When F1 2010 released on PS3 last year, it was a revelation. Codemasters breathed new life into the creaky racing genre — earning critical and commercial success at the same time.
In a way, F1 2011 is a victim of its predecessor's success. Make no mistake, this is the same staggeringly precise game at heart. But instead of taking a leap forward, it's settled for more of a stagger. What is it that they say, 'evolution rather than revolution'?
Perhaps the most notable changes — for those that spent numerous hours with F1 2010 — are the subtle tweaks to the handling. Cars feel much weightier at high-speeds, meaning handling is less twitchy and subsequently more authentic. Improved suspension means that vehicles handle better at low speeds too, which makes crunching into corners that bit more manageable.
Last year we opened our F1 2010 review admitting we'd never driven a Formula One car, and unfortunately that hasn't changed since. Subsequently, we can't really speak for the reality of F1 2011, but it does feel exactly as you'd expect it to. Reaching top-speeds is a white-knuckle inducing experience, as the aerodynamic features of the vehicle drive it into the ground.
The authenticity of the racing experience makes F1 2011 a real challenge. It will take serious investment before you feel comfortable racing on the game's standard handling model, and significantly longer before you consider turning all of the assists off. The game's joy, therefore, lies in its learning curve — and if you're the type of player that has both the patience and the will-power to invest in it, you will be richly rewarded here.
Unfortunately that learning curve can be a bit too steep at times. While the game gives you the option to turn assists on and off as you please, we found it difficult to strike an appropriate balance between the game's lower and middle tier handling settings. On 'Easy' the experience is far too automatic, while on 'Medium' it's not automatic enough. The disparity between the game's assist settings needlessly raise the barrier of entry, and will leave newcomers haplessly searching for the right balance while they settle into the game.
The learning curve is not helped by F1 2011's ruthless AI. Opponents are more adaptive and aggressive, meaning you'll be punished for even the slightest mistakes. The game demands a methodical pacing therefore, with podiums not expected from the off-set. This is a much more complex racer than others on the market, with early career objectives indicating that. When finishing in 16th prompts screams of joy, you know you're in for a challenge.
Thankfully the opponent AI can be dialled down a touch, but like the handling settings, the game feels too simplistic on Easy and yet too challenging on Medium. It doesn't quite strike that all important middle ground between casual and challenging, again meaning you'll need to invest to get the most out of the game.
F1 2011 boasts 19 tracks from the current Formula One season. That includes the new Buddh International Circuit in India. You'll need to learn each of these courses if you want to compete on the higher difficulties. Braking on a corner intended to take advantage of the downforce on your vehicle will result in you being obliterated by the game's AI, so you not only need to know a variety of racing techniques but also when to take advantage of them. Your first podium in F1 2011 rewards you with a silver PlayStation Network trophy. In any other game you'd probably get nothing.
But the racing itself isn't the only strategical component of F1 2011. The game now features a full race weekend mode, and the three practice sessions that come with it, so you'll need to carefully pick your tyres in order qualify well and ensure you've got the right wheels for the race itself. This, of course, involves monitoring weather and taking calculated risks. You also need to be aware of the condition of your car. Hitting grass and debris will lessen the grip of your vehicle, while shunting into opponents will damage your car.
Also new to F1 2011 this year is the KERS and DRS systems. KERS provides a mild power-boost while DRS reduces the angle of the vehicle's rear-wing, improving dynamics and increasing speed. Neither feature is particularly well explained by the game, and that will leave non-F1 nuts flabbergasted as to the best way to benefit from them. Even when you fully understand how to take advantage of the features, the implications are minimal.
Multiplayer's been increased to 16-players, with eight additional bot players included to create the illusion of a full-pack. The game also boasts c0-operative play, where two-players can compete on the same team. This feature is neat because it introduces the 'co-opetition' dynamic that's become popular in other co-op titles, as you work together towards success in the constructor's cup while competing for the driver's title.
In single-player, the career mode is functional but flat. Codemasters' nifty menus return, allowing you to scan e-mails and manage events from the comfort of your team trailer. It all feels a bit 'Sports Game 101', as you start out driving for one of the lesser racing teams before signing up for bigger and better contracts as your status improves. Overused cut-scenes and a general lack of snappiness to the presentation leaves the whole thing feeling a bit unfulfilling, even if it does get the job done.
Presentation too lacks the sheen of Codemasters other games. It's cool that you can sit in your car before a race and watch your team's engineers tweak the vehicle, but with poor animation and downright ugly character models the intentionally visceral effect can feel a bit contrived. Similarly, the game itself looks shoddy when stacked against the silky smooth DiRT 3. Car models lack aliasing and contain some surprisingly poor textures. Tracks too lack detail. They are solid representations of their real-life counter-parts, but are clearly designed with the aid of motion blur in mind. At top speed the back-drops look great, but under further investigation they look basic.
Thankfully the game looks staggering at high-speed, with a great sense of speed captured using lavish implementation of motion blur and some great sound design. Pumping through the gears genuinely feels like a frightening experience, as you blitz through straights with unparalleled speed.
F1 2011 is a draining and visceral experience. Those with the willpower to learn its nuances will find a game tense, challenging and ultimately extremely satisfying. F1 2011 doesn't always find the right balance, resulting in a steep learning curve for newcomers. But stick with it and you'll be rewarded. The game demands you overlook some aspects of its presentation — environments can look grubby under inspection, and car models too are disappointingly rendered. But the experience all comes together when you're blitzing down a long straight, engines roaring in your ears and scenery blaring by.
It's not a perfect evolution from F1 2010, but it's an evolution none the less. And while F1 2011 doesn't have the advantage of being a break-out success like its predecessor, it's still a fine racing game.