Tuesday, October 04, 2011

It's September 23rd 2010, the F1 draught finally ends following the release of F1 2010 by the Birmingham based Codemasters team. A fine game terrorized by some bad press and a few problems, nevertheless we gave it an 8 due to its innovative approach. It marked the first F1 game ever to include features like the press, car upgrades and a weather system that actually looks any good. Fast-forward 12 months and the cards have changed; Codemasters must now release f1 2011 - the sequel. Pressure tense as one year of additional development time and a strong base makes for high expectations. Have they delivered or is this one to forget? 

F1 2010’s paddock menu is swapped in favor of a more traditional menu with the F1 scene moved to the back – much improved. Gamers upgrading from the 2010 game will notice a new mode called proving grounds. This is nothing more than time trial, still with alien grip, and time attack. Time Attack put you in a pre-determined scenario without any options to alter the playing field. There’re only 6 challenges available right now, suggesting Codemasters doesn't believe in this mode much. 
Therefore career mode and online are still the ballpark this year. Career mode shifts you in the shoes of a beginning F1 driver. With 5 contract offers on the table, it's your job to impress the team and reward them by leaving for the likes of Ferrari or Mclaren. The Addams Family agent is gone and replaced by a neat motor home complimented by all the essentials. Immersion is the key variable this year - adding press clippings and an email system to keep things fresh. A nice move but changes are only skin-deep. Reputation still indicates what teams are interested and the press answers don’t influence the game much. Unfortunately beating a rival still grants you his seat - a silly sequence that hasn't ever occurred in real life. Fortunately drivers pushing beyond their weight can now at least keep the job despite failing to match the reputation points required. Fixes like these ensure that career mode ups last year's attempt despite being nowhere near satisfying. 

The tagline in F1 2011 is: "be the driver, live the life, go compete." The last bit is new this year and underlines the multiplayer side of the game. Multiplayer is divided into three bits: co-op, multiplayer, split-screen.
Split-screen is new this year and allows for a single or series of races together with a friend. Most of the settings are available but unfortunately practice or qualifying sessions aren’t possible. Graphics do take a hit, as does the driving mechanic. 
Therefore the preferred way of racing socially is doing a co-op season. Here you become teammates and have to fight for the top spot within the team. It's an intriguing concept because, while a team performance, in the end only one can win the championship. 
Multiplayer is the same as last year but the talented coders in Birmingham have added a few key differences. Spectator mode is new for people to view any online session while in the lobby. Weirdly this hasn’t converted to single player or works while in the garage. Arguably more important is the ability to add AI cars to complete the field to 24 cars total, of which 16 can be human cars. A much-appreciated improvement as last year races were prone to becoming a quick bore, especially if all other competitors chose to quit after the first corner. 
F1 2011 is definitely much more social and I love what they accomplished. With that said I still avoid public lobbies because it's just not safe out there. 

Enough talk about modes and gizmos. In the end all these options will bring you to one place only: the track. All cars and tracks from the 2011 season are present - including nearly all the official rules, notable exception the 107% rule. Being an avid F1 fan I have watched all races this year and two elements I find especially striking: strategy and these brand new Pirelli boots. So it makes sense to test this game on what matters most: the racing and whether it mimics the 2011 season accurately. To test this I turned off all the aids, put the AI on legend and played with a host of setup changes and cars. My first race started in a Virgin in Australia. Objective: Qualify 20th, finish 18th.

In qualifying I’d managed 10th place, opting for the harder tire in Q3 as pole position was well out of reach.
Starting the game in the Virgin, 29 daunting laps ahead, my race engineer told me to enjoy myself. As the race starts annoyingly haven’t improved this year I opted for the gradual throttle technique to get a clean start, it worked. But then the cars shot past me like I was standing still - 4 places lost. Love the difference KERS makes here! 
On the harder tire I turned the engine to lean mix for a longer stint, the Robin train was soon a fact. I kept P13 until DRS was enabled, took the inside line but Barrichello left me standing. Cursing in my car I decided to turn the engine up and drive more aggressively, spinning up my rear tires, which showed on the indicator. To no avail as cars kept passing me on the straight. I decided to settle and keep the racing line at all times. Lap 9 on the Melbourne straight, Alguersuari opened his DRS and got the run on me, moved a bit to the inside but reluctant to get off the racing line, he braked and fared back in behind me. I had defended a DRS move! 
AI is still a problem in F1 2011. They don’t overtake you or other cars easily. As a result I often see little trains and scrambles of cars, in practice even! Due to the unimpressive AI, personalities don’t come across either. Hamilton isn’t aggressive, nor is Alonso. The leading AI driver often depends on irregularities. So much in fact that I was driving the race of my life in Singapore, in a Mclaren, I was matching the Ferrari’s and red Bull’s in front (4 seconds apart each). Suddenly a group of backmarkers ahead, I passed them and looked in my rear view mirror. Learned I’d passed the usual flock of cars including Virgin and HRT, but who was driving in the middle? Vettel and Alonso. A lap later I’d passed another group of slow moving cars and, as a result, had moved ahead of two other front-runners for the lead of the race! The AI is so bad it ruins the single player game all together, especially on street circuits. On a side note they’re a bit faster. 
Back in Melbourne, on lap 11 I switched tires despite feeling like they had a couple of laps extra in them. The team put option tires on. The extra grip and foresight that they only had to last 6 laps enabled me to push. Turned the engine up and drastically improved lap times - without gaining on my opponents. On my last stint (12 laps) on primes I had to manage the fuel a bit after it dropped from +2 laps to optimal. Driving in P16, with Maldonado well behind, I returned the engine to lean and finished the race tentatively. The team ecstatic! 

The Branson-sponsored team had delivered all their junk parts to the Malaysian GP - as my motorhome flashed the new surroundings, stunning! Alonso walked passed doing an interview, while Virgin engineers prepared the tires for an exciting GP weekend.
Heavy rain was predicted for the race giving me hopes of a strong points finish. 
In practice I’d finished among the top 6, a huge difference from Australia. In sector 1 the AI only manages 0.27s, while I’m easily in the 0.24s. In qualifying all cars just happened to be on the same piece of tarmac, granting me 2nd place as a result. Fortunately AI times are not pre-generated anymore, the nasty side effect being that some drivers just fail to find clean air.
On race day I dared sticking to my dry weather setup despite a 78% chance of rain. Engineer Rob –That’s what I call him- told me I finished in midfield last time out, and that a better result is on the cards - don’t think so. Race start went well retaining my second place. With option tires on I pitted just before they started graining excessively. Clean pit stop and did a longer stint on the harder tire. After 17 laps, 4th place, my engineer told me he expected rain in 15 minutes. 5 minutes later it started to drizzle, increasingly. To stay competitive I needed to pit to inters fairly quickly, a good change from the previous title. Yet even with the wet tires the car was hard to control, I’d later find out that setups play a huge part in the rain. At this point I dropped to P12 and to my surprise the AI was still running on dry tires and nailing lap after lap. It was raining very hard now and the engineer claimed he expected rain in about 5 minutes, yeah right. Two laps later the system apparently decided it was raining, every car pitted for intermediates, only from this point on the surrounding cars started dropping pace. Like often in F1 2011, no car made a mistake or retired from the race. Due to overall misplaced expectations, my dull 19th place, best of the new teams, wasn’t well received by the Virgin execs.

Buy yourself a notebook and write down these little race stories as you go. Before too long you’ll be feeling like an F1 superstar. Experience like an old fox ready for retirement or a youngster winning championships in exciting fashion. Every race has something on offer and afterwards brings back great memories. Helped by excellent inclusions like the safety car, red flags and the improved pit stop system. The cutscenes after sessions is a nice touch but gets repetitive quickly, besides Codemasters still can’t do convincing humans. 
Unfortunately not everything is rewarding on the track. Computer cars for example don’t suffer from tire wear and the penalty system is more prone to mistakes as well. Tires are a precious resource in this year’s game, but that comes with a problem: strategy. There’s no way to determine which, of the available option and prime tires, the team puts on during the pit stops. As a result I’ve seen races ruined because the team put dead-scrubbed tires on, while fresh ones were still available. Lastly the unconvincing AI threatens to ruin the experience all together, especially apparent in longer races.

F1 2011 introduces a new handling model that allows us to catch the car in a slide and feel the weight transfer from side to side. From the first meter it’s apparent that the system works, making the experience much more involving. Driving is either harder or easier depending on the aids that you use. Beginners are provided with a consistent and steady car for a true pick up and play experience. Learning the tracks is still essential but after some effort everyone can be competitive in F1 2011. With the aids turned off handling is more authentic as you’ll feel the car sliding in the fast corners. The traction control setting is the main differentiator here. 
There’re a few problems with this new approach though. Let’s take a look at the timetable from a given session. Almost always the difference between P1 – P18 is just 1.8 seconds. The new teams meanwhile are 3 seconds behind P18 and spread across about 3-tenths. Overall the times are many seconds faster than the real-life equivalent. The timing table seems a relative small issue by itself, and you'd be right, it’s underneath the ashes where it matters the most. What the AI does relatively reveal a lot of flaws frankly that weren't in F1 2010. Let me explain. 
First noticeable hint is the gap between the new-teams and KERS-teams. Clearly the difference here is the 80bhp power boost. In our world the boost technology accounts for about 4-tenths per lap, in F1 2011 it’s a lot more. Having driven all 12 teams I must say that the cornering speed –between slow and fast teams- is actually pretty similar, pinpointing KERS as the obvious differentiator.
All cars drive great, from Renault to Force India. There’re a couple of small differences but all teams share the same characteristics. They oversteer intensely and mostly differ from one another in: acceleration, top speed and probability to spin. As a result every car is pretty well matched, explaining the gap of just 1.8 seconds across the veteran field. It would’ve been nice to experience the frustration from an understeering Lotus. 
Next are the fast lap times that the AI and you can do in F1 2011. Fact is that the grip levels are insane this year. They bite every corner like crazy no matter the conditions of the car or setup. Worn out tires, high fuel, it makes little difference. These cars have too much grip. 
This becomes apparent while using the DRS as well. DRS stall the rear wing for more straight-line speed. It can be deployed freely during practice and qualifying, and only in curtain zones/criteria during the races. The benefit feels just right making it one of the best additions to the game. Unlike real life it’s possible to activate DRS on the exit of corners without spinning off. Just make sure you’ve hit the apex and don’t plank the accelerator too violently. 
In an attempt to lower the grip I’d figured tires would make the difference. Pirelli equals many pit stops and revived the old saying: falling off the cliff. In GP sessions the tire wear is scaled to distance, therefore tires finally feel like a precious resource in the game. In fact I often stayed in just to save a fresh set of option tires. The way you drive does influence the tire wear - by doing consistent laps I managed to exceed the life expectancy with 8 laps before they fell off the cliff completely. Wear makes the cars slide more but it doesn’t actually influence grip much, essentially deleting understeer out of the game’s DNA completely. The instability will last until, suddenly, the cliff is reached resulting in an auto spin in every corner. Not good. 
Setup changes do a decent job in countering instability issues. It’s still underwhelming by excluding important dials like the tire pressure among others. The most important setting is the suspension; firmer suspension equals more stable cars in the game. Wing settings meanwhile don’t transfer well from 2010’s preferred F:3 R:1 settings, instead most should opt for more realistic settings like F:4 R:4 or even F:3 R:5 to keep the back in check. Setups are more important but realism is still out of bounds. Increasing the ride height and softening suspension are logical changes in the rain, yet it actually hurts the performance in F1 2011. Therefore simulator fans still don’t get their money’s worth. 
New in F1 2011 is a system that calculates car failures. Players that abuse the car will be punished more in the shape of failing gears or smoking engines. It’s a wanted feature but doesn’t come into play very often – as in real life this season. Car damage as a result of crashes still looks great but has very little effect on the handling. Navigating corners without a front wing is not a terminal issue, plus the added straight-line speed almost nullifies the loss completely. Remember Webber’s crash in Monza this year? That won’t happen in the game. As a result improved damage physics remains on our wish list for 2012. 
The age old question remains: Is F1 2011 an arcade or a simulator? It’s not a simulator because it doesn’t simulate anything. To test this park your car on the side of the road and keep checking the tire and engine temperatures - they stay exactly the same. In real life the engine would overheat like crazy because it uses wind to cool down, there’re no stationary cooling at all. Most of the car-related events in F1 2011 are scripted, things like a set distance of cold tires, overheating brakes, engine temps, among others. These issues are disconnected from the actual occurrence on the track or input from the player. 
Therefore the game comes closer to an arcade but the rulebook attitude of F1 could scare mainstream racers away in favor of games like Driver San Francisco or Burnout. In our view the handling isn’t better or worse, just different. They opted for a different route, one where oversteer rules and catching the car is possible. It’s fun and feels more authentic, but due to the added grip, this isn’t a clear-cut improvement. As a result I think preferences will differ from person to person, with neither party completely satisfied. Remember: If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.

Gamers whom appreciate face value will find heaps of rewards in F1 2011. The new career looks and feels immersive, easily beating anything similar on the market. We received the PS3 and PC versions from Codemasters and found them differing quite a lot. They do share a few key characteristics. The menu and paddock looks much nicer this year. Each team has a unique motorhome true to real life, with the menu better to operate as well. I also love the new loading screens showing various statistics from previous races. 
However, the difference between both platforms becomes clear when the lights turn green. The PC version (DX11 especially) looks nice and satisfying overall with a few downers. Engineers still look like the undead, and the graphics in the garage appear washed out. More problems come during races. The rubbered racing line looks unconvincing and flashes even on ultra graphic setting. Lightning is much improved and for the first time features no sepia effect coming from the ego engine. The Birmingham team has gone to great lengths in getting the smaller details right. Marbles pick up away from the racing line, clouds change and it’s lovely to see the crowds cheer. Two paper-great features this year: day-night transition and dynamic clouds, only works in part. Day-night transition only affects the Abu Dhabi GP, but, for instance, doesn’t result in a daylight Singapore practice or twilight finish in Australia. Meanwhile dynamic clouds don’t pave the way for half-rain half-dry track conditions, making it a visual change only. Nevertheless F1 2011 is the best-looking F1 game ever made. 
On PS3 it’s an entirely different story. There’s no anti-aliasing and with a resolution of 720p at best, that becomes a problem. Edges of the various objects are always dancing - noticeable despite going over 200 miles per hour. The animated objects look worse than the background flat objectives, with models reminding me of the PS2 era. This isn’t the worst part: the PS3 seems to struggle despite the unconvincing visual presentation. Even gamers whom haven’t seen the PC or 360 versions can’t be fooled into liking it. Unexpectedly even plain text is un-sharp and appears inked. It’s far worse than F1 2010 for the PS3, signaling that this could be a development bug or faulty code rather than the machine’s actual capabilities. 
In terms of audio F1 2011 is perfect. The cars all sound different and very distinctive. Ambience is also top notch with the subtle sounds of the wind and the crowd cheering as you pass the grandstand. The off-throttle diffuser sound isn’t in, but that’s just a very minor complaint.

Let's start with the good news; F1 2011 is an improvement over the 2010 game in many ways. The audiovisual presentation is unmatched and multiplayer adds additional longevity to the series. F1 2011 is more fun by definition as the current F1 season is more thrilling to race in, especially in the longer races, helped by excellent inclusion of the safety car and red flags. 
Handling feels more authentic as well, despite falling well short of what we'd like too see. Ultimately the balance is what hurts the game most. For every feature they added, a couple of problems have come with it. These join the already torrential pool of problems bugging the F1 series, most noticeably the AI. As much as we wanted to like it, F1 2011 isn't the balanced game we were hoping it would be. And for that reason it receives a bit of tough love. 

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