Codemasters have straddled the line of “absolutely not a sim but by no means an arcade game either” pretty well over the last couple of years with the F1 license. They’ve never got it perfect though, and the problem of how best to balance approachability while still providing a challenge for dedicated race fans is a difficult one. They want people to be able to get into F1 quickly and easily. For fans of the sport to become fans of the game they need to get used to coaxing the super machines around a track, yet people already versed in racing cars need proper complexity and challenge to keep them interested. The end goal, I think, is to be able to turn the former set of people into the latter, all in one game. Tricky.
This year, along with including all the normal assists and racing line guides, Codemasters have tried to get rookies up to speed as fast as possible by introducing a mandatory Young Driver Test. It’s a selection of tutorials - on track and video - that introduce you to concepts like apexing, DRS (magic boost button), KERS (another magic boost button) and, err, driving in a straight line and braking.
After the hour or so of testing, the bulk of your time will then be in career mode which carries you through 5 seasons of the full race calendar, providing opportunities to move to better teams as you meet your objectives and gain reputation. Because a back of the pack team is never going to actually win a race (if you’ve got the difficulty settings right, anyway) then you’ll be targeted with something like “qualify 16th, finish in 12th” and while it might not sound like you’re aiming for much glory here, it’s a system that really works.
R&D objectives are also given in practice sessions in order to bring mid-season improvements to the car. They’ve been changed slightly from last year in that you have extra criteria to fill instead of just aiming for decent average lap times in a set window. So, something like having to keep the DRS open (go faster but much less rear traction) over 45% of 3 laps, while still maintaining a decent time will reward you with a more efficient DRS in future.
A few changes into how race weekends are structured might irk, however. The most noticeable is the restructure of the “long race weekend”. While in 2011 and in actual F1 there are three practice sessions available, you’re now bafflingly restricted to one, and it’s not clear what this is meant to achieve. To compensate I’ve found myself heading into time trial modes to get my bearing on circuits again, so it doesn’t really affect much, but it’s a strange decision.
Gone too are extended options to configure your race settings. Tyre and fuel simulation are now out of your control - they’re either on or off depending on what length or race you choose. I’m not really sure who these settings will affect - for the most part people who want realism will pick the longer races anyway, but, again, it’s just strange for Codemasters to reduce your options. Why?
Alongside the full career there’s a Season Challenge mode which is a quickfire tour of the highlights of the race calendar: pick a team, do a 1 shot, hot lap qualifying on one of the better tracks, do a short race, then move on. It lasts 10 races and you get offers to move to a better team every few races if you’re completing your objectives.
Then there’s Champions Mode where you have to beat one of the current world champions under a set of conditions, time trials and time attacks with online leaderboards, and then a collection of multiplayer options including co-op championship so you and a friend can take on a whole season as part of the same team. It all culminates in a pretty full package presented with shiny graphics and some excellent sound work (for the most part).
When you get on track, the driving is a little hit and miss - sometimes wandering into disappointing - especially so when you’re pushing the settings to be as authentic as possible. Understeer is a constant problem - the cars feel far too tight at speed with breathing the throttle making too small a difference. Conversely, oversteer barely exists - you can slam the accelerator on without ever feeling like you’ve pushed too much power to the rear as the wheels just refuse to spin. Generally, that back end is staying put unless you’re too aggressive on a kerb, the track’s especially slippery, or if you open the DRS mid corner like a berk. The cars are much more predictable than last year though, and I’d rather it be this way than the random snap-in oversteer that plagued 2011.
Feedback is lacking, unfortunately both through sound and through your wheel of choice. Tyres don’t make a noise when they’re near their limit or when they’re under heavy degradation, leaving you judging both by purely visual clues. It might sound like a minor complaint, but when games do these noises well, they make a big difference. Wheel feedback gets chaotic - on bumpy straights the on-screen wheel is jumping around, but the one in your hands is completely dead. Then, on some long fast curves like in Abu Dhabi, the wheel gets yanked to the side for no particular reason. For the most part, it’s fine if not exceptional, and the fault lies more with the physics not being there to be fed back and wrestled with.
Balance on the cars is never an issue either. You can throw the machines around without any bother - weight distribution just isn’t a factor which is probably why there’s only ever understeer. Brakes do lock up gladly though if you’re a touch too heavy on the pedal, and recovering from that is one of the biggest challenges in the driving model, especially when you introduce one of the new, incredibly annoying features.
Let’s say that you’re heading down the hill at Spa towards Pouhon (it’s a big, fast left turn with a huge run off) and you go in a little too fast. The understeer kicks in and you end up off the track. Now, in any other game you can keep the power down and drag the car back on the track - you lose time because of a bad racing line but not so much because of speed or momentum loss. In F1 2012 though, it starts cutting your engine out until you get back on track, losing your momentum. You’re punished twice by an incredibly artificial rule for no particular reason.
To make matters worse, other gripes have been reported and while I’ve not personally come across them, they’re worth mentioning as I doubt people are lying. There seems to be an issue at the moment with automatic gears causing engines to blow up regularly (!) (and sometimes randomly after using the flashback feature), and there’s also reporting of dodgy net code when you take it online, which is a very serious issue from a game that demands speedy precision. Worse than either of these, complaints carry over from 2011 too: the safety car is rare (but this is probably by design, it’s not exactly fun to be behind), and there’s still no podium to let you bask in your victory. None of this makes much sense, and count heavily against this as an "update" on the previous iteration.
My, I’ve done a lot of complaining. And with good reason. These moans are mostly from stacking it against racing sims, however, and that isn’t what this is trying to achieve. In a way, F1 is providing a racing equivalent of Guitar Hero. If you’re new you can pick away on easy and still feel like a rock/driving star, but as you get better you can nudge the difficulty up and feel a bit more involved, a bit more challenged, and still feel like that star driver. You’re not actually playing something that fully represents that guitar/millions of pounds worth of racing car, but it feels like you’re emulating it to a degree, and that’s all that really matters.
For example, with a G27, load cell pedals, assists off and difficulty set to high; F1 2012 is still very demanding. Punishing, even. In spending a day pushing myself against the lap times it requires, I’ve somehow damaged my right wrist, thumb, and my left ankle. In trying to edge every tenth of a second out of every lap, I’ve pushed my flesh bag past its physical limits and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing it.
But then with all the assists on and a 360 pad attached, the game cools its engine enough that a reluctant, zero-interest chum under “see if you can do this for science” instructions can put in a decent enough lap around Monza. So, if you enjoy F1 as a sport but you don’t really have all the experience with racing cars at your computer, you’ll be able to race alongside your heroes in some capacity without much bother.
And, if anything, how 2012 represents the other drivers on track is the biggest jump forward Codemasters have made here. They’re competitive but they won’t ram you off the track. They’re good, but they will spin off and mess up corners. They’re by no means elite or perfect but they’re a good balance on the higher AI settings, especially compared to what racing AI is usually like. Plus, the changes in F1 rules over the last couple of years with KERS and DRS makes cat and mouse chases with them exciting and dramatic.
A few other changes have made the PC version slightly nicer this year too. The tiresome “trailer/caravan” menu system is out and replaced with normal menus (if still optimized for consoles). GFWL you’ll be glad to know has been switched for Steamworks, and in general it’s a lot less buggy with no huge framerate drops or random crashes like the last couple of years.
For a mass-appeal racing game, F1 2012 is a success. If you’re looking for something absolutely authentic then this definitely isn’t it, but if you can put that aside and want a genuinely enjoyable racer that will still offer a lot of challenge and demand good racecraft, there is a lot to love here. If anything, Codemasters has seen their most serious faced racing line have an outstanding iteration this year. Some problems are fixed, some features refined, and if you can shallow the simplistic physics, the handling is challenging and a pleasure to use.
The fact that, today, I’m barely capable of continuing to race yet have every intention of doing so is a testament to how well the challenge and drama of the game pay off. It's not unproblematic. I still couldn’t say that it’s an essential buy if you already have and enjoy 2011, but for me (as an F1 fan), the improvements and additions culminate in something that’s worth your £20, and if you’ve not had time with a Codemasters F1 game yet, this is a healthy time to introduce yourself.