Can you feel it? I can. That’s pressure. Reviewing one of the most popular racing games on the planet carries with it the weight of expectation. But this year, the team at Codemasters Birmingham must also be feeling in a similar way to any embargo-racing journalist as F1 2021 is the first release under the umbrella of gaming giant Electronic Arts.
That means there’s bigger marketing and PR clout – certainly I don’t remember quite so many details dripping out ahead of an F1 game launch before – and a large group of stakeholders looking for a return.
If that wasn’t challenging enough, this year’s official Formula 1 game also includes arguably one of the most daring additions since the UK-based development studio took on the series back in 2010 – a narrative-led feature that melds cinematic moments with on-track tasks.
It’s called Braking Point, and because it’s new and has clearly been a significant investment, this is the lead addition. The big, touted, feature. The reason for buying yet another F1 game. So naturally, let’s start there.
I’ll save the main details such as how it works for our existing hands-on preview of the first hour, and instead, focus on how I felt after completing the story.
Taking me five and a half hours to play through on the ‘hard’ difficulty pre-set, you could look at that statistic and suggest that the story could be longer. Or you could think that because there isn’t a branching plot line that the proceedings will be a bit hollow.
But, and I can’t stress this enough, you need to play it. Don’t watch any cutscenes on YouTube and, crucially, soak up the details.
As you progress through the plight of an up-and-coming racing star in a midfield team, there are slick cinematics and racing challenges that mix punctures with weather changes. The key elements that hook you in, however, are the incidental details.
Your race engineer Jeff Nelson finally shows some form of emotion, your character chatting with interviewer Claire, David Croft and Ant Davidson delivering specific post-race discussions and even emails that are worth reading.
All these provide context, sucking you further into the lore. All that remains now is the long wait until the next F1 game hopefully continues to follow the endearing characters and even the duplicitous Devon Butler.
I wanted more. Not because it’s over too soon, but because the pacing is well judged.
Here’s the big thing about F1 2021, though. Once you’ve ploughed your way through Braking Point, what are you left with?
Well, for one, improvements to the suspension, tyre and damage models. Punctures now look authentic, and more parts of the car can be damaged such as the rear wing. The visual effects for this are turned down when you are playing on a PS4 or Xbox One.
The cars now behave completely differently over larger kerbs, such as the second part of the Variante della Roggia chicane at Monza or Turn 6 of the Baku City Circuit. Thumping these sausages will now, rightly, send your vehicle straight into the opposing gravel trap or wall.
The sound of each engine is now more distinctive too, with more transmission whine and clear reverberations around the walls of street circuits.
Some circuits have also seen an increase in asphalt detail plus some fresh run-off area and kerb detailing. The on-screen HUD is sharper, with more obvious manual ERS use and a futuristic countdown strip when approaching a DRS zone.
Those playing on a new console or high-power PC will be able to experience enhanced lighting effects, more visually appealing rain, smoother frame rates (although seemingly not in replays) and on the PS5 at least, almost-non-existent loading times and DualSense controller haptics.
Initially, all of these on-track improvements will knock you for six. I even enjoyed lapping Sochi Autodrom. Well, almost.
You can put these refined physics and visuals to good use too within the team management My Team mode. New for 2020 and returning here, I suspect this is where most players will spend their time.
I’m happy to report that it’s as engrossing as ever, delivering a deep experience that will suck you in for months on end.
New this year are department events, which throw up tough questions such as should you buy wellbeing areas for team members or allow your second driver to partake in a yoga class. I generally found these to be a throwaway addition.
What is a significant step forward is how practice sessions work, feeding into the research and development process for your vehicle. You can now earn development boosts that help reduce the cost of new parts or play a mini-game entitled ‘Quick Practice’ to let the AI do all the hard graft for you.
We have a detailed video explaining how it works already – but this is a significant step forward for anyone who has recently played an F1 game. The grind is no longer real.
All these detail changes are carried across to the new two-player Driver Career which allows you to play through seasons with a friend online. Never have you been able to control the team management and car development in this way before and it works well.
There is one clear lead host, who sets up the career save and advances the sessions and progress, while the top left of the screen lets you know what menu your co-op partner is currently looking at – in my case, Teflon from TheSixthAxis.
You can select to either be on rival teams – in which case you gather your own cash and development points – or work together in the same team, where everything earned is pooled together. Played like this, you even see your teammate’s custom avatar across the workstation when selecting sessions.
Being able to share the journey with someone on a party chat freshens up what largely remains a similar career experience.
For all the main new features and numerous small tweaks, F1 2021, though, is like one of those swanky bags of Mature Cheddar and Red Onion hand-cooked crisps. Strip away the snazzy nomenclature and artisanal packaging and you’re left with simply Cheese & Onion Walkers in a fancy frock.
Visually, even on a top-end PC or PS5/Xbox Series, there isn’t a giant leap. This is not a new generation of F1 game, rather the current F1 game that runs smoother and features added reflections and luscious grass. I’m hoping for more in 2022.
While I’ve mentioned how different the suspension responds over kerbs, the general response from the handling is very similar to previous iterations. Forgiving with a controller, yet still testing with a wheel, an F2 car and no assists. It’s still weighted towards corner entry understeer and still edging on the side of bland.
My biggest bugbear is the lack of accurate track representations, or rather, updates to circuits that are more than just kerbing and sponsor hoardings. Some of the track outlines are as jagged as a 20-pence-piece and have been this way now for years.
See turn Turn 8 at Australia, Curva Grande at Monza and Blanchimont at Spa-Francorchamps. There’s a sinkhole down the back straight at Yas Marina and a curious set of lumps and bump on the approach to Turn 7 at the Red Bull Ring that makes me feel seasick.
Speaking of tracks, the updated Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is an omission and there are no plans to update it. Which is fine, until you realise MotoGP 21 has the revised layout and that released back in April.
The shorted track layouts seen in F1 games since 2017 are now missing too, as are classic cars – although I’m not crying into my pillow at night about the latter.
Algarve, Imola and the new Jeddah Street Circuit are being added to the game as free updates post-launch, and that will almost certainly remedy some of my complaints in this regard. Plus, these last-minute calendar changes due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic must have had an impact on game development, so I can’t be too critical.
In a similar vein, online gameplay is as competitive as ever, with weekly challenges, leagues and a ranking system. But other than some additional quick-join lobby options for beginners, it’s seemingly identical to F1 2020.
There’s nothing wrong with run-of-the-mill potato-based snacks, but wouldn’t you rather have a Michelin starred meal for your dinner instead?
Scratch beneath the surface and F1 2021 is a large set of small tweaks, all of which are welcome, but none move on the core gameplay in any significant way.
But the big new features are all sure-fire hits. Braking Point has a better plot than most summer blockbuster movies, the facelifted practice sessions, car development and two-player Driver Career add fresh incentive to dip back in and unlike in 2014, the Codemasters team has managed to deliver the game on both old-gen and new-gen hardware upon launch. Bravo.
|Release date||16th July 2021|
|Available platforms||PC (Steam), PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series|
|Version/s tested||PS5 and PC|
|Best played with||Wheel|
Full disclosure: A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.