One of the hardest things to achieve in a yearly franchise is a hook to keep people coming back. It’s true of not only sports games, but the sports themselves – after all, no one wants to invest time into something that stays the same every year. For Formula 1, the answer has been the biggest shake-up in a generation, with new power units, new rules, and new drivers spicing up the action both on and off the track.
So, with such titanic changes in the sport, it stands to reason that F1 2014 should also have undergone an overhaul to mirror this real-life upheaval. Sadly, outside of some fundamental tweaks, this is, in essence, F1 2013 plus a roster update – which itself was only a minor revision of F1 2012.
The cynic among you will already be pointing to the much-touted next-gen debut as the reason for this lack of change, and you would almost certainly be right. With F1 2015 promised to be an early-season release with dynamic updates, its little surprise that development focus has shifted away from this year’s entry. While it’s not unexpected to see some similarity to last year’s game, there’s such a feeling of familiarity here that it’s often hard to work out which title you’re actually playing.
From menu design, to animations, to textures – it’s all from last year’s version, right down to the Career mode which still includes the same generic e-mails from your team’s boss. To make things worse, this edition actually features less content than its 2013 counterpart, with the popular Classics mode getting the chop. What this leaves you with, then, is a game that not only feels overly familiar – but also offers nothing new.
But let’s not do F1 2014 a complete disservice. Last year’s entry was an enjoyable game, and offered the best F1 experience on the market. In that respect, this entry is built upon a solid foundation, and while it is certainly showing its age in places, the gameplay remains enjoyable. The menus are still largely functional, and there are plenty of modes to dig into, with Scenarios, Season Challenge, and weekly RaceNet tests offering variations on the Grand Prix and Career modes.
The key selling point is the new era of Formula 1, and the new technology that has introduced so much controversy over the past year. The biggest change is the introduction of the new power unit, which gives the drivers a lot more torque to play with. The result is a more aggressive acceleration out of corners, and if handled incorrectly, a lot more wheel spin.
It’s in this area that Codemasters has excelled, replicating the real-life challenge of controlling the new power units, even with traction control turned on. There’s now far more skill required when manoeuvring cars out of corners smoothly, and with new brakes in F1 this year, even slowing them down poses a change of tactic. The result is a driving model that feels familiar, but offers a fresh challenge, and that’s sure to be something that fans of the series will be keen to overcome.
So, with all of these changes to the sport and the cars, it’s utterly bizarre that the Young Driver’s Test has been removed this year. While the mode was seen as laborious by some, it gave newcomers a full guide to how the cars handled and the rules, something that would be invaluable in a year where almost everything has changed. In its place is a one lap evaluation around Monza, which basically amounts to you doing a spot of driving, and the game suggesting a difficulty based on your time. It’s neither fun, nor informative – and if anything, it makes it more difficult to get to grips with the new rules.
Get the cars out on the track, though, and things are still enjoyable. The AI remains far too dim-witted to amount any sort of attack outside of DRS zones, and the Safety Car will still spend 99 per cent of its time in the garage, as 22 cars will complete almost every race – but with the increased torque, the cars simply feel more fun to drive. While previous games have felt planted – a by-product of real-life performance – there’s a raw power underneath each car that really challenges you throughout. Each manufacturer also feels distinct: Mercedes are dominant, Williams are speedy in a straight line, and Caterham are fast nowhere.
With a steering wheel and assists turned off, there are very few better racing experiences. Yet, for those without a wheel, F1 2014 could be considered one of the worst experiences yet. Introduced as a refinement for controller players, the cars now feel almost scripted, as if the steering assist has been left on. It’s a weird sensation, and one that's almost inexplicable, ultimately harming the confidence that you have in your car to actually do as you tell it.
Long-time series problems remain, too. The damage model seems to be completely broken this year, with big hits on the front wing causing no damage at all, while the penalty system has become far too lenient – barging another driver into a wall, for example, is deemed acceptable. Moreover, the audio from your engineer is useful to no one, which thankfully is often drowned out by the sound of the new turbo power units.
F1 2014 is also beginning to look dated, and with load times pushing a minute on occasion, the whole package feels decidedly last-gen. New tracks such as Russia and Austria appear impressive at first, but are clearly filled with low resolution textures; there is, of course, a performance limiter on the PS3 which will be overcome next year, but the cars are beginning to take a cartoonish tint, too. Bahrain at night, while featuring an impressive day-to-night transition, looks particularly bad. Add to this the unacceptable issue of the McLaren and the Williams having liveries that haven’t been used since the pre-season tests, and the result is a game that looks rushed.
Yearly franchises always have an element of similarity to them, but with F1 undergoing such seismic technical changes, it feels strange that F1 2014 is so firmly stuck in the past. Underdeveloped, most likely due to the next-gen version coming soon, this game is almost the very definition of a roster update. While it does offer new tracks and successfully replicates the modern F1 experience faithfully, the familiarity and evident lack of fresh ideas is jarring. Simply put, there is very little to recommend in this year’s game. With fewer modes than F1 2013, and with next year’s big update mere months away, this entry finds itself very much stuck on the grid.