Formula 1 by Codemasters: An Avoidable Car Crash

On Thursday 31st July 2014, the Formula One gaming world finally saw a blog post appear from Codemasters announcing their F1 2014 title, but with every downward scroll of the mouse, excitement turned to apprehension, then to despondency…

Perhaps the most surprising announcement of all was that F1 2014 will be released on the ageing PS3 and Xbox 360; but, unlike most, I don’t really have too much of a problem with that. Financially, it is 100% the correct decision; F1 2013 didn’t exactly have a massive impact on the industry in terms of sales, so releasing it solely on PS4 and Xbox One – which only populate the living rooms of a privileged few – would only have further limited sales. As one of the aforementioned few, however, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed by their decision to overlook the new generation hardware for another year.

Codemasters have had the series since 2009, with the Wii version of that year – whilst pure arcade cheese – actually being really enjoyable and a lot of fun. It benefits from the weird niche that Nintendo created with its motion-sensor-dependent console, and my family will still to this day happily pick it up and play while at the same time remaining oblivious to the existence of 2010 and beyond. That first outing (2010) on the then-current generation of serious gaming equipment was, with hindsight, a bitter disappointment glossed over by the longing of F1 nerds like me who had been without a new title for four years. Loading up the game for the first time and jumping straight into Robert Kubica’s yellow Renault at Silverstone was both exhilarating and refreshing after decades of repeating the 2006 World Championship over and over again. However, after a blissful day or two, the cracks started to appear and I had an ever-increasing desire to drive a Super Aguri (remember them?) again.

The user interface, having mimicked what you saw on television for years was replaced with something remarkably similar to a 1990s touring car game; the bright colours of the F1 paddock were washed out to levels that made even the sunniest race weekend look like a tropical thunderstorm, and in qualifying, the times set by your opposition were game-breakingly unrelated to their actions on track – Vettel certainly never got pole position by being held up by HRT lapping four seconds off the pace in real life! That’s not to say that the game was terrible, as that’d be disingenuous to Codemasters; despite its failings there was some real promise, but it wasn’t to be found offline.

A recurring and hugely problematic theme of Codies’ Formula One games has been the ease with which pretty much any car can win when driven by the player on even the hardest difficulty setting. I accept that I am not the norm in terms of speed, but at the same time I am by no means the fastest in the world. Every year, rather than making the AI more competitive for those of us who are too quick for it and find the career mode dull unless we intentionally handicap ourselves (even with the gamepad), they have strived to create easier and more accessible levels of difficulty. How hard can it be to make the non-player drivers go a second or two faster per lap? Online though, and all four games (2010-2013) come alive when you’re finally pitted against drivers capable of racing with you. Codemasters have definitely hit on a winner in that respect, but that doesn’t take away from the numerous misgivings of a game where you can’t enjoy yourself nearly as much as you should on your lonesome.

Another bugbear regarding the current handling of the F1 series is the misrepresentation of new features, such as the ability to move teams in the middle of the season (2011) when that had already existed since the inception of a career mode seven years prior; not to mention that the 2015 version will be coming out earlier in the season being touted as new – Formula One 2001 (PS2) was released on the 20th April of that year and it used to be unheard of for the game to be released beyond July. Amusingly, most of the older F1 titles were already in the shops by the time of the year that Codemasters finally announced 2014. Even the re-introduction of the Safety Car (last seen in Psygnosis’ Formula One 1999) wasn’t without its problems, with restarts locked into single-file boredom where it’s impossible to move up a place.

Add to that the almost insulting levels of obviousness with regards to the realisation that each iteration is just an inconsequential update of the previous release (two years to not fix a well-known bug where a cone floats in mid-air at turn one of the Nurburgring springs to mind). As well as the constant and seemingly unrelenting yearly removal of features that helped make the experience more immersive, you begin to realise that, despite the end product in 2010 being (in many respects) a step backwards from what we had before, instead of improving they’re actually travelling in entirely the wrong direction. To name but a few: two-player offline championship (2011), dedicated online servers (2010), all three practice sessions (2012), fewer race distance options (2012), complete F1 World Championship as real-life driver (2011), and the discontinuing of Classic Mode (2013). The whole thing screams of laziness, and every year I hate myself for not being strong enough to just say, “No. This time I’m not going to buy it!”.

An example of what I mean comes handily in the spherical shape of football; it’s unheard of for EA to downsize the games and remove features on their ever-expanding FIFA franchise. So why do Codemasters seem to think that this is an acceptable way to go about their business? John Smith wouldn’t stand for it if his latest copy of FIFA were the same as the year before but with fewer features (he’d go and buy an alternative footie game), so why do I have to put up with it just because I like a different sport? It’s simply frustrating.

Perhaps that’s where the problem lies – competition. For almost a decade EA had to fight off Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer titles and won, ensuring that FIFA could not just happily re-release the same game with new players each year – which is ostensibly what’s happened with Formula One since 2010. It’s not even as if it’s unheard of for there to be more than one officially licensed F1 product released at the same time; at the turn of the millennium there were at least two or three different versions you could pick up, keeping competitors on their toes. The closest Codies have come to a direct comparison have been the limited creations in Gran Turismo 5 and 6, with the general consensus being that the 2010 Ferrari in GT5 and the 1985 Lotus 97T in GT6 are far superior to their respective equivalents in F1 2010 and F1 2013’s Classic Mode.

After five years without a game in the franchise, Milestone brought out MotoGP 2013 on the PS3 and Xbox 360 – a title which Codemasters would be wise to take note from for their future F1 instalments. For those of you not up to speed on the world of motorcycling’s premier class, there is Moto GP – where the likes of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo ply their trade – but part of the travelling circus of the main event are also Moto2 and Moto3. In MotoGP 2013, your career mode does not start at the pinnacle, but in Moto3 where you have to make a name for yourself by beating your teammates and surpassing performance targets, only then do you find yourself straddling a top-tier machine between your legs. What you may be aware of is that Formula One also has a system similar to this in the form of GP2 and GP3, so there really is no excuse for Codemasters not to take full advantage of this to enhance the career system set up in 2004 by Liverpool Studios and neutered by Codies in 2010.

Even without added classes to create more depth to the limited scope a single series racing franchise provides, a return to the time-honoured fashion put in place on the PS2 would not go amiss. To avoid boredom, players were always able to swap teams several times in a season depending on their results, being contracted as the number-one driver as opposed to number two actually meant something, and there was always the option of test driver for those wishing to rise through the ranks at a more rapid pace. Granted, testing is banned in the modern world of Formula One but third drivers still exist and they still participate on Friday morning practice, or at least they would if Codemasters hadn’t dropped the “full” race weekend down to one practice session before qualifying.

What I’d like to see in F1 2014 is a return to immersion in the world of Formula One. This year drivers now choose their own numbers, as opposed to the time-honoured tradition of having them assigned based on what team they drive for or, more recently, where their team finished in the championship in the previous year. In MotoGP, this has been the case for a while and the games mimic that; as long as the number isn’t in use by a real-life driver, the player can pick that for himself. I’d also welcome a return to the paddock style of their early efforts; copying Codemasters has worked a treat for Milestone with MotoGP and players of the F1 games still aren’t sure why that was replaced with a soulless wind tunnel in the first place.

Among others, formation laps, podium celebrations, interactive pit stops, and unique player avatars are all optional inclusions that have happily existed before in Formula One titles. None of these have ever detracted from the experience in any way shape or form; if a player doesn’t want to use it you can simply turn it off, like traction control and ABS.

Despite all my negativity towards Codemasters’ handling of the sport, with not too long before the next instalment comes out, I will still mindlessly await the release date when my fellow racers and I are forced to purchase Formula One 2014 out of necessity. I just hope that, this time, we’ll be greeted by a product worthy of levying a £40+ price tag as opposed to a game of great online competition that sadly lacks in features and capability when you’re not wired up to the World Wide Web. Fingers crossed!

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