A deep, detailed, and faithful ode to Formula One.
In this year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel had a real brain snap on track, pulling up alongside rival Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and steering into him during a safety car restart. During the Russian Grand Prix, in the first year of my F1 2017 career, he’s done something similar. He’s turned into Hamilton at race pace and managed to tangle himself, Lewis, and my F1 wunderkind Jackie Speedweasel together for a date with the wall. I manage to extract my driver from the mess, grazing the wall and losing part of the front wing in the process, but Hamilton and Vettel’s cars are toast; a snarl of carbon fibre shards and loose wheels. It’s still very early days but the championship has pivoted in an instant.
This kind of split-second unpredictability is a staple of real F1 and Codemasters continues to capture it. F1 2017 is a confident and comprehensive racer that succeeds by embracing all of modern F1’s idiosyncratic rules and regulations, as well as its danger, and baking it all into a truly great sports sim. It challenges us with volatile racing but rewards consistency, patience, and strategy. It’s not the dramatic improvement that last year’s instalment was over the disappointing F1 2015 – overall there’s more iteration than innovation this year – but it definitely usurps F1 2016 as Codemasters’ greatest F1 game to date.
This year’s Formula One season saw a massive shake-up in car regulations, which has resulted in bigger cars with wider tyres and improved aero. Basically, the cars are heavier but faster. Codemasters has responded, bringing all of that extra girth, grip, and speed to the new cars in F1 2017. On a steering wheel it’s probably the best force feedback I’ve ever felt in a Codemasters game and the sense of weight is terrific, but even on a pad the extra bite is noticeable. The 2017 cars feel like they’re clinging to the road a fraction more tenaciously than their 2016 counterparts.
The sense of weight is terrific.
Also featured is a smattering of retro rides from yesteryear, with 11 (or 12, with the special edition) extra F1 icons from five teams included (from Senna’s championship-winning 1991 McLaren to Schumacher’s beastly 2004 Ferrari). They do feel very distinct from the modern cars, and each other, and it’s fun to compare and contrast them. They also sound fantastic, but I don’t know whether or not that’s just because contemporary F1 cars sound like an angry blowfly trying to escape from an upturned bucket in comparison.
F1 2017’s classic cars are weaved through the career mode in a series of invitational events, which vary between overtaking challenges, checkpoint challenges, and handicap and multiclass races. They’re a bit like the Showcase Events in Forza Motorsport 6. I think it’s a clever and credible way of getting these old cars out on modern circuits, but the limited, greatest hits-style approach results in copies of the same car out on track whenever they’re all out racing.
There have been no new circuits added to the 2017 calendar so we have to make do with the same tracks we had in F1 2016. Four of them do have new short routes we can use in custom GPs and time trials, but their effect on the overall package isn’t really seismic. What’s notable is that all the tracks appear more vibrant and realistic than ever, and the desaturated tones that have defined Codemasters racing games for many years seem to have been finally trashed. The grass glows a rich, deep green, the skies burn a brilliant blue, and everything in between looks more lifelike than ever. This is a really good-looking racing game, from the neon glow of Singapore’s skyscrapers to the shiny, wet asphalt of Albert Park.
All the tracks appear more vibrant and realistic than ever.
Off-track things are a little less impressive (the engine is great at dealing with carbon fibre, bitumen, concrete, and rubber, but not so great with skin or hair) but I think this stuff is still a crucial part of the sporting atmosphere that makes F1 2017 work. My chief complaint here is that most of these paddock and podium vignettes are recycled from F1 2015 and F1 2016, so they’re very stale at this stage. I think we need some fresh flourishes next time around.
The Long Haul
While Codemasters still hasn’t added Dan Ricciardo’s signature podium celebration, it has added some significant tweaks to the 10-season career experience, which is really the most fulfilling part of this whole package.
The research and development system has been drastically broadened, with an RPG-esque development tree that branches out across over 100 individual upgrades. Tables indicate the areas your team is trailing in – driving for Red Bull I’ve focussed almost exclusively on power unit upgrades to try and get back on terms with Mercedes and Ferrari – but the goal posts are always shifting as rival teams complete their own R&D. If it’s all a bit too obtuse you can ask for your engineer’s recommendations.
Reliability throughout the season is also a real issue now as we need to manage wear on key car components over the course of the year. The older a part is the more prone to failures it will be, something I learned when I lost a gear in Azerbaijan, and then learned again when my turbo went on the fritz in Canada, and then learned again when I couldn’t select lean fuel mode in… Japan, I think. I had a bunch of stuff break. I lost track.
The special thing about it is that it never really feels unfair; it just feels authentic. The lean fuel setting loss was a curly one because the delicate balancing act that is conserving fuel throughout a race is again a mini-game unto itself in F1 2017, but this time with a twist. One of the new practice programs in F1 2017 is fuel saving (coasting into corners, braking later, upshifting earlier) and if you perform well in this test your team will underfuel you for the main race. This will reduce weight but means you have to be driving with fuel saving in mind, or you will run out.
Codemasters’ ability to make the whole race weekend meaningful remains admirable.
Codemasters’ ability to make the whole race weekend meaningful remains admirable and everything you achieve in practice, qualifying, and racing still adds to your development point haul. The best way to play F1 2017 remains with at least 25% race distance selected (where opponent errors, safety cars, pit strategies, and dynamic weather changes all come into play) but part wear is still scaled to your career even if you choose the shortest, five-lap races. As with F1 2016, race distance and AI ability can be adjusted between every round, meaning we’re never stuck with a decision for a full, 20-race season.
The key side effect of all this preparation, micro-management, and on-track unpredictability is drama. It began in F1 2016 last year and it carries on here. Do you order that new engine part and cop a hefty grid penalty, or do you stick with a worn one from your original allocation? Do you stay out for one more lap on a set of nearly-cooked intermediates once the track has mostly dried up – to avoid double-stacking in the pits – or do you play it safe and come in right behind your teammate?
F1 2017 is jammed with drama, and that’s a big part of what makes it so satisfying to tackle. The one thing it could do with more of, though, is emotion. If Codemasters wants the F1 series to sit alongside other sports sims like FIFA, or NBA 2K, or MLB The Show, there has to be a better way to tell players they’re world champion than a text box.