It’s always a struggle for annualised sports franchises to differentiate the latest game from last years offering. Sure, there’s new faces in the teams and maybe a new venue or two, but that alone isn’t enough to convince most punters to drop their hard-earned on a video game. There has to be tangible improvements, a constant upping of the ante on a stairway towards unreachable perfection.
After last year's excellent F1 2016, I wasn’t sure how Codemasters would make this a reality. But surprise me it did, as F1 2017 somehow manages to raise the bar still further in so many areas. The graphics and sound have been enhanced to be sure, but it’s the gameplay that sees the big gains.
Let’s get the basics out of the way; all the previous game modes that were present last year remain. The Career Mode has seen some upgrades, with better voice acting for the broadcasts and better character models for the mini-cutscenes that pepper the season. The R&D system has been given the biggest overhaul, with a new branching tree with tons of potential upgrades. And for the first time ever, you can now choose a female avatar as your driver.
As Career Mode is the bread and butter of the franchise, it’s pleasing to see it receive the most attention. The new R&D really does bring the long game into play; while a team may not be competitive to begin with, grinding out some consistent performances will reap rewards a few years down the track. When combined with all the practice objectives, the rivalry system, and the extensive tuning options from 2016, Career Mode is one of the best single player experiences in a driving game.
Another new inclusion is invitational events, which are interspersed throughout the single player career. These give you a predefined car and track, and lay down non-standard modes such as time attack and overtaking challenges. However, while they do provide a way to break up the race weekends, many feel very gamified and out of place in the context of a career.
Making a crossover from the Dirt franchise is a new mode titled Event. Here, the game creates a specific race or time trial with set rules and conditions, and you compete to reach the highest position you can on the leaderboard for the short time the event is live. It’s a great way to try new circuits and cars, but it doesn’t feel all that necessary.
This year’s touted drawcard is the return of classic cars to the franchise. While the cynic in me still believes they were cut years ago just so they could be bought back as a “new” feature, their return is nonetheless a welcome one. The iconic scream from Ferrari’s V12 and V10 engines are captured in all their glory, and the handling is noticeably different for cars from different eras. Unfortunately there are only 12 to choose from (dating back to the late '80s), so here’s hoping we see a fleshed out roster next year.
F1 newcomers will find the game easy to jump into, with shortened sessions and races, and plenty of assists to get started. But Codies has done a marvelous job of catering to even the most zealous of fans too, with full-length race weekends available alongside formation laps, manual starts, and a complete rule/penalty system to match the regulations this season. You may not be able to feel the g-forces, but everything else is as real as it gets.
Codemasters can’t claim all the credit for this year’s updates though, as the technical rule changes implemented by the FIA for the 2017 season have resulted in a breed of cars that are both faster and more aggressive than last year’s counterparts. The new rules for car bodies and wings have led to quicker cornering speeds, and the increase in tire size has dramatically enhanced grip under acceleration. It really is a far more enjoyable experience driving these cars on all your favourite tracks.
Unfortunately, some of the old nit-picks rear their ugly heads from time to time. The penalty system seemingly flips a coin for who’s at fault in an altercation, and the corner-cut warning is either too harsh or too forgiving. Codemasters has improved the AI, but not consistently, and there are still times I roll my eyes at the carnage caused by a bot making a poor decision. The day will come when my patience evaporates for these shenanigans, but as the game has improved in so many other areas, this stuff was less noticeable than in previous years.
Speaking of shenanigans, multiplayer is full of them, but that isn’t really new either. If you get a lobby with gentlemen drivers it can be a blast, but all too often it’s noobs dive-bombing the first corner as if it’s a quarter mile drag race. There’s a server browser on the PC version so you can figure out which lobby will be the least laggy, and there’s also a championship mode if you and your mates are planning an all-night racing session.
F1 2017 is without a doubt the finest F1 game ever made, and a superb motorsport game as a whole. The cumulative lessons that Codies has learned over the years are really paying off, as it continues to push ever forward in both realism and accessibility. How it’ll manage to surpass this come next year has me scratching my head, but its recent track record instils hope it can pull another rabbit out of the hat yet.