Just over halfway through any given year’s Formula 1 season means just one thing: it is the start of “Silly Season,” the time during which rumors of driver team changes and contract negotiations fly through the air like so much pollen. For the last few years, though, the mid-season has also been marked by a new annual event: the newest release in Codemaster’s F1 201* series of Formula 1 simulations. Note that I use the word “simulation” advisedly; early iterations in the series could more aptly have been described as “games,” but arguably Codemasters has earned a qualified entry into the realm of simulations with F1 2012.
I suppose I should elaborate on that statement as I can hear the howls of protest from the iRacing set from here. There has always been, and always will be, a gray area sitting between obvious arcade-style games on one end of the spectrum and very high-fidelity simulations on the other. Codemaster’s F1 series has always lived in that gray area to some degree, but has incrementally moved from leaning-arcade to leaning-simulation over the history of its annual releases. To cut to the chase, while there are still many aspects that are arcade-ish in that they simplify things for the player, there are others where the F1 series actually does more to provide a feel for the entirety of the F1 racing experience than the most sophisticated driving simulator.
Digging deeper, I must now expound on that statement as well. It is important to know that the full Formula 1 experience is far more than simply a collection of races. As with many top-tier sports, Formula 1 is more of a lifestyle than it is a racing series. There are team rivalries, there are driver rivalries, there are constant accusations of cheating, there is constant cheating, there are protests and penalties that can make or break an entire season, and there is a lot, a WHOLE lot, of money at stake. Not everyone will agree, but I believe that a true simulation of the Formula 1 experience has to include at least some of those facets. This too is an area where Codemasters has consistently improved through the years.
But here’s the thing: Formula 1 is complicated. Again risking howls of protest, I contend that there is far more complexity in both technology and driving strategy/tactics in Formula 1 than can be found in any other racing series. Getting the car setup and race strategy right is far more difficult than in Nascar, for example, and arguably far more critical. I will stifle any objections to that claim with one simple word: rain. F1 races in the rain; Nascar does not. I could also quite easily add "tire management" to that argument. Most racing series require a driver to manage tire wear, but other than IndyCar, there are few notable examples where teams have to manage the use of disparate tire compounds during the race weekend. On the technology side, F1 has additional complexities in the form of the KERS (basically a 7-second boost afforded by a big battery and electric motor-generator) and DRS (a method by which the driver, under certain conditions, can remove the majority of wing-provided downforce from the car) which will drastically affect the competitiveness of the car.
I will flesh out that contention later, but for now I need to discuss the question of approachability.
Because of the complex nature of Formula 1 racing, the F1 series of games has been somewhat daunting to players that aren’t familiar with the technical aspects of the real-world equivalent. With F1 2012, Codemasters takes a stab at trying something along the lines of a Call of Duty tutorial called the Young Driver Test. In other words, first-time players are pushed into a tutorial that doesn’t seem like it’s a tutorial. It’s not all that unrealistic, of course: it’s hard to imagine an F1 team that would put an untested driver in a multi-million dollar car and say, “Here ya go, have a good race!” That said, Codemasters had to walk a fine line between getting a new player up to speed (so to speak) without insulting the intelligence of, or boring to tears, veteran drivers. The results of the test are graded, and while you can quit at any time and go right into picking a team to start your career with, finishing the test/tutorial with good results will broaden the number and quality of teams from which to choose. All in all, I thought the driver test was cleverly thought out and well implemented.
Once through the driver testing/training and team selection, F1 2012 offers the same Career mode as in previous versions, but new for 2012 are a couple of other ways to race. First, and in this writer’s opinion the better of the two, is Champions Mode. There are six past season champions currently racing in 2012 and Champions Mode pits (heh!) you against each of them in different racing scenarios. The first of these challenges places the player in a Lotus car with fresh tires, three laps from the end of the race. The other Lotus driver, Kimi Raikkonen, is a few positions ahead in 7th place, but is struggling for grip with worn tires. The challenge is to catch and pass Kimi before the end of the race. There are different scenarios for each of the six champions.
The Kimi challenge was a where I found a perfect example of the strategic and tactical complexity of F1. I caught up with him early in the final lap. At one point, I could have passed him but decided not to at that moment. The reason was that we were just about to the point on the track where the determination of whether or not I would be allowed to use my DRS system was coming up. Had I passed him prior to that spot, he would have benefited from the ability to gain a speed advantage over me and surely would have passed me at the end of the long straight. From there on it would have been very difficult to get back around him. Instead, I held back long enough to allow him to be in the lead at the DRS detection point and thus was able to keep the DRS advantage for myself. While this is an example of a tactical measure, in this scenario Kimi himself fell prey to a strategic blunder - staying too long on a set of tires ended up costing him the loss of position to what will always be every driver’s number one rival: his teammate.
Since I’m already on the subject of the complexity of tire management, I will interject an example of another enhancement in F1 2012. This year, rain is more accurately modeled. By that I mean that it does not automatically start raining at the same time all the way around the track. It is not uncommon at some of the longer tracks to have a veritable downpour at one part of the track and clear, dry track at another. Obviously, this makes the decision regarding when (or if) to go to intermediate or full-wet rain tires quite critical. In fact, the second champion challenge presents you with exactly this scenario. You are three laps from the end of the race, and it’s looking like it will soon rain. You have opted to tough it out and try to finish the race on slicks, while Lewis Hamilton, currently running fourteen seconds behind you, has put on rain tires. Your challenge is to keep him from passing you by the end of the race. As the rain falls harder and harder, this becomes increasingly difficult. Note that these are canned scenarios, but the very same things can happen in actual races when you will have to make these decisions for yourself. And it’s not like you can pull over while you noodle it - you still have to drive the car!
Another mode is Season Challenge. This mode creates something of a “mini-Season” with ten races of five laps each. As the season progresses, you select another driver as your rival. Beat that driver in 2 out of 3 races and you can immediately shift into his team. This is a quick way to move from slower to faster teams, and it does offer up a goal other than winning the races, but for some reason it didn’t really appeal to me.
That said, this mode is appealing for someone with a little free time that is looking to squeeze in more than a single weekend race but not willing to commit to the length of a complete racing season. This mode, just like Champions Mode, is not for the newcomer. In Season Challenge mode, there are no practice laps and only a single lap of qualifying - to succeed in this type of race, it is essential that the driver already know the track and the strengths/weaknesses of the chosen car. Five laps does not allow a lot of time for setting up passes, either, so the racing might get a little rougher and most of the strategy and tactical awareness that is at the heart of F1 racing is cast aside.
Which brings up the topic of car damage and driving penalties. The Codemasters F1 series has always been pretty forgiving when it comes to car contact with other racers and/or fixed assets on the track which in turn supported a more aggressive racing style. The damage model does not seem to have changed appreciably, but it does seem much easier to get awarded a driving penalty from the race stewards this time around. This is definitely a nod to realism (in Formula 1, both the cars and the driver’s egos are notoriously brittle), but it will vastly increase the difficulty level for newer drivers. That said, the penalties are often applied post-race, so they really only matter when racing in a career/season mode.
Part of the reason that I did not find myself testing the damage limits of my car in head-to-head battles with walls and other staunchly immobile objects may be down to the improvements in the driving physics and controllability of the cars. This might just be me getting better (odds are against that), but I didn’t seem as prone to over-controlling the car and getting into the pattern of Driver Induced Oscillations that have so plagued me in the past. Additionally, the cars didn’t seem to spin quite as easily. That isn’t to say that they won’t; rather, it seemed that there was a bit more physical grip in the tires and that I could sometimes “save” a spin in the way that you would expect. An interesting experiment I performed was opening the DRS wing while in a high speed turn to see what would happen. As expected, in most cases that caused an immediate spin as all of the downforce came off of the back tires, but in more gentle turns I got more of a controllable tire slide, replete with skidding sounds and smoke coming from the tires. This improved drivability went a long way towards addressing one of the earlier weaknesses of the F! games. Notably, though, the 1:53 lap that I used to be able to get at Spa was no longer attainable; I could do no better than 1:55’s. Perhaps it was the new model placing more emphasis on smooth handling of the car, or maybe it was that I’m a year older and slower. In any event, it felt better.
The challenge with annual releases of games like this is to justify the $50 outlay with more than just updated team rosters. For the third year in a row, Codemasters has met that challenge with front-to-back, top-to-bottom improvements throughout the entire game. Better driving physics, more hand-holding for new players struggling to come to grips with a complex racing series, and more options for game play have upped the bar to a degree that warrants picking up F2012 even if you have 2010 and 2011 already on the shelf.