Fear not, lovers of Formula 1; you no longer need to sit on the sofa holding an imaginary steering wheel between your hands at arm’s length, screaming NEEEEYYYOOOWWWW as you throw your body left and right, in order to pretend that you’re in the thick of this year’s action in the comfort of your own home. This year’s official vide-yo-game is here! And the good news is, it’s a goodun. Hurrah!
As you would hope for the official title, all licensing is present and correct in a bid for the most authentic experience possible. All the right drivers, all the right cars, all the right teams, all the right tracks… and, of course, all the right advertising. With all those billboards, banners and logos, it’s surprising there’s enough room on the road for the cars, really. They’re probably only allowed in front of the cameras at all because the cars themselves are plastered with company and product names. I remember looking behind me during one race to see how close the nearest car was and, after a brief glance at my rear wing, having a sudden hankering for Sensodyne toothpaste.
Anyway, although it can feel a little like taking place in the middle of a capitalist dystopia, the whole thing nonetheless delivers an experience just about as close to the real thing as you could get without actually taking tight corners at terrifying speeds in a real car. There’s an effort to strengthen this impression still further if you opt for the career mode, where you create your own driver (you can name him and decide his nationality, but you’re limited to a fairly small selection of faces) and immediately begin competing with the big boys.
Even on the lower difficulty settings, getting a top position isn’t nearly as easy as your standard racing game (which is realistic if nothing else). Interestingly, however, different teams have different expectations for you; and as a newbie, you’re not expected to begin by winning every race, or even to come second. You’ll also develop (read: be assigned) rivalries with other drivers, your aim being to perform better than them over the season. You have good incentive to overachieve in everything you’re asked to do. Not only do you get the satisfaction of a race well raced, you’ll earn more development points with which to improve and upgrade various aspects of your car.
On top of all this, F1 2016 makes a weird effort to include a story of sorts in its career mode. Between races you’ll have (unskippable) conversations with agents and engineers, and listen to voicemails giving you your objectives for the next race. The menu is accessed via a laptop on the table in front of you. Oh yes; between races, you’re in a lounge area by the racetrack in first person, although some wag appears to have superglued your bum to the chair as you can look to your left and right but can’t stand up. And no you can’t sadly, drive the chair around.
They shouldn’t have bothered with all the between-race gumpf, really. Nobody has anything interesting to say, but that’s not what actually bothers me. Now, this isn’t the most stunning-looking game in the world – it doesn’t have the realism wow factor of, say, Forza 6 – but it all looks more than good enough to do the job, and even more importantly, races run nice and smooth. Unfortunately, the character models out of helmets – especially up close, as you see them during the ‘story’ – look pretty freaky. Sort of like (for example) imperfectly crafted androids determined to crush humanity in revenge for their uncomfortably eerie faces.
But never mind all that; what of the actual racing? Petrolheads will be pleased to hear that, yes, it’s absolutely a hardcore F1 simulator if that’s what you want it to be. There are subtle but important differences from car to car, the official tracks are exactly as they should be, and – with the right settings – it’s utterly unforgiving. Turn all assists off, all penalties up to max, and timings to realistic, and you’ll have just as much to worry about as a real F1 driver (though without the money and also, to be fair, without the fear of a fiery death). You’ll need to consider tyre wear, what type of tyre to use, fuel consumption, and a heck of a lot more. You’ll be penalised for cutting the smallest of corners, and too many infractions will see you disqualified. Cars get damaged, and it’s not too difficult to make a bad mistake that instantly counts you out of the race. Yellow flags, safety cars, qualifiers, endurance-testing numbers of laps… the whole shebang.
That said, more casual fans are made to feel welcome too, though even at its most lenient F1 2016 demands discipline. There’s an optional racing line (on by default), and races can be limited to just three laps if you don’t have a whole afternoon spare for a single track. There are braking assists of course, the option to limit and/or turn off penalties and damage, a variety of competencies for the AI… plenty to play with to tweak the difficulty and realism to your liking.
There’s also a championship mode with real-life pros only if you don’t want to play at making somebody up. You can set up your own quick race too but, undoubtedly, the true appeal in this game lies in the online mode. Again, settings can be fiddled with to accommodate various skill levels and play styles. The game offers three rough guides to search. The first has all opponents as ghosts so you can’t crash, with a 3 lap limit. The next allows contact between cars, with a 5 lap limit. The last assigns 25% of a real-life length, and also includes one-shot qualifying. You may find that the host has tweaked things to make it more or less realistic, but generally speaking if you search through one of these filters you know what you’re getting.
I never had trouble finding an online race, and lobbies were usually fairly full; but not once did I manage to find one with the full 22 players. A shame, but racing against others is great fun nonetheless. Well, usually. If you go for a race where cars can crash in to one another then, with a crushing inevitability, there will usually be at least one or two idiots who purposefully smash into you in order to gain positions. The main problem with this is that despite the hankering for realism, the penalties they receive for doing so are of little consequence, and there’s no organised way of reporting this behaviour. Whether or not you encounter this is something of a lottery, albeit one where you have a high chance of winning the booby prize.
What’s the bottom line? It’s fast, it’s fun, and unfortunately online it’s played by other human beings.
Review by Luke Kemp and thanks to Xbox for the review code!