The annual release of any popular sporting game franchise can usually fall into one of two categories. You’ve got your major updates, which consist of huge new features and changes that are usually to the game’s benefit, and which are often promoted along with the phrase “rebuilt from the ground up.” Then for a year or two in between those major releases, you’ve got your minor updates, which contain the usual roster changes and minor tweaks to features that appeared in the major update the year before. For the record, they usually get promoted with the phrase “rebuilt from the ground up” too.
Looking at the feature list, most players will assume that F1 2017 falls into that “in-between” stage. After all, it’s not a tough assumption to make when Codemasters are highlighting the fact that one of this year’s improvements is that the game features real F1 technical directors in non-speaking roles in some cutscenes. Even so, it would be the wrong assumption to make, as F1 2017 features some major, major changes that add depth and realism that make the career mode feel almost as if…sorry…it has been rebuilt from the ground up.
The main focus of development this year is on what goes on behind the scenes, and how that affects things when you get onto the track. Official F1 rules are in play for the gearbox and the individual sections of the engine now. At the start of the season, you’ll be given a limited amount of each part and must make do with them for the duration, with wear carrying over from race to race. If you’ve taken a drive for a team with lesser engineers, the parts will wear faster, which will put you in a tricky position as the season cint. It won’t take too long for wear to become a problem on the gearbox though, as, under F1 rules, each transmission must be used for six races before you can change it. You can switch it out early and suffer a grid penalty, but the decision to take the hit to your starting position or risk running a race with your 65% worn gearbox is a tough one that can have massive consequences.
It’s no overstatement to say that the pain of a mechanical failure in F1 2017 is unlike anything else in racing gaming today. You take the time to run through the pre-race practice sessions – which include new fuel management and race strategy programs – and you get your car set up just as you want it. You battle through qualifying, and feel proud of yourself after putting in a monster lap to obtain a grid position that’s better than you’d ever imagined. You get a clean start, avoid the traffic jam in the first turn and carry on to hold your own against 19 other drivers for 50 laps. Then something feels wrong. The car suddenly tarts to take longer to shift gears. Sixth is slipping, which stops you getting to seventh without the engine overrevving for what feels like forever. That in turn causes overheating and your pit crew are telling you to take it easy. You try to press on (you think to yourself: “maybe it’s only a minor, temporary thing”) even though you know that you’ll be lucky to get to the end of this lap, let alone get through another 20.
Then, just like that, it’s all over.
It hurts. But, as strange as it sounds, it hurts in a good way. These are some of the pitfalls that must be avoided to become a successful driver in the world of Formula One, and for the first time, they’re present in a video game version of the sport. You aren’t totally without weaponry with which you can battle against failures, though, since management of the car and its mechanics bring a new feel to a career mode that’s needed livening up for some years. A vastly expanded R&D program – there are now 115 upgrades available compared to last year’s 25 – allows you to invest in decreasing wear and improving reliability, though fixing up a department in one of the basement teams is likely to take multiple seasons, as opposed to just a few races.
Other changes off-track (and away from the main career mode) include the addition of Championships with altered rules and settings. A veritable stack of these are available to play, with some featuring normal F1 rules, with others offering double header events or sprint races, which provide a nice alternative to the standard setup. Historic F1 vehicles make a return and can be used in these events too, as well as being featured in invitational events in the career mode. It’s nice to burn up the asphalt in this year’s Mercedes, but taking part in an high-speed overtake challenge in Senna’s 1988 McLaren MP4/4, or blasting your way through checkpoints in Mansell’s iconic 1992 Williams FW14B is not only fun, but requires a very different driving approach thanks to the difference in the handling models.
Obviously, racing in modern day vehicles is still going to make up the main meat of your time with F1 2017, and while this doesn’t feel vastly different to 2016’s effort in terms of the actual driving itself, there are changes in play that have a decent enough impact. The main alterations appear to be to the AI racers, which make more sensible decisions than last year. Well, usually. They’re still overly aggressive when trying to steal lines, and you’ll occasionally be nonsensically challenged and hampered by a driver who’s on an out lap when you’re taking part in one of the practice programs, but the changes are plain to see. They now spin, crash, and break down more often than before, though the level of realism with this sort of thing still isn’t where it should be. Even so, it’s an improvement over F1 2016, where the entire field would often finish in a sport where that never happens. Even when racing at 25% distance, there’s a good chance that you’ll see either the virtual or real safety cars be brought in to control the action. It would be nice if the game provided more information about what’s happening. “The Virtual Safety Car has been deployed” is really all you’ll know about the situation. Is it because the rival that I’ve been chasing for 35 laps has spun? Was there a pileup on turn three that took out my teammate? You won’t know and likely never will, given that even the race director feature won’t tell you, since it only lists penalties, warnings, and retirements.
That’s a minor shortcoming in the grand scheme of things, but there are others to be found. Some could argue that the damage model – when set to “simulation” damage – is inconsistent, making the car feel like it’s made of thin glass. In one race, a relatively hard slide along a wall when coming out of a quick corner sees you come away without issue, but a minor nudge into the back of an opponent around the molasses-slow double apex at Canada can ruin the whole nose cone and require a pit stop for repairs, even when driving at 20 mph.
New shades of gray in the weather system provide extra depth, as bright sunshine can become light rain before things dry up again, rather than a shower always leading to a downpour. But these new variations do help to bring F1 2017’s technical problems into sharp relief. Sometimes the changes between bright sun and slight overcast can cause a bizarre flickering in the sky that is off-putting, to say the least. It doesn’t happen every time, but it’s clearly unintentional. What is guaranteed to occur during every race is even more screen-tearing than was found in last year’s version, where it was already commonplace. Codemasters have clearly taken the decision to keep the frame rate up at a rock-solid 60fps rather than introduce measures to fix the tearing that could threaten that number.
It’s to the developer’s credit that the improvements elsewhere add enough to F1 2017 that these visual issues don’t really matter. The changes to the management section of the career add so much to the actual racing – which was already at a high enough quality level anyway – that you simply won’t have time to worry about them. When you’re trying to keep a handle on your fuel, tires, the opposition, your racing line, and trying to look after the internals of the car all whilst making a thousand decisions a second to lock in some fast laps, a graphical glitch here and there will be the last thing on your mind.
This review is based on the Xbox One version, which we were provided with.
At first glance, F1 2017 may appear to be a minor update to an annual franchise, but the truth is that it’s a real evolution for the genre.