“Welcome to Brazil, where the Autódromo José Carlos Pace in Interlagos is currently being hammered by torrential rain. The track is absolutely soaked and there was talk of calling the race off, but we’re here and ready to go. The cars are on the grid, facing down 71 laps of the circuit, with Lewis Hamilton in the Pure Xbox-Mercedes sitting in fourth and teammate Nico Rosberg on pole. And…the 2014 Brazilian Grand Prix is go, go, go! Heading towards the first turn, Hamilton brakes late and moves up to second place. Rosberg leads. Hamilton second. Ricciardo third, as they fight through the absolutely diabolical conditions here with visibility being very, very poor...A clean first lap, as everyone is being very careful on the grip-free track. Rosberg rounds the final bend in the lead and into the home straight…but hold on! What's this?!? HE’S PITTING! ROSBERG INTO THE PITS! He hasn’t made contact with anyone. He's been clearly in the lead and hasn't collided with any walls or anything like that. A quick look at a replay shows that he doesn’t have any punctures, and that he started on the only tyre compound he’s allowed to use in these wet conditions. Why is he pitting? Phenomenally baffling! Hamilton moves into first. A three-and-a-half second tyre change later with no repairs and Rosberg leaves the pits in 22nd and last place…”
Nonsensical things like this cause confusion in F1 2014 and so, our journey with Codemasters’ yearly update to their series begins much as last year’s ended. Solid game engine. Great driving physics. Some of it doesn't make sense.
Last year’s head-scratching was fuelled by the fact that one of the most important parts of F1 racing - tyre wear - didn’t really affect AI drivers in the right way, which made for an unfair race. They’d be setting new fastest laps while you were spinning off because you tried to take a bend in 2nd gear. This year’s come from a number of places. The tyre wear issue seems to have been fixed, which is superb. No matter in which race length you decide to partake, your car doesn’t become undriveable unless you ignore your scheduled pitstops for a number of laps. The playing field is now level. Given the new power of this season’s cars and how subtle you need to be with slowly applying the throttle in order to prevent over-revving, it’s especially beneficial. Tyres do wear of course, and you can definitely feel it as they do, but you won’t need to pit two laps early or lose ten places by taking your pre-pit lap at 30mph to ensure that you don’t spin out.
What causes the most confusion is how – now that the developers have finally listened and worked out how to scale tyre wear up and down accordingly depending on the race length – the game still refuses to provide an accurate simulation of driver errors. On average, the number of retirements in an F1 race during the 2014 season to date (up to and including the Russian GP) is five. One GP featured 11 retirements, and two have featured eight. In F1 2014, we’ve never seen more than two cars fail to complete the race and there’s never any explanation as to why they didn’t, or announcements via the radio or onscreen. Also, after racing all of the game's tracks multiple times and trying many different combinations of race length and assist level (just in case things like traction control affect the CPU as well) we’ve yet to see the safety car or a single yellow flag. On top of that, the only car to pick up any penalties ever is our own. We tried to force things by racing Interlagos in the driving rain on 100% race distance three times as described at the top of this review but still only two cars per race retired, the safety car wasn’t deployed once, and we never saw a yellow flag.
The AI drivers just do not make mistakes that lead them to spin or collide seriously, even though the game does things such as making Nico Rosberg pit on the first lap of a race while winning, for no discernible reason. On top of that, even with the full damage option on, we haven’t suffered so much as a puncture, let alone a blown engine or a failed gearbox. In fact, the one time we made heavy contact with a wall, our front wing was damaged and we were given a penalty for clipping an opponent. The penalty served, we nursed the car into the pits for repairs, expecting new tyres and a new front wing, but the pit crew were having none of it and just replaced the tyres. Great. Only ten places to make up across 50 laps, in a car with vastly reduced downforce, on a track that’s soaking wet. That’s unfairly challenging, to say the least.
On the whole, a fair challenge (barring the tyre wear issue) was always the best thing about Codemasters’ F1 titles. Nicking 14th place on the 60th lap in your Caterham by gradually wearing down the gap between you and the car in front over a series of solid laps was as fun as winning your first grand prix. Being expected to finish 18th and managing to outperform that prediction was as rewarding as any trophy, had you got the difficulty level set to match your skills. To that end, the developer has replaced the Yas Marinas “Young Drivers Test” which opened the last couple of games, switching it out for an evaluation test. Here, you’re given a single lap with which to prove your skills, with the game then recommending a difficulty level for you. After a decent lap, we were told that we should be playing on the game’s “Medium” setting. We went along with it, but after grabbing pole position in our Marussia in the first race by three seconds, we decided to turn it up a little. Your mileage may vary, of course, but we have to think that testing a driver’s skills over a single lap when they technically haven’t actually played the game before is probably not the best way of doing things. Not that the game has any idea of realism when it comes to judging you or your vehicle. If it did, your team manager wouldn't expect you to finish in 9th when you've driven out of your skin to push the worst car on the grid through to 10th place in qualifying. He'd probably be happy for anything above 17th in real life were you to start in 10th (given that in real life the car should probably always finish lower than that due to it's limitations) but the algorithm used here is "qualifying position minus a place or two" with no actual logic being put behind that.
It sounds as if we’re slating the game to death here, but that’s because of two reasons. Firstly, the driving is so good – as it always was – that it’s more annoying than usual that the issues that we’ve mentioned haven’t even been looked at, let alone fixed. Most of these problems have persisted since the series began. It doesn’t stop shaving a tenth of a second off your lap time at the 49th attempt in a 70 lap race being just as satisfying as it ever was though, and there’s a definite learning curve where you genuinely feel as if you’re gaining new skills as you play. The controller becomes an extension of your thoughts and you learn how far you can push each car that you’re driving. Helping that feeling is the inclusion of a very realistic-feeling simulation of acceleration and wheelspin. Flatten the trigger from a dead start, and your engine will rise up and roar at you in protest before your wheels finally take hold and you move away. Gradually increase the throttle though, and you’ll get away more smoothly and satisfyingly. The game engine and tweaked handling is incredibly rewarding, although it always has been.
The second reason, is that there isn’t actually all that much that’s new to talk about. The driver changes for the season are in place, as are new engine sounds (which entirely drown out your engineer to the point of him generally being inaudible) and the season’s new and returning tracks for the Russian, Austrian, and German GPs are in place. The Bahrain Grand Prix is now a night race, matching up with the real life season. The on-demand KERS system has been replaced with an automatic version of the 2014 season’s ERS system. You can now choose any team to start your racing career with, rather than being limited to the most limited cars and having to work your way up.
Aside from that, things are pretty much exactly the same as they were. You can play a five-year career across a full or shortened season, take part in some challenges in the Proving Grounds area, or take on a ten-race Season Challenge where you’re trying to steal a drive from your rival by beating him in a best-of-three situation. This mode throws you into a single shot qualifying lap, followed by a five lap race. That would be fine, but the commented hotlap videos that were useful when it comes to learning each circuit have been entirely removed from the game this time around, meaning that you’re essentially driving blind on a single qualification lap if you haven’t raced the circuit before.
We’d have expected to be able to manage or name our own team, or even take part in a realistic career length by now, but it isn’t to be. The five year limit means that working your way up is somewhat pointless. You might start in a Caterham, and get an offer from Toro Rosso in season two. Then in your third season you carry on with them as you adjust to the faster car. Then a move to Force India is on the cards, followed by your final season, where you might get to drive a Mercedes. Then the game’s over. You can start with Mercedes if that’s what you want to do, but half of the fun of the previous games was the challenge of working your way up, as we’ve mentioned.
All in all, F1 2014 feels like a half-hearted attempt at providing an annual update. The development team is at work on a “new F1 experience” for Xbox One that’s due to come out at the start of the 2015 season, which kicks off in less than six months. Whether or not that’s the cause of this somewhat unfocused and lazy-feeling effort is a point for debate.