The long drought is over. At long last, Sony has relinquished its choke hold on the Formula One auto racing license. Nothing is more depressing and irritating in any given market than a monopolist that refuses to utilize its exclusive control of a franchise to deliver a quality product, and this is exactly what Sony did with the F1 license. The merits of their PlayStation-only title aside, the result of the exclusive deal that they held has been a dearth of new titles in the F1 arena for the rest of the console and PC markets. In a sport (yes, I know that term is debated hotly, but I use the "if I can't do it, it's a sport" definition) that changes as rapidly in rules, drivers and technology as Formula One, being stuck for years without a new version has been a cruel form of purgatory for the die hard F1 fan.
All of that is history now, though, and there is a brighter future ahead. Codemasters, who have quite a storied history in racing games themselves, now has the right to develop F1 titles. Well, truth be told they had the contract in 2009 but were only able to bring out a Wii version. There are things that the Wii does well, but racing games any more realistic than Mario Kart are not amongst them. In the intervening year, Codemasters has been able to bridge the divide in platform capability between the Wii and the rest of the gaming world to bring us F1: 2010 on the Xbox, PS3, and PC. After nearly a decade without a true Formula One (I exclude mod packages available for the various SimBin programs since they don't model the racing rules) title, gamers are notably excited to see how the far more capable hardware platforms of the new century will support a brand new offering. Vast increases in both graphical and processing horsepower should provide for a virtual racing world orders of magnitude more realistic than the last seen F1 effort.
So, did Codemasters deliver? In some ways, the answer is an unequivocal yes. In others, the race stewards have yet to provide a definitive answer. On the “yes” side, the graphics are phenomenal when compared to the previous standard. The modeling of the cars is a work of art. The models are complete down to the manufacturer's logo on the center of the immensely complex steering wheels. The tracks look exactly like their real world equivalents, albeit as having been viewed through an HD in-car camera. Very few of us have actually driven them, right?
This beauty comes at a cost, of course. My first few minutes with the PC version were a huge disappointment; the lag in steering and gear shifts was tremendous and I was wondering whether or not any of the game's developers had ever even seen a Formula 1 race. I eventually happened across the graphics settings and turned some of the more processor-heavy settings off. That did the trick, and even at something less than the default maximum settings the view through my visor was still superb. On the Xbox version I didn't need to change a thing.
As I've often said when reviewing other racing titles, stellar graphics are nothing but calorie-laden, non-nutritional junk food if the racing is no good. Good racing comes from a number of things. There needs to be a decent physics model, but it needs to strike an appropriate balance somewhere between so-realistic-that-it-is-undriveable and so-forgiving-that-there-is-no-challenge. The inflection point of that balance tends to move with the target platform(s) of the game.
For example, a pure-PC design will typically move towards a more realistic and challenging physics model, while a console based game will be far more forgiving. I suspect that the most important influence on the balance comes down to the disparity of controllers. The PC racers have access to wonderfully precise racing wheels such as the Logitech G25 that I use, while the console folks are predominantly going to be using regular game controllers. The difference in the capabilities of the two is quite broad. A super-realistic physics model, particularly in a car as demanding as a modern Formula 1 car, would be completely uncontrollable with a console game controller. It's not even all that easy with the G25!Good racing is also highly dependent on the quality of the AI cars that the offline player will be racing against. AI drivers that are too fast, too slow, or too stupid are no fun to race with. “Too fast” and “too slow” can be managed with granular enough difficulty settings, but “too stupid” can't be fixed. There's a life lesson there.
Less critical yet still important is the fidelity of the game's modeling of the rules of the racing series in question. When it comes to the pinnacle of motor sports, whether that be Nascar's Sprint Cup or Formula 1, the rules begin to have every bit as much affect on the outcome of a race (or season championship, for that matter) as the performance of the car or driver. Many a race has been lost when a driver has run afoul of a picayune rule. When it comes to finicky rules that can make or break a team's season, Formula 1 stands in the shadow of no other type of racing in the world. Subjectively enforced violations are the cause of thousands of heated debates nearly every week of the season. Similar to the question of driving physics, a too rigid modeling of the racing rules can be every bit as damaging to the fun factor of a game as a too loose enforcement policy would be.
The optimal setting for these factors is, as you would expect, very much a matter of personal preference. It is for this reason that the configuration screens of a sophisticated racing game typically offer a daunting number of configurable options. Here to there is often a predictable level of configuration control that differs by platform. Consoles tend towards fewer settings, while the more complex PC racing games allow very granular control over all facets of the game.
F1 2010 lives in a gray area between console and PC. While it was undoubtedly developed primarily for the game consoles, Codemasters has also ported it to the PC platform. As such, it should come as no surprise that it falls closer to the console style than the PC style when it comes to the balancing act required to satisfy the demands of both types of gamer. It starts at the driving physics level. The cars in the Xbox version are borderline twitchy. They can be driven smoothly if you have a light and deft touch on the controls, but you won't do too horribly even if you throw the car around with relatively large control inputs. A smooth touch will be rewarded, of course, but the game remains playable even for ham-fisted curmudgeons such as myself.
This generous forgiveness level transfers over to the PC in the form of cars that are very close to being too easy to drive, at least when the driver is using a decent controller. Note that this isn't necessarily a bad thing; if pressed to be perfectly honest, I'd probably have to admit that it's nice to be able to concentrate a little more on race strategy rather that having to devote every single synaptic firing to the task of simply keeping the car on the track. Stark realism suffers, naturally, but I suspect that at the end of the day this easier (not to be confused with “easy”) control of the car creates a more realistic simulation of what it would be like to race one of these cars if you actually were imbued with the native talents of a Sebastian Vetel or Michael Schumacher.
The AI racers are so-so. Oddly enough, even when racing them on the PC they seem twitchy, almost as if the console controller type of driving was being modeled in the AI. That's just a visual quirk and doesn't affect the racing too much. They seem to be able to adapt to events around them on the track, which is to say that there does, in fact, seem to be some real AI in the design as opposed to them simply working their way around the track on rails. On a number of occasions I have gotten inside of an AI driver going into a corner only to have him re-pass me on the exit as he responds to my attack by going to the outside of the turn. They're pretty good about not running into me, although there have been a number of times when I've been punted off the track. Those typically happen when I brake too early, or at least earlier than they expected. It's hard to get a good balance between them being too fast and too slow, however. There are only four difficulty settings to control their level of skill and the differences between each of the settings are pretty broad.That type of low granularity of configuration runs through the entire game, by the way. I believe that this too is a reflection of the console-centric design. PC users familiar with SimBin games like GTR Evolution will be aghast at the dearth of available tweaks both in game play and the actual garage set-up of the cars. There are more options for configuring the on screen displays than there are for setting up the cars. Again speaking personally, I don't think I mind. I want to be a race car driver, not an engineer. I want to be able to tell my crew chief in very broad terms how I want the car to be set up; I don't want to worry my pretty little head about arcane subjects like bump height, shock settings, camber, etc. The only thing realistic car settings do for me is offer up the ability for me to make things worse. In fact, even in F1 2010 I think that there are places where too much is left to me to do. I was racing at Spa when, as is the norm for that track, it started to rain. The crew chief called me in for my required pit stop. I thought for sure that I would be fitted with either intermediate or full wet tires. Nope. I entered the pits with the option slicks and left with the hard slicks. I spun off of the wet track on the next lap. Apparently I was supposed to manage an on-screen menu to tell him what he should have already known: I NEED RAIN TIRES!
An odd thing about the difficulty settings and pit stops is that the settings don't seem to do what I think they should do. I don't know if this is a bug or if it is by design, but it happens in both the PC and Xbox versions. I configured the settings to make the pit stop entries and exits fully manual. All that seems to change is my control over the accelerator. Even on full manual, I found that I had no steering input when entering or exiting the pit lane. It's not a big deal, but it points to some of the confusion that can arise when the user selected options are pared down to a level that attempts to straddle between infantile and sophisticated.
As anyone that is even passingly familiar with Formula 1 can tell you, the actual racing is only part of the overall experience. With annual budgets measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars and more millions to be won or lost with each pass on the track, with driver's egos reaching stratospheric heights even before reaching the level of national, or in some cases, international hero worship, and with millions upon millions of rabid fans, it's not surprising that there is something akin to a circus environment when Formula 1 comes to town. It's a traveling world all its own. There is pageantry, there is tradition, there is stress, there is a microscopic focus on each and every word or action, there is scandal, and there is intrigue. And, most critically of all, there are rules. Hundreds and hundreds of rules. There are hundreds of rules about how the cars can be designed. There are an equal number of racing rules. And, also unsurprisingly, there are politics. One wrong word uttered in an interview can have international repercussions.
Arguably, a developer could make a pretty decent Formula 1 game simply by concentrating just on the mechanics of the racing. Codemasters takes a different approach and attempts to capture some of the environment as well. You start your “career” in F1 2010 as the subject of a press interview. The reporter (who looks suspiciously like the very hot Sabine from Top Gear) asks you a number of questions, each of which will ultimately end up as settings for your profile. You are then introduced to your agent. She will help you manage your team contracts and the like. She's a bit clingy – you can't go back to your motor home without her being there. Out in the paddock, you will find reporters waiting for you. This is all eye candy, of course, intended to spice up the menu selections, but it's a nice touch. Once in the car you will see your race engineer waiting patiently at the side of your car waiting for you to decide you're ready to go. He will also have the team set up the car the way you'd like it. Again, these things could all be done through menus, but the interactive 3D way of doing it adds to the experience.
This feeling of being part of something larger than just you in your car carries through into the race. Your race engineer will, sometimes annoyingly, encourage you to race just a little harder. He will warn you of things like the loss of grip your tires will suffer as a result of being clad in gravel. He doesn't scold you for getting the tires in the gravel in the first place, though, which is nice. I did notice that he can be wrong at times. He will often tell me that a car that I'm trying not to run into is only five seconds ahead of me. Five seconds?? I'm right behind him! He's also sometimes confused about my actual position in the race; it's odd to be told that I've dropped to third place when I've been there for two laps. Helpfully, he's the first to tell me that I have violated a rule. Sometimes he's passing along a warning from the race stewards, and sometimes he's tell me that we've been penalized.
The infractions most commonly encountered are cutting corners on the track or causing contact with other cars. It is important to have these rules in order to have some encouragement to drive properly, but as in real life, the actual implementation of enforcement often leaves something to be desired. I've been dinged for cutting corners when all that really happened was a sloppy turn that actually slowed me down rather than give me an unfair advantage. I've been penalized for causing crashes that simply weren't my fault. It can be very frustrating, but at the end of the day it is my responsibility as a driver to avoid situations in which the race officials have the opportunity to misapply an enforcement. In other words, drive aggressively but defensively. If that sounds like it's very hard to do, well, that's because it is. But you're at the pinnacle of motor sports, cry baby! It's supposed to be very hard to do!
As a first attempt at a modern multi-platform Formula 1 game, Codemasters has done an exemplary job with F1 2010. As it stands today, it is very good on the Xbox but is likely to always suffer from a console-esque approach on the PC. There are things that could be done to make the PC version feel more, for want of a better term, PC-ish (detecting the mouse and allowing its use in the menu screens would be a great place to start), but market forces are probably not going to reward a lot of investment in that area. The preponderance of sales are very likely to be on the console side, not on the PC. The hard core PC racer is unlikely to ever be satisfied with it; Codemasters is never going to supplant iRacing when it comes to levels of realism and detail. I contend that they don't need to in order to be successful, though. A few years of refinement should get them much closer to the optimum balance between true simulation and really fun game.