Codemasters is back, and with real assurance. It had seemed for a while that the once racing game experts had fallen off the wagon so to speak, with European rally turning to American X-Games and Formula One lacking the glitz and glamour of its real-life counterpart. Thankfully, the developer seems to be back on track following the much-improved release of the excellent DiRT Rally earlier this year, and now with its seminal F1 series, as well. Codemasters, it seems, has learnt a great deal over the last year or so, and it's taken a leaf out of its own book and sided with authenticity once more.
And it's a much-needed refresh at that. F1 2015 was more than just a little thin on the ground – it felt like daylight robbery, with missing features and modes that would make even Street Fighter V point and snigger. F1 2016, however, has not only put all of the content back in – and rightfully so – but it has dramatically improved every single aspect of the experience to the point that it's nigh-on impossible to mention it all.
Like with DiRT Rally, the team has worked on authenticating the gameplay experience. This is a game which caters almost exclusively to the hardcore F1 fan; it's a real simulator, just the way it should be. If you're unaware of what DRS is (that's drag-reduction system, by the way) or the effect it has and situations in which you can use it, the chances are that this game isn't for you. If you do, however, you're in for a treat.
This is because the game requires you to know these things in order to do well. If you want to compete with the seemingly unstoppable Mercedes duo – or anyone else in the top ten, for that matter – then you better know your tactics and racing line, and you better know your race strategy and communicate it with the engineers at the base. Not being prepared means that on harder difficulties it's a real challenge to compete. And that's good because it's precisely what this motorsport is all about.
In terms of single player content, all of the standard bases are covered here: Time Trial allows you to go about setting the fastest time possible on a track of your choice; Quick Race is, as it so aptly calls itself, a "quick race" alongside AI drivers; and Championship Season allows you to play as an already established real-life driver such as Vettel, Massa, or Button – or anyone else, for that matter – and take them through an entire championship season.
While Classics mode is still absent, it makes up for this with a strong Career mode, having been re-introduced and fleshed out after its conspicuous absence from last year's outing. Here you create your own custom avatar and join a team of your choice – each of which set different objectives for the coming season, with the larger teams demanding far more than the smaller ones. The focus here being the complete experience of being a Formula One driver, which includes the entire weekend of each event. That is, you must complete practice and qualifying sessions as well as the race itself in order to do well, and the developer has done a remarkable job of making it all relevant and satisfying, too.
Practice sessions – by name and by process in prior entries – have traditionally been a chore with little need or reward for taking part in them. This is no longer the case. You can now participate in prepared activities such as qualifying performance tests, tyre-wear evaluations, or track acclimatisation tests in which you work your way through gates to learn the track and develop parts of the car. There are even formation laps in which you must hold formation and drive around the track once with everyone else without overtaking in order to bring your tyres up to heat. (Yes, it really does make a difference.)
Completing these sessions rewards you with research points that you can spend on car improvements. These also become essential in order to compete with the other racers, but, more importantly, they're also part of your expected quota as part of signing on with a team. No longer is the race your sole-emphasis, but the whole experience of being a Formula One driver.
In this sense, F1 2016's career mode provides a real sense of having a... Well, career. And like real-life Formula One, you develop rivalries with other drivers that your team will demand that you win – you can't leave the limelight solely to Hamilton and Rosberg, after all. It's these small details that make the career mode so much more engaging and fulfilling, which is perhaps for the best since you can now continue it for ten whole seasons in a row.
Given that the focus this year is on presentation and authenticity, then, it's a shame that this is also where the game falters on occasions. Between races you spend time at your laptop in the team's hospitality unit where you can keep track of other racers, objectives, rivalries, and team orders. Having recognisable real-life team principles and commentators who settle down to do interviews or indulge in conversation with others around you is a nice touch, but animations can be a little rough. Heads are large while bodies are relatively small, and the dead, lifeless eyes that seemingly move independently of the host are unnerving at best.
Likewise, commentary – provided by real-life pairing David Croft and Anthony Davidson – often sounds far too robotic, like a script, and is so limiting that you'll hear the same things mentioned in exactly the same way before and after every race. It never alters depending on the situation – not even if you manage to take the win on the final corner; instead, you'll hear calmly delivered generic lines such as "well, he was simply the fastest" instead which nullifies the sense of occasion and the emphatic manner by which you just won.
Given that the game wants you to be compelled enough to take part in the whole weekend of racing for every event, it's a shame that more focus wasn't placed on enhancing this section of the game to accommodate it. Now that the team has mastered what happens on the track, we'd like to see them work on presentation some more for next year's probable sequel.
Lastly, it's worth noting that the online modes are decent, with all of the single player modes – bar career – being available to play alongside or against friends and foes alike. There's even the option of a full online championship which you can complete exclusively with those you know, with places filled out with AI drivers if you so choose. If you're looking for a quick drop-in race, however, you may be a little disappointed. Even joining in on pre-made sessions can lead to some elongated wait times for courses to be completed – especially if they're longer races. Once more people are online these wait times will likely be reduced, but even with numerous sessions to choose from, we had some rather long and arduous waits to join in online.
F1 2016 is a Formula One nerd's dream come true, but not without a few small caveats in the presentation department. On the track, though, where it really matters, it's a joy to play with plenty of depth and complexity, and a career mode that's made all the more engrossing by making what happens outside of the race both relevant and meaningful to your career as a Formula One driver.