Friday, September 30, 2011

F1 2011 Review

F1 2011, developed by Codemasters Birmingham and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Approachable handling, KERS and DRS make for more passing, cooperative online championships are neat, range of driving aids, race and season objectives appropriate for your team, AI tries to avoid accidents
The Not So Good: Not a simulation even with all assists disabled, unrealistic damage on any setting, online lag common with player hosts and high pings
What say you? A fine half-arcade, half-simulation adaptation of the world’s most popular racing series: 7/8

My first exposure to “realistic” PC racing was World Circuit, known as Formula One Grand Prix to the rest of the world. This game simulated Formula 1, the most European of all racing series (short races and few passes, much like soccer with short games and few scores), in all of its polygon glory, with detailed 3-D tracks and realistic handling and setups. It was pretty much awesome. Jump ahead several years and developers later, and the official F1 games are now handled by Codemasters, of
DiRT and GRID fame. Their initial outing (not reviewed here) was received positively, yet there is always room for improvements, notably in the AI and online aspects of the game. Let’s see what the (now) yearly racing game has to offer this lap around the track.

F1 2011 looks like a nice racing game, because it is! It starts with the cars themselves, which look just like their real-life counterparts, down to the individual sponsor stickers that adorn the fast-moving billboards. That said, damage is poor: the bodies of the cars never receive a scratch, while the wings and tires take all of the harm. Also, some of the textures aren’t too crisp up close (even on the highest settings), especially on the driver suits and helmets, but overall the cars are impressive. The tracks are also detailed, with recognizable buildings to assist in driving, and seemingly accurate in their layouts. The rain effects are especially impressive, creating a wet environment where you can’t see a darn thing when trailing behind a pack of cars. Your pit crew is also animated, from inside the garage to pit stops. I was also pleased with the performance of the game, even in the rain, and only experienced the occasional hiccup, a definite plus in a game where the cars are moving so fast. The graphics go a long way towards immersing you in the world of F1. The sound effects are what you would expect: the high-pitch whine of the engines, sliding of the tires when grip is lost, and blunt hits when crashes occur. The very British engineer gives you the occasional advice during the race and a member of the press gives interviews, but this is the only voice work done in the game as there is no race commentary, even when spectating a race. There is only a small collection of voiced names to choose from, unlike previous Codemasters titles, so unless you happen to have the same name as a past F1 champion, you’ll have to stick with “iceman.” Still, F1 2011 delivers a very solid package overall.

The career mode of F1 2011 lets you start in one of the “lesser” teams and work your way up to international man of mystery. During your career, you’ll race the F1 calendar, conduct pointless interviews with the press, bump rivals into the wall, and (thankfully) skip repetitive cutscenes showing you dramatically climbing into your car. You are given specific objectives for each practice, qualifying, and race session, based on the capabilities of your team. Attaining these appropriate goals unlocks better equipment for your car; not exactly realistic, per se, but it gives bad teams something to shoot for. Apart from the career mode are customizable grand prix, where you pick a real driver and a race schedule of your own desire. You can choose from specific percentages for the race length (1 lap, 3 laps, 7 laps, 10%, 20%, 50%, or 100%) and opt for dynamic weather, which, I think, defaults to rain so often just to show off the graphics. You can also choose to enable rules, flags, and tire and fuel use. Further game modes include the proving grounds, where you can upload your fastest lap times to the Internet, or attempt to earn medals in specific track and weather challenges. F1 2011 also has multiplayer, the most notable feature of which is the new cooperative championships: you can a friend pick a team and then race for the constructors’ championship, while also trying to best each other and earn the #1 position on the team and get access to upgrades first. Additional options include quick matches, with qualifying-only, 3-lap, 7-lap, or 20% length events, or custom grand prix where you can decide the rules. F1 2011 uses the much maligned Games for Windows LIVE, which, honestly, is getting less noticeable and consequently less annoying: I input my multiplayer key once and it logs in automatically, no problem. Weird. The multiplayer games only support up to sixteen players and fill out the remainder of the field with AI drivers because a single player hosts the races. This user-induced lag results in the more-than-occasional hiccup in online performance, like the time I was disqualified when the safety car warped into my current position due to lag, or when cars float above the track (playing against drivers in Europe has its disadvantages). Finally, F1 2011 rounds out the package with some humorous achievements, like the one that suggests you play DiRT 3 if you slide the car too much.

F1 2011 puts a good amount of information on your screen: a track map (which can rotate based on your orientation), current running order, car status (damage, temperature, fuel), and arrows to indicate nearby cars. You can also adjust your strategy on the fly, opting for different fuel usage rates to balance horsepower and pit stop frequency or alternative tire compounds. The controls are very typical for a racing game, and force feedback is nothing special, as you get gentle feedback when tires are gripping and curbs are run over. The first thing I did (as a somewhat experienced virtual racer) was disable all of the driving aids (anti-lock brakes and traction control), except for the 3-D racing line as I learned the tracks. I found that the cars in F1 2011 are pretty easy to control, as long as you don’t floor it coming out of the corners: they have good grip and excellent acceleration and braking abilities, and the handling feels like you a controlling a heavier car that cannot simply be whipped around corners with fast, quick turning. This said, I don’t feel that F1 2011 falls on the simulation side of things (trying to appeal to a larger audience, no doubt), even if you turn off all of the aids, as the cars never felt as “twitchy” as I have experienced in similar vehicles in similar games. So as long as you’re willing to give up some realism in the name of drivability, then F1 2011 is a good effort.

A couple of new features have been added to the 2011 Formula 1 season. The first is KERS (yeah, it was used in 2009, but not in game form), which stores energy used during braking. It’s basically a turbo boost that can be used at any point on the track, for seven seconds each lap. The goal is to make passing easier, and I’d say it succeeds, as you can see a subtle yet noticeable increase in acceleration. At first, I thought it was very “gamey” that KERS recharges instantly right at the start-finish line instead of when you brake, but apparently that's how it works in real life: shows what I know. Less dramatic is DRS, which allows you to open your rear wing, therefore decreasing downforce and drag, at specified points along the track. This method of boosting your speed is much less dramatic and it’s restricted to certain places that are not clearly labeled, so I found it much less helpful. Also new is Pirelli, the tire manufacturer: apparently, this alters how the tire wear works in the game, although I did not see any huge difference. You are given the option of using soft “option” tires, hard “prime” tires, or wet tires during practice, qualifying, and the race. There are several color-coded types of each (like red super-soft tires and blue intermediate wet tires, for example) that can be equipped for different track conditions in a strategic manner.

You can opt for simplified or more detailed car setups. The basic version gives you five choices based on weather (from fully dry to fully wet), and I really appreciate the range of quick setups; I’m simply not good enough to need super-specific tweaks to how my car performs. You can, however, adjust around twenty specific values for things like front wing angle, brake balance, ride height, gear ratios, and camber. The damage model in F1 2011 is very unrealistic: while real F1 cars disintegrate with even the slightest contact with a butterfly, a head-on collision with a wall will only damage your wing and possibly a wheel, instead of transferring all that force to other parts of the car like the suspension or body. Even the results of putting the game on the “full” damage setting are disappointing: I rolled the car three times and received no damage whatsoever. Speaking of wrecks, the safety car is now included in the game, which bunches up the pack at a slow pace while debris is cleaned up. If you’d rather not crash, flashbacks have returned, so you can re-start from any point in an instant replay. However, the replays are very limited (only about ten seconds in length), so at lot of the time I forgot to use the flashback until it was too late.

The AI is apparently (didn’t play last year’s version) improved, and overall it provides good competition. The qualifying and race speeds seem to match, negating a problem I’ve seen in numerous racers where the AI is (usually) really fast in qualifying and terrible during a race. The AI tries to avoid accidents and will back off when you “accidently” cut them off as they attempt to pass; I never felt that the AI was ramming into me on purpose, or if they did, it was my fault. This is best seen at the beginning of the race, and their performance is certainly better than a lot of human drivers I've seen online. It is easiest to gain track position in the first thirty seconds of the race when the field is bunched up and the pack goes slowly through the first couple of turns. Typically, I gain a lot (ten or so) of positions on the first lap and then spend the rest of the race holding up the pack behind me while trying to block. You can tell the AI is artificial, as it adheres to the racing line almost all of the time and rarely makes mistakes. Though, one could argue, that the actual drivers in F1 are robotic in nature, too. You have to choose a difficulty setting (instead of the game dynamically adjusting the AI capabilities based on your performance), and I found the middle setting to be a bit too easy and the next highest setting to be a bit too difficult, a common problem when you only have five difficulty options at your disposal instead of a range of percentages. The difficulty setting basically changes when the AI cars brake: the lower the difficulty, the sooner they slow down. Hopefully, most drivers will be able to find an appropriate difficulty setting that’s challenging without being unfair. I’ve noticed some errant behavior, especially during practice or qualifying (slow cars in my way), but for the most part, the AI in F1 2011 is definitely capable.

F1 2011 is a pleasing adaptation of the racing series. This is no simulation as the simplified handling makes the fast cars more approachable to a wider audience, especially when you enable the driving assists. The handling is handled (ha ha!) well, if you don’t mind some concessions for user-friendliness, with a drivable car that never feels totally out of control unless you mash the gas exiting every turn. You are given the option to use one of the quick setups, which work great, or tweak specific aspects of your vehicle. The new additions of KERS and DRS make races more exciting thanks to more passing and an added strategic element regarding their use. The damage is entirely unrealistic and inadequate, even when set to “full”: the car body is always left unscathed and minor (and even some major) contact is never penalized. The use of flashbacks is appreciated to redo the occasional mistake, and the addition of the safety car that bunches up the field during large wrecks is welcome. The AI drivers are good enough, avoiding contact with you can each other, which can make them easy to pass at the beginning of each race. While I’d like to see either a dynamically adjusting difficulty or more options (like a percentage value) to tailor their abilities, they are generally smart and fun to race against. The career mode is interesting as you work your way up to the better teams, and the race objectives are nice goals that give even the terrible teams something to aim for. Multiplayer lets you race up to sixteen players online, but is subject to lag due to high pings and a single client host. The graphics and sound are generally impressive (though wrecks could look better), especially the rain effects. While I’m not sure if F1 2011 offers full value for owners of the first game in the series, it is a polished, enjoyable experience for those looking for a slightly relaxed take on open-wheel racing.