in the FA Cup final with AFC Wimbledon on FIFA – that one is totally me, by the way – sports games can place you right in the heart of the action and grant players the ability to forge your own destiny.
And Formula One games are no exception.
Since 2009, Codemasters have been the exclusive guardians of the Formula One license. And from the first game – F1 2009 on Wii and PSP – it’s been a fascinating journey. A promising debut on consoles with F1 2010 was gradually built on before hitting a stunning home run with F1 2013. A few difficult years followed in the transitions between consoles, with F1 2015 being a technically impressive but deeply lacking debut on current-gen. Thankfully the series came roaring back to form after that, and peaked with the excellent F1 2017. Last year’s title nailed everything that makes a Codemasters F1 game great; gameplay that is fun for both new and experienced players, a deep and immersive career mode, and plenty of exotic Formula One cars past and present to take out for a spin on the world’s greatest racetracks.
So how have Codemasters followed up arguably the best entry in the franchise so far? Especially given the limited turnaround time between releases for yearly sports franchises?
Simple. They’ve gone and made an even better game.
Let’s start off in career mode, the tentpole which holds up pretty much all Codemasters F1 games and the mode which has seen the most innovation for this year’s instalment. Back in F1 2010 there was a major emphasis on inserting the player directly into the world of Formula One itself, with all that comes with it. Sitting in the trailer discussing options with your agent, being interviewed by the media, and inter-team rivalries were brought firmly to the fore. Eight years later and things have come full circle.
The opening cutscenes in career mode involve being introduced to Claire the journalist, who will periodically interview the player after qualifying and races, as well as your race engineer in the mobile data centre. For a career mode in a sports game, it’s one that leans heavily on the RPG elements, but ultimately uses them to assemble the deepest and most immersive career mode arguably in the history of F1 games. Your reputation is judged on a sliding scale, scoring points for either Sportsmanship – being humble and reserved – or Showmanship – being a bold personality and saying exactly what they think. And relationships with NPCs are vital; be careful what you say to Claire in that post-race interview, as the paddock will be listening in. Complement the handling on your car and your team’s chassis department will be very happy. Rant about how Sebastian Vettel put you in the wall, and don’t expect Ferrari to be very enthusiastic about signing you anytime soon. And all of this comes to a head in the new contract negotiation feature, which enables you to pitch for either a better deal with your current team or a transfer to a new outfit – if you have the clout to do so. If you walk into Mercedes HQ demanding a top contract with all the bells and whistles and have been finishing mid-pack every race with Sauber, expect to be laughed out of the building faster than you can say ‘Lewis Hamilton’.
This may all sound trivial, but combined with expanded environments like the aforementioned data centre and various areas of the paddock, as well as a refined upgrade tree where benefits to your car can be developed and felt quicker than ever, it all adds up to an incredibly immersive experience. It successfully triggers that ‘just one more thing’ part of the videogame player’s brain, and before you realise it you’ll be three seasons in, signed to replace Fernando Alonso and in an intense rivalry with Max Verstappen. No previous F1 game simulates the world of Formula One with the same level of depth as 2018 – it’s a remarkable achievement.
Assisting the new environments and characters are legitimately gorgeous graphics – not much has changed since 2017, but the extra touches added really show a level of attention to detail that deserves praise. From heat haze rising off the track to improved fog and mist effects and realistic depth of field, F1 2018 definitely looks the part. Unfortunately this takes a serious toll on the pre/post-race sequences; our review copy saw quite a bit of stuttering, freezing and occasionally crashing the game altogether. On the plus side the actual racing gameplay was smooth and faultless, and hopefully any framerate issues in the cutscenes can be fixed in time.
Obviously this would all be for nought if the gameplay was terrible, but F1 2018 continues the tradition of Codemasters F1 games being very enjoyable to play both on controller and steering wheel. Some minor simulation-focused refinements come in the form of enhanced suspension and tire technology and the option for players to manually control the Energy Recovery System in modern F1 cars, and all have a noticeable affect on the handling – particularly the former which can make kerbs and chicanes treacherous. But thanks to various options and assists, you don’t need to be a hardcore sim racer with a fancy wheel setup to enjoy this one. I tested the game on both pad and wheel and had almost equal amounts of fun either way.
Gameplay-wise the biggest change comes in the form of the opponent AI. In short, they are brutal – just like in real F1. Whereas in previous games they could be accused of being too conservative and too easy to manipulate, that just isn’t the case anymore. If you make a mistake and leave a gap, they WILL go for it. If you try an audacious divebomb, they WILL defend their position hard. And best of all, they will do this to each other just as much as they will to you. More than perhaps any other F1 game, it really does feel like you are on track with some of the best racing drivers in the world rather than AI drones, and ergo it can make battles for the win feel that bit more satisfying when you come out on top.
With historic cars making their comeback last year for the first time since F1 2013, the roster of classic machinery is bolstered further this time around. There’s no greater polar opposite to the modern high-downforce F1 cars than the 1970s machines included in this game; all massive power, huge slick tyres and powersliding around every corner. And by contrast, the shrieking V10 behemoths of the 1990s and 2000s are all face-bending top speed and outrageous levels of grip. Each car requires a specific driving style, and all are great fun to drive – my only criticism would be that they can feel a little token. Championships mode returns full of different challenges and scenarios, and whilst the historic cars are included in there, a lot of the championships demand the best car from a given era to be picked if you want any hope of actually winning. F1 2013 gave classic cars their own corner of the game all to themselves, and it would be awesome to see that return complete with historic scenarios and perhaps even a classic career mode.
Ultimately this is as nit-picky as it gets; overall F1 2018 is a triumphant addition to the Codemasters F1 franchise, and one which builds on the successes of F1 2017 in all the best ways. This deserves to be checked out and played by gamers in general, not just sim racers or those with a vested interest in the real-life sport of Formula One. And once you do check it out, you’ll find plenty to get engrossed in.
Meantime, I’m off to take Sauber to the F1 World Championship.