Most of us will never know what it feels like to sit in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car, screaming across the start/finish line towards the first corner at 300 kmph, knowing that even the minutest of miscalculations will have you helplessly careening towards the tire wall with an uncomfortably lightweight chassis the only protection from certain death. But after spending a few hours with F1 2010, you get a sense that this is how it must feel.
Some may argue that Formula 1 is a dull sport. Just fast cars following each other around a track for hours on end with very little overtaking, they say. But the fans know that there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s about fearlessly hitting the apex on a flat-out corner and getting two wheels on the grass at the exit to gain just a few fractions of a second on the car ahead of you. It’s about going for broke on a near-empty tank and worn tires to make up time while your competitors pit in for fuel. It’s about approaching a hairpin at top speed side-by-side with an opponent in a game of chicken to see who can brake later to gain the advantage.
F1 2010 has been designed to be playable by just about anyone with a passing interest in the sport, but only if you understand the importance of these little nuances of Formula 1 will you truly be able to appreciate the attention to detail that has been put into it. Past developers have all done commendable jobs with their respective F1 games, but the racing experts at Codemasters have pushed the genre just a little bit further. It isn’t quite the dramatic change from the last F1 game, Sony’s Formula 1 Championship Edition, but it’s an impressive progression nevertheless, and like any great game, the longer you play, the better it gets.
The career mode is at the center of everything F1 2010, and there’s a clear focus on putting the player in the role of an F1 driver. Formula 1 is a high-profile sport, and the drivers are constantly under media scrutiny. This has also been reflected in the game. You’re often required to answer questions from journalists regarding your race performance, whether it’s an interview in the paddocks after a disastrous result or the post-race media briefing after a podium finish. It’s a great way to expose the player to a side of an F1 driver’s job that we often overlook, but the presentation is lacking and the questions and answers are pretty boring and generic. More importantly, what you say to the media has no real effect on your career, so it’s a lot less effective than it looks.
Dealing with the media, though, is just a distraction. Once you get into the cockpit, there’s really very little to find fault with. As you would expect, this is as authentic as an F1 game can get; all 12 teams, all 24 drivers, and all 19 circuits accurately recreated and just as you remember them from TV. If you’d just like to get out there and lay rubber on tarmac, you can skip the car set-up options and let your team pick the ideal one for you. But for those who know what they’re doing, there are plenty of tabs and sliders to tinker around with to set up your car to your liking. There’s a middle ground too. Six presets for car set up are available to you during practice sessions, qualifying, and before the race, so if you don’t like the setting that’s been chosen for you, you can try out another preset without having to go through the technicalities of adjusting individual settings.
You’ll have to start with one of the lower rung teams, and work your way up from there. Unless you turn up the assists and lower the difficulty, you won’t be securing too many podium finishes at the start of your career, and you’re not expected to either. You’re set realistic targets for qualifying and race finish like 18th or 20th, and since you won’t be competing for the driver’s championship, you’re main rival in the lower teams will be your teammate. As you will soon find, the position of number one driver in the team is an enticing one, and one that your teammate won’t easily give up. But once you do get there, you get dibs on upgrades, which you can use to suit your driving style.
There are plenty of driving assists to ease in new players. The driving line, with color coding for acceleration and braking, is a rather useful one, and something even seasoned players may want to use to learn the ideal driving line and braking zones. You can also turn ABS, traction control and damage on and off as per your comfort level. F1 is all about inch-perfect driving. Slightly late into one corner or a little wide around another can be the difference between ending up 10th or 20th on the starting grid. So to help you erase these little mistakes and start over, the Flashback system from Grid and Dirt 2 makes its way here, allowing you to rewind time and rectify a mistake you made. However, beware that even with all these assists turned on, F1 2010 is not an easy game, and delightfully, with all these assists off, it isn’t impossible either. Neither does the game spoon-feed you by dumbing it down to the point where it feels like you’re on auto-pilot (take a hint, Forza 3), nor does it become so challenging that the process of making it out of each corner unscathed grates on your nerves. There’s a fine balance, and there’s plenty of encouragement to shed away the assists in the form of dwindling lap times.
Followers of Formula 1 will appreciate many of the game’s attention to seemingly small, but eventually game-altering facets. The effect of cool and warm tires and heavy and light fuel loads on your car’s performance can be felt in the handling. You’ll need to adjust your braking points by braking earlier after a pit stop as the heavier car takes just a little bit longer to slow down. You’ll have to be careful not to overheat wet or intermediate tires on drying tracks. Speaking of drying tracks, F1 2010 gets absolutely brutal in the rain. Staying from spinning out around turns lap after lap is a real test of concentration, and overtaking becomes much harder as the water kicked up by the car ahead of you almost amounts to driving blind. Very often just making it to the chequered flag is an accomplishment in itself, and playing the game will make you empathize with perennial backmarkers like the HRTs and Virgins.
There’s support for up to 12 players online, so you won’t have a full field of 24 as in single-player. Games are virtually lag-free, so if you find a bunch of sensible guys to play with, there’s a lot of fun to be had. That’s easier said than done though, because most online players seem to think races are a sprint to see who the first to reach the first corner is. This predictably results in a first-corner pile-up. Online races are more a case of survival and avoiding being taken out by an overzealous opponent than a test of skillful driving to outmaneuver others, so things can get quite frustrating when all you’re looking for is some healthy competition. However, we can’t really fault the game for that. It isn’t the developer’s fault if people don’t how to play the game.
When it comes to Codemasters’ racing games, we expect nothing but brilliance in the graphical department, and F1 2010 doesn’t disappoint regardless of which platform you play on. The menus and loading screens are signature Codies and the track design and car models are equally impressive. Night racing in Singapore is breathtaking and if you can think beyond worrying about keeping your car in a straight line, racing during a downpour amidst lush environs is equally beautiful. The game uses an updated version of Codies’ EGO engine, and it shows its prowess in the rain, lighting and car damage effects. The media interaction is a little lacking on the presentation front, but on the whole, F1 2010 is an outstanding visual spectacle. The roaring engines sound spot-on, and the electronic soundtrack, while somewhat indistinct, works well with the game’s overall design.
Formula 1 has made a return to gaming after over three years, and it’s back with a bang. You can tell that the team at Codemasters loves the sport, with careful attention paid to lots of little details that you’ll probably have to sink 8-10 hours into the game to even notice. It’s a strong platform on which to build a truly great franchise, and while there is a fair amount of work to be done in the off-the-track areas of the game, on the track, where it counts most, F1 2010 may just be the best Formula 1 game ever made.