By Brendan Caldwell on May 24th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
RPS was recently in desperate need of somebody who knew a thing or two about Formula One, so they could cover Codemasters’ new browser-based management sim, F1 Online. And since my very favourite palindrome is ‘racecar’, they immediately thought of me. Here’s how I got on.
Luckily, I’m a huge F1 fan. I have a poster of Jensen ‘Chocolate’ Buttons on the back of my bedroom door, which I anoint myself in front of every night. So I was surprised to find that F1 Online differs from the usual framework these games take. Far from being suited up and driving the car from deep within its belly – with that button-filled first-person perspective we all recognise – the races actually take place from a sort of Micro Machines point of view. This is, after all, a management game, but you do still get to race, after a fashion: the player controls their car using the mouse to accelerate, brake and guide the vehicle’s direction. The only time you need to use any other keys is when you want to use your KERS which, as all F1 fans know, is a form of nuclear fusion that boosts the car.
You also need the D key to engage your DRS. In reality, the DRS (or “Driving Really Super”) system works by having a hole through the car, which the driver covers with their knee during the race. On the final straight they can uncover this hole to reduce drag, before stuffing it with an ermine, or perhaps a large guinea pig, to disable the effect. As I say, this is the only reason you need to use the keyboard at all – boosting. The controls are easy enough to grasp that they lend the game an almost Miniclip-like accessibility. You can even turn on braking assist if corners aren’t your strong suit, leaving you to worry only about turning sharply enough (but obviously, breaking assist software is famously frowned-upon by F1 officials).
The races are clever in that they gives you realistic targets to meet. If your car is underpowered compared to the 23 or so other players competing with you, then your own race goal might be to come seventh or fifth, as opposed to expecting everyone to go for gold all the time. It’s quite a cunning but simple way to address the problem of balance in an online game where people are likely to pile time or money into in order to win win win. Other targets are more personal. For instance, competition history is exploited and you might simply be asked to finish ahead of your traditional rival. For example, if playing as Fernando Alonso, your goals might include beating Mark Webber, the man famous for driving a giant can of Red Bull into an innocent signpost. (He was unhurt!)
Leaderboards track both your own best times and those of competitors, while there’s also the option to race against the ghost of your offline opponents, to see exactly where they’re shaving off the seconds.
These relaxed targets plus the simple controls mean the game is definitely easy to pick up, even if you’re not a massive F1 nut like me. And indeed that’s the idea because the races are simply the chocolate around which this game’s peanut (or raison, if you prefer) is situated.
This peanut (or raison) is the management side of things. Because of the way Formula One licensing works, you can’t yet customise or fool around with the official teams, although you can race with them on official F1 tracks if you like. The custom side of things is the more interesting bit. You can create a team from scratch, colouring your car and picking the nationality of the team. I chose a stripy teal-coloured vehicle, with a female driver from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Team Congo being one of the most respected teams in real-life F1, I was sure their luck would rub off on me in-game. And indeed it did.
We went through a few races and before long I had enough money and experience points to begin working on a new engine for my car. The garage screen gives you a rundown of all the parts you can fit, while a separate Team HQ menu allows you to research new components, like front and rear wings. As in reality, these wings reduce drag and also inflict severe psychological horror upon your enemies. These components are researched in a way familiar to Eve Online players, in that they take a certain amount of real-time to finish. The parts take longer to develop as you progress, so the first U-class part you build might only take five minutes, whereas an S-class part could take up to 48 hours. During which time you can engage in single races, time trials, championships – or you can simply log out and leave it to develop while you go about your daily business. For example, you could clean your ears or drink gin. And after twelve hours or so of that, hey presto! A C-class engine.
The Team HQ is also where you’ll construct new buildings and recruit more production staff and crew. Buildings operate as a kind of RTS-like tree, granting perks and abilities. All of which you’ll want to invest in making your car more noisy, which is the most important attribute of any car. This being a free-to-play browser game (all built in Unity) there are the obvious microtransactions for speeding up the acquirement of components or increasing your staff numbers or simply unlocking some new colours and patterns for your car. On the official non-custom side of things there is even the usual megatransaction, in this case unlocking all official teams for you to race with, if you’re so inclined. We’re assured each part or perk will cost in the very low regions of ‘something pence’ with bigger packs of stuff costing something in the single digits. This is all very affordable but sadly unrealistic as we have it on good authority that most Formula One car parts cost at least £15.99.
Despite having at its core an easy-going racing game, there is something overwhelmingly Facebookey about the whole thing. This comes from the MMO-lite management side of things. To its credit, F1 Online is not obnoxious enough to make your car wilt if you don’t take it out for a test drive every twelve hours. However, there are still hooks to draw you back into the game, with that formidable psycho-loop social network games are known for. For example, if you chose to take part in a Championship you commit to taking part in a set amount of races per day. A single championship might include four races over a period of 24 hours, essentially forcing you to make sure you get off the starting grid enough times in a day to keep you investing your points and building your car. All this is not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with Facebook games, except, you know, their existence.
Then again, if you don’t like the build-your-own elements, you can always stick to straight racing with official F1 teams. The ‘game’ part of the game, as it were. In this you drive with the big boys. The Grand Prix and the like. As everyone knows, the Grand Prix is the most controversial and dangerous of races, as many of the cars fall and have to be ‘put down’ as a result. Although this side of things also has a familiar hook. The official teams cycle in sets of three every ten minutes, meaning you may have to wait up to half an hour if there’s a team you’re particularly fond of. Or you can just pay to unlock the team.
All in all, F1 Online seems like a snack for a racing-in-cars enthusiastics like myself. Something to dip in and out of if you’re really keen. It might be a bit of a disappointment to anyone expecting a Foot-to-ball Manager with cars, as it doesn’t seem to have as much depth or longevity as that – but that is why I use the word ‘snack’. Those averse to the tenets of microtransactionism should stay well clear, however, as the design of the management portions of the game borrows heavily from social network upgrade-em-ups.
Then again, as with all F2Ps, the qualifying statement stands: “If you are even vaguely interested, then try it yourself you lazy bum.” It’s in closed beta now. Maybe you can be the next Jensen Buttons. No, wait, whoever his manager is. (I should have know that!)