In the history of Formula One racing, there have been only four Grands Prix that have ended with as many runners as have started. The 1961 Dutch GP, the 2005 Italian GP, the controversial 2005 US GP (which only had six starters) and the 2011 European GP. We were close this year, with only one failing to finish in the Belgian GP, but all of the other races in the 2013 season so far have featured between three and seven retirements.
Which is why it’s strange to see that in a title that otherwise so accurately models the F1 experience, and which does so unbelievably little to improve things over last year’s version of the game, Codemasters still insist on having AI cars that rarely put a foot wrong and most certainly never do anything that will cause them to be put out of the race. Initially, we thought things had improved. In our first career race – the Australian GP – an early pile-up (that we – ahem - may or may have not caused) saw the safety car come out and three drivers retire. Given that we didn’t see the safety car once during four or five seasons of play in F1 2012, things were looking up. In a rain-soaked second race at the Malaysian Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur though, things were back to normal. All 21 AI drivers qualified within a handful of seconds of each other, and despite consistent heavy rain throughout the race, not a single car retired. Similar results occurred throughout the season, with drivers only ever being put out of the race if we purposefully crunched them into a wall or if they barged our car by trying to go for a gap that wasn’t there (which happens far, far too much) and span out.
Focusing on the AI as the opening gambit may well seem to be a strange thing to do, but given how darned good the series is in practically every other aspect, it’s the only thing that we were praying was fixed this time around. If Codemasters had done nothing else but fix the AI, throw in technical failures (which they’re working on for a future version of the game, we’re told – so look forward to handing over more cash, won’t you?) and given us realistic driver retirements in F1 2013, we would have paid the asking price and been happy to do it.
Unfortunately though, the AI appears to be all but unchanged. When you add that to the fact that there’s very, very little else in terms of improvements to be found, that’s not a good situation for the franchise to be in. Fancy doing the Young Driver's Test at Yas Marina again? No, we didn't either.
The main new draw this year is the ability to race some classic F1 cars of yesteryear. A handful of classic tracks have been added too, allowing you to blaze around Brands Hatch and Estoril in Nigel Mansell’s Williams for example, after listening to a short introduction from commentating legend Murray Walker. But even this mode appears to be half-hearted. Firstly, if you don’t buy the “Classic Edition” of the game or alternatively purchase a DLC code, you don’t get access to half the classic tracks, or the drivers from the 1990s. You get the 1980s racers, but that’s it. Secondly, there’s a distinct lack of things to do with the classic cars. You can race them in one-off races against in events that feature only 10 or 12 runners (the 1986 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch featured 26 drivers, for the record), take them out for a spin in time trial mode, or take part in a few “scenarios” that all consist of “you must win this race.” What else you’d be trying to do, we don’t know. Thirdly, the team and driver setups are just plain strange. You get a driver that competed in that car in that specific year, paired with a “team legend” that also raced for that constructor at some point. So instead of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto driving the 1988 Ferrari, you get Berger and Michael Schumacher, who didn’t even drive an F1 car until 1991. It may seem like a small thing, but there’s something jarring about taking over as Alain Prost in a 1981 Williams with Alan Jones as your team-mate, when they were fierce rivals given that Prost was driving for Renault at the time. Add that to the frankly bizarre sepia-toned camera (apparently we didn’t have colour televisions in the 1990s), and you’ve got something that falls remarkably short, given that it’s the only major bullet point to be found in this year’s game.
The classic cars are fun to drive, make no mistake about it. They’re massively different in terms of how you approach them compared to the game’s modern day cars of course, but also sufficiently different from each other, meaning that driving each different model is an experience in itself. It’s just that you’ll probably grow bored of driving them after a few laps.
Outside of that, there’s not much to write home about in terms of new additions. Grand Prix mode makes a return, so you can build your own racing calendar and drive through it as any of the drivers that you choose – though why it was removed in the first place, we don’t know. You can now save mid-session, so players will be able to take on full-length races without having to commit to a couple of hours of gameplay at a time, which is a nice inclusion. But aside from some minor handling tweaks that unless you’re a super-fan of the series, you probably won’t notice, that’s about it.
Fortunately for Codemasters, the F1 series generally provides one of the most challenging and downright entertaining handling models that we’ve seen in a motorsport game for some time, and that’s no different here. Circuits really need to be learnt in order for you to obtain any level of success, and there’s a certain pressure that comes from racing right on the limit, trying to shave extra milliseconds off your sector times every single time you head into a bend. Learning to squeeze the triggers gently, rather than just hammering them down in order to put the anchors on will be the biggest challenge that new players face. If you play the game on a level of difficulty that provides you with a severe challenge, but that doesn’t leave you feeling as if you’re utterly hopeless, there’s no other game on the market today that will draw you in as well as this one does. You’ll sweat, swear, and punch the air as you finally manage to beat another racer for the first time and zip across the line in 21st in your Marussia or Caterham in the game’s career mode. You’ll start to feel that the controller is just an extension of your thoughts. You’ll curse the cumulus for bringing rain halfway through a session where you were gradually getting to grips with the banks and apexes of the course. Codemasters are getting so much right with this franchise, that it's truly disappointing to see them sitting back in the way that they have this year.
To say that Codemasters has rested on its laurels with F1 2013 would be something of an understatement. Most of the new content provided in the game could have been provided as DLC for F1 2012, and although all the new season’s liveries and driver changes have been reflected, there’s not enough here to recommend this as a must-have upgrade - not by a long shot. It is still an enjoyable game and easily one of the best racers out there, but it isn't any more enjoyable than last year's version, which is available for half the price now. If you’ve never tried one of Codemasters’ F1 games before, now is as good a time as any to jump in and take on what is a truly teeth-gritting experience. Previous owners may need to think twice.