The rain beats down heavily over Marina Bay. The flood lights are reflected, shimmering in the pools on the tarmac occasionally splashed with colour from the lights of ferris wheel. You’re thrashing through the streets, skating as you hit the puddles, the floor of your V6 turbo-charged hybrid monster scratching against the contours of the tarmac where it rises above the water. The raspy and angry sound of the 600 BHP engine roaring between the concrete barriers and bouncing under the stands as you enter the final chicane. It sounds like a petulant child as you carefully feather the throttle, taking every effort of your concentration not to squirm the misbehaving rear in to the wall, and screams with great freedom as the straight appears and you floor it, feeding petrol and recovered kinetic energy in to one last hurrah before crossing the line and taking the chequered flag… In 14th place.
The changes to Formula One in the real world are finally ready to be properly reflected in the video game franchise from Codemasters. F1 2014 used the last generation engine and for those that played it, it definitely showed its need for an update. Yearly licences will always get to a point where the cross over of technology can betray it. F1 2014 was beset by this on both the gaming front with next-generation consoles and with the motor sport’s own evolution following a massive dynamic shift to more energy efficient vehicles. We previewed F1 2014 last year and you could tell from the games entire demeanour that this wasn’t going to be the game of F1’s past. In a way it was almost a good soft launch or education in to capturing the feel of the new cars.
So we fast forward to this year and F1 2015. A game that is coming DURING the season, which is excellent news. The game has traditionally, and rather annoyingly for Codemasters, launched towards the end of a season rather than other sports titles that precede their competitive starts. And as a bonus, although some may see it as a “thanks for sticking with us last year” present, last years Formula One season will be included along with the 2015 season. So you can dominate as Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes against two different seasons worth of driver lineups.
As you can probably tell by my opening paragraph, the game is tricky. It of course can be watered down with assists but, come on! The sport is deliberately trying to make these cars harder to drive, so go along with it. Like most simulation based games, practice and an appreciation of the learning curve needed to drive a virtual Formula One car is very rewarding. Especially when you see the work that has gone in to making the game stand out on Next-Genertaion hardware.
You could argue that the EGO engine was due a facelift and it has got it. Whilst the Singapore circuit and the changing weather effects are quite obviously for our demonstration benefit, they are a great demonstration. The problem with many racing games, thanks to the realism in the cars and the track, is that the surroundings can suffer from not feeling very alive. But as you drive around Marina Bay in the lashing rain, you actually feel the tinge of fear. You have that worry that the beautiful puddle in front of you that’s majestically reflecting the light from the theme park is going to send you aquaplaning in to the floodlit tyre wall. As you enter the chicane under the grandstand towards the end of the circuit, you come close to where the waters edge is and you wonder if a big crashing wave will come over, through the barriers and on to the track right as you’re hitting the apex. Of course it won’t but that’s the feeling the game can evoke. Your fear and trepidation makes you falter with the intense concentration you need to drive these cars, and they are intense in the wet.
So much work has been done to make the game feel more alive and it’s not just a mechanical device in the gameplay, it’s also an atmospheric one. The new focus on broadcast cameras and new cutscenes, along with the return of Stevenage’s lesser known F1 master, David Croft, brings the game closer to the presentation that EA hit for their games. But this isn’t at the expense of the game or just added colour. If you remember the old F1 games on Playstation, you used to have Murray Walker making occasional quips which after a while grated and annoyed more than pleased. And commentary can quickly date a game. But the branding, the new camera angles, the more graphically televisual approach to things like menu screens, driver selection, etc can really get you in to it. Along with a new race engineer, the game is aesthetically getting quite the facelift, much like the sport.
I operate under a strange bias when it comes to Formula One games as I love the sport and I’ve really enjoyed Codemasters games. F1 2013 was a magnificent package. But I’m also quite demanding now thanks to what has come before it with Project CARS’s wonderful visuals, Driveclub’s amazing environments and the freedom and sense of vehicle character you get with the Forza Horizon games.
Much like current Formula One, your management of your car and fuel is paramount. The control methods on both wheel and controller are easy to use (last year’s pad control wasn’t particularly great). But this heightened drama is being propped up by better AI and the Campaign mode. Picking a driver and playing an entire season with them has been a staple of ALL racing games so it’s good to see it finally appear in F1 2015. There’s the new Pro Championship mode which is for the purists (masochists) to give you the most authentic experience without having to individually turn everything off.
The dynamics of Formula One are changing all the time. For all of the Mercedes dominance, Renault’s failing’s, Red Bull throwing their frustrations at Renault, Bernie Ecclestone making soundbites that would probably dissolve many PR companies and McLaren Honda’s struggle to make their new partnership deliver on the track, it is the narrative behind all of them that grip up to those 2 hours on a Sunday where we live and breath our passion for the sport through our love of the racing on offer.
It’s something that the rule changes have done to give us a more open race and therefore a more interesting narrative. F1 2015 looks on course to give us the solid experience of racing and the drama we crave from the sport. If it’s the evoking of a powerful visual of a rain soaked track in Singapore, the elation of mastering a corner, the bittersweet sadness of seeing Jules Bianchi’s name in the roster from last season or the triumph of winning a race, the early impressions are that F1 2015 has it. Let’s hope it keeps up the pace during its final laps.