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Game review: F1 2011

14 Oct 2011

Last year, British developers Codemasters brought the glamour of Formula One racing back to us with F1 2010. After years in limbo, following brief bit of PlayStation 3 exclusivity, we were once again able to experience the thrill of the world’s most prestigious motor racing championship. This year, the same developers are giving us a second bite of the cherry with F1 2011, promising dramatic changes to the gameplay from last year rather than just a seasonal update.

For those unfamiliar with Formula One, the competition features 12 teams, each with two drivers, making a full grid of 24 cars, racing across 19 circuits located all over the world. Points are awarded for finishing a race between first and tenth place. The points count to towards both the driver’s standing in the competition and also towards the constructors’ championship.  

F1 2011 features the 2011 season’s drivers and teams (but not the driver changes that have occurred during the competition), and shuffles the circuits in line with its real-life counterpart, losing the cancelled Bahrain Grand Prix and gaining the new Indian Grand Prix. 

F1 2011 sees the addition of the safety car, which will probably excite purists more than casual players. In races with a length set to at least 20% of the real amount of laps, a major incident will result in the safety car slowing the race until the hazard is clear. Drivers behind the safety car will have to contend with their tyres cooling, whilst those in front, being free to maintain their speed, can in theory gain up to a lap on their slowed opponents. 

Another technical change for the 2011 game is Pirelli replacing Bridgestone as the competition’s tyre supplier. But the main, and most exciting, changes for the 2011 season are the introduction of Drag Reduction Systems (DRS) and Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) to the cars.

The DRS increases straight-line speed by reducing the down-force from the rear wing, the idea being to increase overtaking chances. The DRS is only available during races when the trailing car is within one second of the car in front, and may only be used in designated areas of the circuit, after the first two laps of a race. 

KRS was first used in the 2009 season, but not last year, hence this is the first time gamers have been able to give it a go. The down-low is that the KRS, if fitted (it is an optional system) is another method of delivering an extra boost of power. The science behind KRS is that it stores energy lost by braking in either a mechanical flywheel or via an electrical capacitor or battery. The FIA (the sport’s governing body) have agreed to the system’s use as an example of their environmental awareness. For us it serves to make the game a lot more interesting.

The DRS and KRS systems are game changers that shouldn’t be dismissed. Compared to other motorsport, Formula One is a rather clinical affair. These race cars, arguably the fastest in the world, require a level of precision and discipline that leaves no opportunity for driving by the seat of your pants. As exciting as power-slide may be in Forza or Grand Tourismo, that sort of carry-on is 99% likely to end in tears in Formula One. This means that unless you are a fan of the sport, Formula One video games can be, well, a bit boring.  With DRS and KRS, things become a bit less predictable, especially in qualification where their use is unlimited, adding a whole fresh dynamic to the game.

F1 2011 is an unforgiving game compared to its peers. In order to appeal to both motor racing fans and fans of racing games unfamiliar with temperamental Formula One cars, F1 2011 comes with a host of driver assists. I’d consider the likes of traction control essential for all but the most dedicated drivers, but the braking assist option is taking the hand-holding a little too far, in my opinion. The racing line option is a good driving aid if you are unfamiliar with the tracks, but I’d suggest turning it off after your first season in order to play the game as intended and maintain the challenge. 

The flashback system first seen in Codemasters’ Grid, and featured in last year’s F1 2010, makes its return. Flashback allows players to rewind the race a certain amount of times and try again if they crash. Whilst I can see the appeal in the more fantastical racing games, I don’t believe this sort of second-chance option has any place in Formula One. Admittedly, you don’t have to use it, but the option is still there on the lower difficulty settings. Part of the appeal of the game for me is how one mistake, one moment of over confidence, is all it takes send you to last place. With this grim reality sitting at the back of your mind your racing is kept in check, just as I expect it does for the real-life drivers. In my mind the flashback system negates this little bit of authenticity.  

Real Formula One races are torturous in length, being just over 300km, or around 50 laps, taking roughly an hour and a half per race. I’ve done a full race a few times, and I can tell you it’s pretty gruelling. A 20% race length gives you around 11 laps, which at about 90 seconds each provides players with manageable sixteen and half minutes of racing. Considering that F1 2011 requires your total concentration for the duration of the race, it will still seem like an eternity.  Expect to feel physically drained by the time you get to the chequered flag. 

Each Grand Prix is held over a weekend and consists of a practice session, followed by qualification to determine the starting grid order, and finally race day. Whilst you can skip the practice and qualification, I’d suggest that you don’t as these sessions are invaluable for learning the tracks and testing out the limits of your car.

F1 2011 provides a good digital version of Formula One. Not only have Codemasters delivered a great racing experience, they have also provided many ways in which to test and show off your driving abilities. The main mode is the career mode, with players choosing a team with the aim of being world champion after three race seasons. Next up is Grand Prix mode, where players can pick a driver and race whatever track they want. 

Multiplayer adds a social element to the game. As fun and challenging as the console controlled racers are, you can’t beat playing against real people.  F1 2011 features a very welcome split-screen mode for local two-player races, something that you don’t see as much as you used to. There is also a LAN mode which, for most of us anyway, we will probably never use, but will be handy for LAN party-goers. The most fun to be had in the whole game can be found online. Up to sixteen players can race together in a single race or a full championship competition. The only problem I found with the online element of the game was having to put up with griefers hell-bent on knocking me off the track. Call me a whining newbie, but it’s just not fun being shunted out of the race with no hope of recovering. The best way around this is to look out for like-minded players or stick with those on your friends list. With a good group of players you can have a great time. 

If just tearing around the track on your lonesome is your sort of thing, the proving grounds mode is probably just the thing for you. Players can hone their skills by simply following a ghost car around each of the tracks in the time trial option, or for a more prescribed challenge beat the target times in time attack.  

The big issue for me was the game’s graphics, which seemed to be step down from last year’s F1 2010. I remember F1 2010 blowing me away with a beautiful implementation of Codemasters’ proprietary Ego engine. To check if my memory was failing me, I went back and checked last year’s game. Sure enough, in comparison, F1 2011 lacks the anti-aliasing (a method of blending visual elements) of F1 2010, resulting in those nasty blocky edgings and general lack of perceived definition. 

Without wishing to fuel a flame-filled console war, the reason for the depreciation of graphical prowess between F1 2010 and F1 2011, is because I played F1 2010 on the Xbox 360. As documented by the boffins over at Digital Foundry, there do seem to be some issues with the visuals in the PlayStation 3 version of the game compared to that of the Xbox 360. This reflects badly on the developers rather than the PS3, as we all know what Sony’s machine is capable of.   

For Formula One fans the purchase of F1 2011 is a no-brainer, with the new Indian circuit and updated driver roster being enough to justify a dip in the wallet. Casual players that already own the last game may find it just not worth the investment considering what’s on offer this year. New players put off by the repetitive nature of Formula One, but looking for a more disciplined racer, may with the exciting inclusion of DRS and KRS, find F1 2011 the perfect jumping-in point. It is a shame about the graphics issue, which seems to exclusively be a PlayStation 3 issue, and perhaps worth bearing in mind when checking out the review scores below (what with my review being of the PS3 version of the game). Overall, F1 2011 offers a well-rounded and complete Formula One experience that’s easy to get into but very difficult to master.

Graphics: 6

Gameplay: 9

Sound: 8

Lasting appeal: 8

Overall: 7.5