When Codemasters finally moved their officially licensed Formula One franchise into the current generation last year, things weren’t particularly up to scratch. A plethora of ugly bugs, some decidedly strange AI, a lack of any real improvements to the recipe and a career mode that was notable by its absence all had long time fans of the series up in arms. With this year’s version – F1 2016 – the development team have promised to put things right with a whole host of additions and changes.
I’m glad to say that they’ve remained true to their word. As well as the usual driver and team switches and the addition of the revived and relocated Grand Prix of Europe around the breakneck turns of Azerbaijan’s Baku City Circuit, the game’s career mode makes a return and is much improved for the break. Allowing players to drive for 10 seasons, starting with any team and signing new contracts based on their performance, the whole thing is a lot more transparent than it was in previous versions. You can now see exactly what causes your standing within the team to be impacted for example, with the addition of a simple bar that tells you if you’re over or underachieving as you aim at becoming the number one driver of your constructor’s pairing of choice.
More realistic goals are set based on your team standing and the quality of your car, so if you get lucky and somehow get your Manor car into 13th position in qualifying, you’ll only be asked to finish 17th or 18th, since the game knows that’s about where your team generally should end up, regardless of your starting position. Rivalries with other drivers are more in-depth, with each competition being a race to 30 points and with those points being awarded for race position, qualifying and sector times, fastest laps, and more. This is a huge improvement, given that previous years saw you shown up as being the poorer driver when you were unceremoniously put out of a race due to an unfortunately timed puncture, even though you were ahead of your rival for 47 laps and had qualified faster, to boot.
The largest addition to career mode though, is the inclusion of practice targets and the approach to research and development. Before, you’d pick an R&D route (if you were the lead driver) and sometimes new parts would be delivered if you were lucky. Maybe. Now, you have to participate in pre-qualifying practice sessions which award you with resource points, which can be spent on specific upgrades. It should be noted here that the lop-sidedness of the old system is gone, too, as AI teams can also upgrade their vehicles as the season progresses.
In fact, a full list of teams and their relative car strength is shown so that you can see where you stand. There are three practice programmes to take on each weekend. The most useful to players is Track Acclimatization, which has you learning the course, attempting to drive through gates on the racing line at a high enough speed in order to beat a points target. Qualifying Pace allows you to put that newly-found knowledge of the course to the test, as you try to beat a set qualifying time, with a live delta time being shown throughout which allows you to see where you’re losing that fifth of a second as you pelt around the track.
Finally, there’s a tricky tire preservation test available, with the goal being to take it easy on the tires as you try to beat a pretty stiff lap time. As a bonus, this will serve as a pseudo-tutorial on how to ease into braking and apply even pressure on the accelerator on corner exits correctly for some, as well as being a fun mini-game for the more experienced racer. On top of that, the Qualifying Pace and Tire Wear routines are also beneficial in terms of your race strategy, since they provide information to your virtual engineers and allow them to create a personalized race strategy based on how much rubber you’ve ruined during the practice sessions. These new inclusions give the three sessions a real purpose which, apart from to the most hardcore petrolheads, they didn’t really have before.
Of course, if you don’t want to take part in any practice sessions, you don’t have to. Customization appears to have been worked on considerably for this year’s game, meaning that you can alter the format of the race weekend in any mode, barring the super-challenging Pro Career. Indeed, the level of tweaking that you can do to the game is pleasantly surprising. If you want the engineer to talk to you via the DualShock 4’s speaker, headphones, or just your standard TV output, you just need to make the selection. If you think the field of view of one of the cameras could do with widening a little or could do with a little less movement, you can make those adjustments, too.
On the track itself, a couple of optional new features make their debut. Formation laps allow you to get a bit of heat into your tires before the off and must be driven properly, lest you receive a penalty. Manual starts are now in the mix, too. Holding down the clutch, getting the engine humming at the optimal level, then releasing the clutch as the lights go out can lose or gain you a couple of places right out of the gate, depending on your level of success. Naturally, this feature also introduces the opportunity for jumping the lights, plus the associated penalties for doing so.
They’re all nice but relatively minor additions that add up to make F1 2016 into a relatively complete package for the F1 fan or hardcore racing gamer. Make no mistake, if you’re not in either of those groups or you aren’t willing to spend a little time getting to know the nuances of the sport, then you’re likely not going to reach the game’s high points. As opposed to last year’s almost arcade-like levels of grip, cars don’t resolutely hug the tarmac any more. It doesn’t take long to realize that though the changes to the handling model are subtle, they have huge ramifications for the way the game plays.
With a more realistic feeling amount of grip and downforce, the line you ride between getting around a corner safely or hitting the outside wall becomes even thinner, making for some utterly thrilling battles against either the opposition drivers or the clock. You also need to take fuel levels into account, as your car feels a little lighter as you dwindle the petrol supply. The changes are most noticeable in the wet, with rain-soaked races now being as treacherous as you’d have imagined them to be. Again, the difference between exiting a corner with any semblance of stability or coasting into an aquaplane situation is minuscule, meaning that taking your eye off the prize for even a second isn’t an option. Especially when you consider that the optional new “Simulation” level of damage will increase your punishment if you do so.
Visually, F1 2016 puts in a generally solid performance and looks stellar, especially in wet weather. When careening around a rainy Spa, there are times where you’re not going to have anything like a clear view, which makes successfully navigating around those sharp right-handers (that already required nerves of steel to take on at any pace) feel almost as good as a race win. There are minor instances of graphical tearing which is more prominent on certain courses than on others. On the aforementioned Baku City for example, turns eight through eleven can be rough, and Monaco suffers in particular. It isn’t being overly generous to say that you’re usually going to be paying such attention to keeping the car on the road and at enough of a speed that it can be overlooked to an extent.
Despite that minor flaw, F1 2016 is refreshing stuff that from time to time, breathes new life into a franchise that was most definitely starting to feel a little bit like the same old routine every year. That feeling does return in some ways though as for all of the improvements, there are still issues that have persisted since Codemasters first got their hands on the licence.
Most obvious are some pretty big problems with AI drivers. New difficulty levels have been added to the top end and there’s no doubt that even the best racers will find the new “Ultimate” level to be a true test. Further down the ranks, there seems to have been a reduction in skill. “Hard” difficulty appears to be akin to last year’s “Normal” for example, so veterans of the series might want to crank things up a notch. These changes also affect target times for practice programmes, so even though the option is labelled “Driver AI” the entire game becomes trickier as a result of switching up. But no matter what level you select, AI drivers are incredibly cowardly, unless they’re behind you and trying to get back on the racing line, at which point they’ll gladly just barge you off course with no thought for their own safety.
Aside from those occurrences, even though the Safety Car has been re-added this time around, there’s a decent chance that you’ll never see it. Jump into a full-length quick race around Bahrain at midnight on Ultimate difficulty in heavy rain and AI drivers will drive so conservatively that the entire lineup will finish the race without problems. Check any race’s incident report after a contest is over and the only issues of note will usually be things you caused or were directly involved in. Hamilton never clips Rosberg when you’re fighting at the back of the pack and Palmer never gets into a fracas with Kyvat if you’re at the front.
In a full season of half-length races, at least 21 of the 22 cars finished in every event, with the only retirements caused by mechanical failures. A full race around Monaco saw a single incident – Gutierrez cutting a corner. That just isn’t realistic, given that in most F1 races you can expect four or five drivers to not see the checkered flag and the game itself reminds you that 80% of Grands Prix at Monaco see the Safety Car coming out at least once. It scrapes a decent chunk of paintwork off what is close to being an absolutely superb game, given that crashes, spins, yellow flags, blowouts, penalties, and disqualifications make up a large part of the drama of F1 as a sport. It isn’t worse than it was in previous versions, but it sadly also isn’t any better.
For those that have a group of friends who love to compete in race after race but who don’t want the AI involved, there’s the new option to play a realistic – or customized – online championship season with a full grid of 22 human players, complete with practice sessions and qualifying. Outside of that, anybody who was playing the mess that was F1 2015 online at launch will be happy to know that things appear to be a lot more reliable now in all multiplayer modes. With the exception of the full championship, there aren’t many new additions to online play, which suggests that the developer has correctly focused on stability as opposed to just lobbing in new features and hoping everything works out in the end.
F1 2016’s changes are far more substantial than they at first would seem, to the point that despite its flaws, it’s the first F1 game in a very long time that makes a fun and truly exhilarating experience out of driving along at the back of the pack in a car that clearly isn’t good enough to win. That’s the measure, here. You may not be beating the opposition in terms of race position at that point but with every lap, you can feel that you’re getting that little bit closer to the podium, whether it’s by trimming a couple of hundredths off your best lap time or finally nailing the Parabolica at full speed. Even with some obvious issues, F1 2016 keeps you racing right up until the checkered flag.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Even with some obvious issues, F1 2016 keeps you racing right up until the checkered flag.