Codemasters have made quite a name for themselves on the racing scene with their Grid and Dirt series, as well as two well-received F1 games in 2010 and 2011. This year marks the developer’s third with the license, and like other annualized games F1 2012 must innovate while also sticking with what works.
On the “don’t fix what ain’t broke” side of things, Codemasters continues to impress with yet another spot-on racing title. Driving a Formula car is damned tricky — even with some of the driving assists on — and F1 2012 does a tremendous job of replicating that feeling. This is a racing sim through and through, chewing up and spitting out anyone unwilling to learn. Beyond actually piloting a car, tire selection and precision tuning can make the difference between a podium finish or not getting any points at all. Once you start getting the hang of how these cars handle, it’s one of the best driving experiences on any console.
Adding to the challenge is F1 2012’s dynamic weather system. Over the course of a race weekend in the game’s career mode, you’ll sometimes practice and qualify in dry conditions, only to be hit with intermittent showers on race day, or vice versa. Even if you’re switching between wet and dry tires correctly, you’ll have to deal with pools of water on different parts of the track on rainy days. I found myself preferring a steady downpour for wet conditions, as it’s more predictable.
The AI has four difficulty levels in F1 2012, and beating the bottom three shouldn’t be too difficult for racing vets. It’s at the Legend level where the series’ notorious AI makes its return, with tough-yet-fair hinging on your definition of “fair.” On the one hand, there’s little to no rubber-banding to be seen anywhere in F1 2012, so there’s only one person to blame if you blow a big lead. On the other, AI drivers relentlessly put up world-class lap times, almost never wavering from the optimal line and punishing you for every little mistake. You need to be precise if you plan to compete, and you’ll probably need a racing wheel, all of the assists disengaged, and a steel will to do it.
Overall, the learning curve in F1 2012 is as high as you’ll come across in any video game. Adding to this is the need to learn each of the game’s twenty tracks inside and out. While those who have played Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport might be familiar with a few of them, driving through them in a Formula car is a night and day difference. Fortunately, the game features a tutorial video for each track, with former F1 driver Anthony Davidson narrating and telling how to attack each corner and straight.
This year’s additions aim to make F1 a bit more inclusive to a casual audience, although their success is mixed at best. You’re subjected to the Young Driver Test the very first time you boot up F1 2012, meant to show you the fundamentals of Formula One racing. Beyond explaining the KERS and DNS systems introduced in 2011, there’s very little of use here to anyone who’s played even a remedial amount of any driving sim ever. In the case of Gran Turismo, Polyphony Digital has always done a great job of teaching players the ropes with their license tests, regardless of the player’s aptitude level.
In addition to the usual Career mode, F1 2012 introduces a shortened version called Season Challenge. Here, the 20-race season is shortened to 10, and the three qualifying sessions are nicked in favor of a single hot lap. And rather than 25% of a real race, you’ll be racing in five short laps. The real point of the mode is to initiate rival challenges, where you select a driver to compete against. It becomes a series of best-of-three competitions, and each success nets you a contract offer from his team to replace your now broken opponent. With all of this, Season Challenge lacks a bit of focus and instead feels a lot like an arcade mode that you’d find in a fighting game, a strange sentence to type for any racing review.
F1 2012 also introduces Champions Mode, presenting you with six scenario-based challenges against some of F1’s elite. Each gives you the seemingly simple task of besting these drivers, but you have to do so when they’re completely in their element. In one challenge, for example, you have to hold off Lewis Hamilton for the final three laps of a tight race. Once you’ve completed each challenge against Kiki Räikkönen, Hamilton, Jensen Button, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, and Michael Schumacher, the final scenario is simply a race against the six of them. It’s a welcome addition, but ultimately Champions Mode won’t last anyone very long at all.
For those that want a more traditional experience, F1 2012’s vanilla Career mode is the place to go. Here is where you’ll find full 20-race seasons and a full race weekend complete with practice and qualifying. Hardcore F1 fans will be sad to hear that the three practice sessions have been replaced with one 60-minute session, but there’s still a lot of meat otherwise. Even after skipping practice after 15 or 20 minutes, each full weekend took me about 90 minutes to complete. It’s blissful for gearheads, but the Mario Kart crowd need not apply.
Once you’re back from the action, you’re able to influence the direction of your team’s research and development department, allowing for different upgrades to your car over the course of a season. You can also engage in teammate challenges, where you try to win favor with your team owner. If you find yourself doing particularly well, you’ll also be courted by other teams as they hope to get you to jump ship. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about any of this, but overall the Career mode serves its purpose quite well.
F1 2012 also has multiplayer, of course, where up to 16 players can race against one another online and AI drivers can pad out the rest of the grid of 24. More interestingly, though, is the returning Co-op Championship. It’s essentially just regular Career mode, but being able to be on a race team with a buddy — either online or in split-screen — to take on the rest of F1 is a great addition.
When you’re on the track, the sights and sounds that envelop you are impressive. While not quite on the level of Gran Turismo or Forza, the cars models look quite good, and the tracks and rain are also fantastic. Combined with the excellent recreation of the unmistakable sounds of Formula One engines, F1 2012 does an amazing job of selling a ridiculous sense of speed to its players. You’re in for quite the immersive treat if you have a race wheel and a good home theater setup.
F1 2012 takes a half-step in making the sport more accessible to newcomers, but will probably remain impenetrable to those that can’t be bothered with hardcore simulators. F1 superfans will probably be disappointed by the way practices are handled and the shift to making the game a bit more casual-friendly. Everyone in between, though, will find a lot to love, even if it’s not making us change the way we think about Formula One sims.
We also saw F1 2012 at Gamescom; how did the game compare to our initial impressions?
Check out the official F1 2012 game site.
Editor’s Note: Front Towards Gamer received a review copy of F1 2012 from Codemasters.