Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: F1 2010

Platform: PS3 (also on Xbox 360)

Developer: Codemasters

Publisher: Codemasters

# of Players 1 (online 2 - 12)

ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)

Official Site

Score: B-

With Codemasters at the helm and its aptly named EGO Engine powering the game, F1 2010 is a solid racer for fans of the sport or anyone interested in the F1 experience. While it's not quite the perfect blend of simulation and everyman entry-level introduction, it's a decent enough start that bodes well for the future, provided the dev team takes input from the hard core F1 fan in terms of what they want to see and play. Although the game has a novice setting, this definitely isn't one for the more impatient casual crowd nor anyone looking for a step-by-step driving simulator. Screaming sense of speed and mostly fine handling model aside, you're not going to be winning races left and right until you master the tracks, AI craftiness and nearly everything in between.

If you're a big GRID, DIRT or DIRT 2 fan expecting something similar in terms of arcade-like car handling with just the tinyest ounce of sim added, hit the brakes and read on. What's here stays fairly true to F1 rules, so you'll need to toss out what you "expect" the game to play like and maybe read the manual and practice this time out. In fact, one of the loading screens actually recommends hitting the game manual as a tip. Try and play this like any other racer will soon teach you that power-sliding is lousy for tires, trying to pass cars by cutting across corners can cost you your lap times and trying to play this like a NASCAR game will more likely than not get you flagged right off the track if you don't wreck your car first. Instead, you'll need to master a Zen-like concentration that requires perfect timing on acceleration, braking and proper use of the racing line.

All of the game's 19 tracks demand practice runs or time trials so tricky turns can be tested until you can take them at the perfect speed, coming away with great times and not hitting anything. As for actual races, add a pack of mostly intelligent AI drivers all trying to win, a bit of pesky rubber-banding in the mix and the game's challenge increases geometrically. Unless you can take and keep positions as you slowly but surely make your way though the pack (which will take some doing), you'll be doing a lot of losing as you learn. While finishing first is indeed the best possible result, you'll not see the checkered flag until you practice, anticipate and learn from your mistakes.

As in
DIRT 2, the game drops you into the shoes of a rookie driver on the circuit and yes, you get a nice paddock setup that serves as the game's menu. Your trailer here is a far neater home away from home and you even get a helpful female agent who's a bit cold and clinical, but very helpful in guiding your racing career by keeping track of offers from new teams and such. Getting into races or other game modes requires navigating in and outside of the trailer a few game feet and if you haven't played a Codemasters racer in a while (or at all), you might miss actual menus until you get used to what's here.

As to setting up your car, you have the option of a few presets which are generic and work well for novices (at first) or you can tweak a lot more settings yourself, which requires studying the track, weather profile and about every single working part on your vehicle. While this will seem (and in fact, is) extremely daunting, the effort pays off in the form of lower lap times and better overall performance. As noted, this isn't a "jump in and play me" arcade experience nor a Gran Turismo-like car love-fest at all. Codemasters wants to bring you the F1 experience from the point of a new driver and while this RPG-like element needs a bit of tweaking, it works for the most part. In Career mode, post-race you'll need to deal with the press and its questions about your performance. Your answers determine their reportage, which in turn determines haw the public views both you and your current racing team. This isn't as fully fleshed out at it could have been, but it's a nice touch as well as something Codemasters has been playing with over the years in a few of it's other racers.

Visually, most everything is outstandingly detailed and each course is packed to the gills with nearly all you'd expect from an F1 race. F1 purists will notice right off that some things aren't 100 percent accurate to the 2010 season (or F1, as in the case of Silverstone's Moto GP layout, Monaco's tunnel, Monza's infamous Parabolica turn and a few issues with kerbs on certain courses). There are a few frame rate issues on the more detailed courses, but you'll probably only notice this in the amazing replays rather than on the tracks themselves. Night racing is exhilarating yet terrifying even when you've raced those courses multiple times. The lack of working mirrors on the car hurts a lot, as the only way to check behind you is to flip to a reverse view. This is one issue that needs to be changed in future installments, as unless you're on a straight, you'll either wreck your car or lose positions as you flip back and forth to see who's on your tail.

As for the rain effects, they're brilliant and combined with the car handling, make for some of the most tactical racing in the game. In bad or variable weather, tire changes plus your true skills as a driver are tested at every turn. You'll be dealing with limited vision, road surfaces that change as they dry, the occasional AI slip-up and other factors. Still, the game is in no way a true simulation (again, some concessions HAD to be made to make the game accessible to as many as possible), so you F1 fanatics will more than likely grouse about the wet handling not being as realistic as it should be or the driving aids not working as realistically as they should. I'd say cut Codemasters a break until someone brings Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix Legends out on a console with full wheel/pedal support and all the sim-heavy excellence it still does so well.

As for the aural assault, it's absolutely perfect in terms of cars, the assorted track ambiance and other things you'd expect. If you've never raced an F1 game before, yes, the incessant buzzing will either draw you in or have you reaching for cotton balls to stuff in each ear until you grow accustomed to the sound. Me, I've loved that sound since I saw my first race back around 1971 or so, and the fact that the game does such a fantastic job of immersion is to be highly commended. There's no music during racing (thankfully) and replays feature an assortment of mainly light and airy fluff tunes you'd expect. No wailing guitars, alterna-punk or rap screamers blasting your eardrums out. I'd use the word "elegant" here in terms of the sound production, but we don't want you holding that controller with a pinky out.

The multiplayer is online only with up to 12 live players per track, which is actually a great thing in my opinion for a more serious racer such as this, PROVIDED you find the right folks to play with.. Slapping in a split-screen mode, no matter how well done would (in my opinion) hurt the visual quality and possibly the damage modeling, speed and/or frame rate on some of the more complicated courses. This is one game where you absolutely don't want anything stuttering of chopping up as you're deftly trying to take a turn or overtake the AI or a live opponent. As for online play, again, if you can locate the proper group of true F1 fans who want to race against other real-life opponents, you're in for a decent time. Otherwise, expect a few too many dopes who race as if they're playing bumper cars or a Burnout game. Granted, no developer or publisher can control just who plays their games online, so it's going to be a crap shoot if you log on and just jump into ANY race expecting perfect gentlemen to compete with.

As for complaints, the game does have a few bugs and hiccups, particularly the nasty pit stop issue that can cost you a race or three. It's entirely possible to become stuck in the pits and lose positions as the AI's preset lap times help it shoot past you. That AI banding issue also hurts when you happen to be having a great race and suddenly find yourself passed by a car you didn't even think was close to your lap time. While this is indeed a huge pain, it forces you to be as competitive as possible and reminded me of the reverse issue in other racers such as Test Drive Le Mans, where it was possible to lap the AI continuously in any of the 24 hour race modes so that you'd finish laughably ahead of the pack in terms of final times. There's already been one patch, but I'd say the game needs one or two more to address some other issues that still remain.

My silly suggestions would be to keep the AI competitive, but a lot more realistic and fair. Dump the preset lap times and rubber-banding, allow for more realism in terms of AI pitting, occasional wrecks or technical issues with their cars and so forth and so on. Add those working mirrors, TV-style camera replays and absolutely get up to date, flawless CAD data for EVERY course in the next season. Finally, add some sort of "classic" car and track modes (although I'd imagine licensing would be a total pain for much of that process) possibly one that included some of the courses and drivers found in John Fraknenheimer's seminal racing film Grand Prix (still an awesome film to watch). As for "fun" stuff... some sort of Micro Machines mode or top-down camera angle would be a great touch.

Nevertheless, warts and all, it's a good start and one that can only become better as feedback rolls in. I can see some of you F1 fans wanting a much more strict sim geared to your tastes with very little in the way of accessibility outside of some sort of tutorial mode for newbies, but let's look at this from a pure numbers perspective. As long as Codemasters is willing to give both core and casual fans what they want in the same game, some concessions will continue to be made in every racer they do. Granted, there are other racers that cater to sim and arcade players that do a more solid job in a few areas, but those games usually have a wider variety of cars, courses and race types. As a total simulation, F1 2010 needs more time in the shop (and yes, another patch or so), but as a racer that new players can spend time getting into, it succeeds at delivering a lot of what makes F1 such a unique experience.

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