After a very disappointing entry last year, Codemasters has gone back to the drawing board with F1 2016. In a similar fashion to what was done with Dirt Rally, they’ve taken on board the feedback of the community and set about crafting an experience that focuses on both simulation and immersion. Many of the features that were stripped out in F1 2015 have been resurrected, plus a few extras.
Firstly, it’s a welcome relief to see that the career mode has made a return after it was inexplicably culled last year. Giving the player a gaming experience that spans 10 seasons, it allows for some light RPG elements with rivalries, changing teams each year (or even mid-season), and an overarching goal of becoming world champion. Starting in one of the bottom teams and working your way up year-on-year is a reflection of the mechanics of the actual sport, and I’m really glad to see this back.
Another returning feature is the safety car, but Codemasters wasn’t content to stop there. The virtual safety car system introduced to the real sport by the FIA last year has also been applied, and for the first time the formation lap and manual race starts have been added. These all work together to really immerse the player in a race weekend, and the fans of the sport will no doubt love this attention to detail.
The handling and damage models have been tweaked and improved again too. The cars definitely have a better sense of weight and inertia, and so direct and precise steering input is even more crucial than ever if you don’t want to end up nose first into the tyres. And with a new damage level that is appropriately titled “simulation”, small collisions with a wall that players would have got away with before are now a race-over scenario.
If somehow you think the above is still not hard enough, then I have some good news for you: only the top level of drivers are going to be competitive without any traction control enabled now, as the handling system is far less forgiving on low gear corners than last year. Even with a racing wheel, I was simply unable to drive these cars in the wet without at least some form of TC present, which wounded my pride more than a little.
Race weekends still have all the previous options, allowing for short sprint races with a one-lap qualifying all the way to the full blown simulation of all practice and qualifying sessions topped by a 90 minute race. In the previous games, practice sessions have felt redundant – this is a video game after all, and you can just jump into time trial mode if you want to practice a track.
That’s finally changed this year, with the inclusion of practice session goals that you can view the data from after completion. Players go out on track for a set number of laps as they try to achieve tyre management or lap time objectives that they’ve been set. And when you get back to your garage, the telemetry data that the game records now communicates where you’re doing well, and more importantly, where there is room for improvement.
For experienced veterans, this change to practice sessions may be of limited use. But for new players and those who aren’t playing these games religiously, the track acclimatisation objective is a godsend, and a great way to be able to sit down and get a good understanding of a track in fewer than 10 laps. It finally makes practice sessions relevant in the video game format, as there’s been little reason to take part till now.
Besides the practice goals and career mode, the next greatest feature has to be the brand new Baku City track which is making it’s debut to the F1 calendar this year. I’ve always been a sucker for city courses, and the Azerbaijan circuit has quickly become my new favourite track for the season. What seem like eternally long straights are abruptly terminated by harsh 90 degree corners, and there’s a fast left-hander that I STILL hit the outside barrier three out of four times. Love it!
Not everything has been improved though. The AI drivers still can’t overtake without weaving all over the track, the penalty system is still as capricious as ever, and the commentary for the race starts has me rolling my eyes at how scripted it sounds. But these aren’t deal breakers, and while it would be nice if they fixed everything in the one release, I guess they’re leaving something for the next year’s follow-up.
Multiplayer is present as would be expected, with standard matchmaking modes and custom races. The racing itself is much like previous years, and the annoying penalty system will no doubt lead to a few spectacular ragequits. There is a server browser on PC, but only for custom races, and damage is still turned off on the matchmaking by default. All in all, it’s still there and it works, just don’t expect many improvements.
The only major change that did catch my eye was a new championship mode available in the custom race section, but on further inspection it’s functionality appears limited to running a single multiplayer session that others can join. I was really hoping to see Codemasters build off the Dirt Rally league system they debuted last year, but what is in the game currently is better than nothing.
If last year’s game was a step backwards, then F1 2016 is the very necessary two steps forward. Most of the criticisms I had have been quashed, and the revamped practice sessions are a breath of fresh air in a game franchise that sometimes struggles to find meaningful improvement. While the removing and then reinstating of core features does feel somewhat cynical, I believe many will just be happy that the developer is back on track and delivering a quality F1 game.