While waiting for all of the details to emerge regarding a particularly bad racing simulator that was just released for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, let’s instead kick off the weekend by discussing the opposite – an exceptional product centered around the world’s most prestigious racing series: Formula One 2016 by Codemasters. This will not be a complete review in the traditional sense, with all of the fancy writing that makes your morning poop at work that much more enjoyable; I would much prefer our boy Sev to give this title the full shakedown considering F1 is a series he’s infinitely more familiar with than I am, but it needs to be made clear as soon as possible on PRC.net that Codemasters has yet again has shocked the world by producing arguably the best racing simulator on the market for the second year in a row. Unless you are an absolute dogshit road racer who is completely unacquainted with modern Grand Prix racing, you owe it to yourself to pick up Formula One 2016. It’s that good.
I’m nine races into the game’s expansive career mode, driving for the McLaren-Honda team on Legend difficulty with Fernando Alonso acting as my partner in crime. This game is simply brilliant. In the past here on PRC.net I’ve written that developers need to create engaging products that have you racing home from work for an all-night marathon in front of your plastic steering wheel, and after seventeen hours of play, I have no problem stating Codemasters has accomplished exactly that. So let’s go on a brief tour of what makes this game so great, and why after six run-of-the-mill licensed F1 offerings dating back to 2010, the seventh exceeds all previous expectations.
A lot of people want to know how it drives, as the footage you can find of F1 2016 on YouTube often displays amateur drivers monster trucking over rumble strips, and rarely struggling to keep the rear end in check. Truth be told, F1 2016 drives like a strange hybrid between the old rFactor FSOne mods – releases that were notoriously simple to drive – mixed with the extremely forgiving slip angles of the famed EnduRacers Flat 6 mod for rFactor 2. These cars are downright glued to the ground, and you can get them pretty sideways before they give, but there is a limit to how retarded you can be behind the wheel. Personally, I think the handling model is appropriate given how accessible F1 2016 needs to be. There’s no way Codemasters could pull a DiRT Rally with this game and leave people crying on the side of the road, but there’s enough of a challenge where you still need to drive the car.
To my surprise, the tire physics found in F1 2016 shine when you’d least expect them to – in the rain. During my adventure through Career mode, I was forced to deal with wet weather driving on two occasions – once in Azerbaijan, and again in China. Usually in F1 games, racing in the rain is a gimmick, and understanding what the physics engine wants from you is a total crapshoot. You’re never really sure how to turn competitive times, and the entire event boils down to merely surviving. This is not the case in F1 2016; while navigating highly technical sectors in lower gears, the tire physics allow you to really wheel the car in a fashion similar to DiRT Rally – giving off a very natural and rewarding vibe when you get it right. As the speeds increase, you can physically feel the downforce take over, though it never quite rectifies the perennial understeer generated from the tires only partially gripping the slick tarmac.
Tire wear is a bit exaggerated, as are the turbocharger effects, and these are two aspects which the hardcore sim guys among us might grow frustrated with. As the end of a stint nears, you can generate some fairly comical slip angles, and I still believe it’s beneficial to have traction control set permanently on Medium, but experienced sim racers will usually be able to drive in a way where these two aspects are only noticeable when digging for that final tenth of a second with the race winding down. Minor quirks aside, I think you’d have to be extremely snobbish to pass on F1 2016 based solely on car physics.
Acceptable physics mean absolutely nothing if the artificial intelligence isn’t up to par, and I’m happy to report that F1 2016 is solid in this aspect. I mean, this is why I’m still playing career mode and on pace to finish a season rather than lose interest in the game altogether. This is actually a big deal for Codemasters, as previous games in the series have traditionally suffered from an AI package that’s either too fast, too slow, or fails to perform in a fashion anywhere near that of a human entry. In older games, the AI would shoot away from you in sector one, only to slow up completely by sector 3, or randomly click off laps three seconds faster than your personal best if you were running away with the thing. It all once felt very scripted; as if there was a puppet master in the sky tailoring the on-track action to your exact position.
I don’t want to mislead people and say everything’s been fixed and you’re looking at the new Grand Prix 4, but it’s definitely getting there. The AI are quick, they run the same line as the player, they’re aware of your existence, and they race you hard. Provided you respect the spot on the track they currently occupy, and don’t do anything too retarded, they are a fantastic substitute for human competition when it’s not readily available. It’s indeed possible to bully them and force them to give up the spot by positioning your car in a certain way (usually poking your nose under their “door” on corner entry), but I’ve had some incredibly nutty races with the computer opponents thus far – totally unlike previous installments. And sometimes, just being able to reel in a car over a span of several laps rather than capitalizing on an AI line error on the part of the developer makes the overall experience that much more enjoyable. You can basically zone out and just follow a guy for a few laps as you would in an online session among talented drivers. It’s been really nice having these epic race-long battles with a Williams or Toro Rosso entry, rather than making it past a car on lap three and never seeing them again for the duration of the event.
They’re also on-pace with the player’s skill level in wet weather driving. During the Baku City Grand Prix, I was worried that the soaked track might lead to a scenario where the AI would mop the floor with me and be granted inhuman abilities as I struggled to keep the rear end planted on corner exit. This wasn’t the case, I was able to have extremely enjoyable battles with a wide range of drivers throughout the fourteen lap affair.
Out of the gate, Codemasters have successfully paired the perfect combination of satisfying simcade physics with surprisingly competent AI, but F1 2016 is much more than just a decent on-track product. Part of the fun of loading up this game has been admiring just how fucking polished the thing is, and this is something that has been missing across all racing games for far too long. Unlike last year’s embarrassing release, with lifeless menus, goofy 3D driver models, and a total lack of in-game content, firing up F1 2016 is reminiscent of the old EA Sports NASCAR Thunder games which once dominated both Microsoft’s original Xbox, as well as Sony’s PlayStation 2. I don’t want to say the game is loaded with all of these little bells and whistles, like unlockable alternate liveries or bonus circuits from the 1980’s, but you can tell there’s been much more effort put into this game compared to the ones which came before it. And all of these little aspects that Codemasters have obsessed over during the development of this game add up to make F1 2016 something far beyond just another yearly release.
So let’s throw them into a top five list.
Across most hardcore sim racing communities, you’ll quickly discover a vast array of virtual motorsport enthusiasts are adamantly against bells and whistles of any sort. They don’t want a victory lane celebration, they don’t want a pre-race introduction, they don’t want fancy commentary, and they sure as hell don’t care for things like watching your avatar have a sip of Gatorade before the race. All these elitists care about is the ability to wheel the car around their circuit of choice; everything else is a distraction. Formula One 2016 most certainly isn’t for them, but for those who are willing to go along with these extra curricular activities and fully immerse themselves within the environment, it’s actually a real treat.
In a throwback to the lengthy pre-race introductions seen in the EA Sports NASCAR Thunder games, each session (including practice and qualifying) opens with one of several different pre-recorded segments hosted by Anthony Davidson and David Croft, briefly discussing the upcoming action. While I’m sure it won’t be long before you start hearing the same lines spoken regarding different drivers or teams, taking two or three minutes every few races to admire the atmosphere created by this TV-style presentation is a fantastic way to break up long driving portions. The generic shots of teams working on their cars in the garage area, or a driver leaned up against the wall having a drink before the race introduces some much-needed life into what was once a fairly stale environment in previous games. Again, I wouldn’t recommend watching these for every single race, but if you’ve been playing for multiple hours, it’s the absolute best way to take a breather, because all of these short scenes are really well done.
And this actually transfers over to the menu as well. Your hub for Career mode is not just a floating semi-transparent blue box, but rather a physical desk, and after each event, new goals or achievements will be presented by someone from your team’s staff physically walking over and talking to you. These scenes don’t last long; they’re really just one or two spoken sentences telling you to check out the Research and Development report, but it adds to the overall atmosphere that you’re a Formula One driver competing for a prestigious World Championship, and not just some guy mindlessly plowing through Career mode. The whole cohesive experience is just really slick, and it’s hard to believe we once were entertained by video games without this level of immersion.
At one point in time, when myself and a high school buddy would spend our summer nights dominating online public lobbies in DiRT 2, Codemasters games were known for exploit setups. The physics engine used in the landmark off-road series could let you get away with insane setups as long as you had the wheelman skills to hold onto it. Low downforce on Hill Climb cars? Check. Extremely stiff suspensions? Sure. It was hilarious during our experimental phase to see what we could come up with in the garage area that would produce an advantage on track, and it kind of drilled home to us what simcade physics meant. The F1 series also suffered from these kinds of bizarre garage options, but after consulting our boy Dustin and learning what goes into a real world Formula One car, this is the first year Codemasters has some resemblance of realisim within the garage area.
Real Formula One teams are stiffening the shit out of the front of the car, and softening up the rear as much as possible. Extreme downforce values are out of the question, as are extreme ride height values. Brake bias numbers in the 50% range are common in the real thing, minimum value tire pressures are solid, and rear anti-roll bar adjustments only require minor tweaks based on what the driver feels comfortable with. Just like real life, these are all setup tricks that work wonders in F1 2016, leading to a setup building experience very similar to what you’d see in a more hardcore simulator. You can basically keep one or two baseline setups stored in your save slots for use at any given track, requiring only minor adjustments that are more along the lines of user preference rather than instant speed. It’s really nice to not have to consult message boards or YouTube videos for tricks that guys have figured out by literally breaking the physics engine.
Sweet Jesus, Codemasters has been reading PRC! That was my first thought upon discovering a menu entitled Camera Options. Look, every single person on the planet who has obtained a valid drivers license has their own personal preference when it comes to the seat position inside their daily driver, and race cars are no different. Rather than subject us to truly awful default camera views that required the use of a third party XML editor to adjust – with varying results, I might add – Codemasters baked an entire menu into the game for us. Simply put, this functionality is awesome, and you can access this menu while driving to fine tune your own personal driving view. This is actually the first racing game I’ve ever played where I’ve been able to use the physical mirrors attached to the car, rather than proximity arrows or a virtual mirror found at the top of the screen as seen in other games.
Being able to move the seat around, adjust your mirrors, and change the field of view may seem like the most abstract thing to praise in a $60 video game, but given how brutal the default cockpit views included in Codemasters titles have traditionally been over the years – save for Grid Autosport – this level of customization is a welcome change of pace, and really shows just how far Codemasters have gone to dot their I’s and cross their T’s in F1 2016.
All major racing simulators powered by the ISI Motor engine, as well as iRacing, rely on something most sim racers refer to as the Black Box – a small navigational interface located in the lower right side of the screen allowing you to cycle through tire temperatures, pit strategies, and other miscellaneous in-car adjustments such as fuel mixture and downforce settings. This functionality has now found it’s way into the Codemasters Formula One series, and F1 2016 has what is by far the best black box ever included in a racing game. One screen lets you change both your fuel mix and your upcoming tire compound to be fitted during the next pit stop, another screen monitors tire wear, and damage, while a third outlines your overall strategy and team expectations. What was once only a feature seen in hardcore racing sims has found a new home in F1 2016, refined to present all of the information you need at a moments notice. Just like rFactor, it uses the same five buttons as well – four directional commands, and an “accept” trigger.
But this is only one half of the data mining element found in Formula One 2016. The game’s extensive career mode has introduced three practice-specific mini-games as a way to help kill time during the numerous warmup sessions, though they’re much more than just gimmicks. Focusing on the three most prominent ways to use practice time effectively – learning a track, managing tire wear, and embarking upon mock qualifying runs – F1 2016 not only rewards you with car upgrade points for the successful completion of these challenges, it also spits a ton of data at you which can be used to help refine either your driving or car setup. In some instances, the game will actually offer suggestions to your setup or tire strategy for you after completing these challenges. Yes, it may be fun to blow through these on autopilot, but the feedback they give you is essential to your success on the race track.
For example, I’m not an F1 guy, so I’m totally unfamiliar with both the new Baku Street Circuit, as well as the Sochi course in Russia introduced a few years ago. With the track acclimatization program offered in practice, I was able to not only learn the general racing line for two tracks I’d never driven in my life, but the game clearly conveyed to me the kind of pace I needed for each corner to remain competitive, and as a result, I was able to score points for my team in both races on Legend difficulty. And on tracks I was already familiar with, I could instantly use the mock qualifying program to make setup adjustments and check my pace without fucking myself over via the parc ferme rules. These little mini-games are so effective at keeping you engaged and spitting out valuable data in easy-to-read menus, that it will be difficult and boring to do it all by hand in a more serious simulator.
At one point I was indeed somewhat against these goofy little three lap mini-games, until I seriously needed to rely on one to learn a brand new track, and I’ve never been able to learn a circuit as fast as I have with the Codemasters practice programs. Seriously, this stuff is a complete game changer.
If you’ve gone around the internet and read a bit about F1 2016 already, you’ve probably discovered that the game’s Career Mode is every Grand Prix fan’s wet dream – or at least somewhere in the ballpark. Gone are the days of a generic floating menu and racing for a ride at McLaren or Red Bull, the experience has been radically altered to produce a more dynamic, breathing virtual rendition of Formula One.
The big change this year is the evolution of not just your car, but the teams around you as well. The completion of every successful practice regime or satisfactory race result nets you Research and Development points, which can be used to purchase small performance upgrades for your ride throughout the season. Yes, contracts are still around, you can still be promoted to the position of first driver, kicked off the team for shitty results, or signed by a new squad altogether, but it’s now possible to remain under one roof for the long haul and raise (or lower) the team from their current status in the Formula One hierarchy. Yet as you’re busy upgrading your own vehicle – parts which will also be applied to your teammate’s ride, so you can dominate the series together – other entries will also be evolving throughout the season. Manor might finally figure their shit out and advance up the performance charts to compete on a level with Force India, while Toro Rosso can suffer from a slump and be relegated to a backmarker position. It’s not super detailed, Codemasters hasn’t gone all Grand Prix Manager 2 on our asses just yet, but this extra level of unpredictability turns Career Mode into something out of Madden or FIFA rather than a monotonous road trip.
If we can get to a point where Formula One allows drivers to switch rides, recruit rookies, or even lets the user create their own team and custom livery, there will be people who will become utterly addicted to this game. For now, it’s a really nice progression from the simple beginnings of F1 2010.
Yet these extra progression elements aren’t what defines Career Mode in F1 2016, they merely add to what is an already solid base. With the practice programs, formation laps, pre-race introductions, and post-race discussions with team staff members inside your personal paddock area, there isn’t a point where playing through F1 2016 feels like a chore. You want to spend some time in practice because you not only need those R&D points, you become genuinely interested in gathering additional data for the upcoming race. When the pre-race introduction comes on, you don’t always want to skip it – sometimes you want to stop for a minute and admire the atmosphere of the TV cameras poking their nose into your pits, or a crew member changing the tires on Sebastien Vettel’s car while parked on the grid. And of course, with much-needed improvements to the artificial intelligence and overall driving physics, the racing itself is the best it’s ever been in a Codemasters release. It’s honestly difficult for me to sit here and pick out an element of the game’s career mode I could do without – there have been a couple days where I’m not just doing a single race before abandoning the application to shitpost on the forums, I’m doing two or three at a time.
As this is PRC.net, I can’t always dickride the work of Codemasters; it’s simply not in my nature. There are indeed a few grievances I’ve had with the game, and I absolutely must inform you guys of them, because on some occasions they can really get in the way of your overall enjoyment.
The first thing I really need to get out there – it’s something I can’t not talk about – is the penalty scoring. No, you won’t get flagged for incidental contact with another car, or for liberal interpretation of the track boundaries. In this aspect, F1 2016 is actually a gigantic improvement over previous iterations, where severe penalties were handed out like halloween candy at your local mall. The place where the problem lies is actually during the infamous turn one wrecks. Even if you manage to avoid getting caught up in someone else’s problem, merely taking evasive measures to slip by a spinning car, or exploring the outside line to shoot by a few people who have obviously slowed the fuck down… Yeah, the game claims you’ve illegally passed under yellow flag conditions. Depending on the track, this can be rectified by a simple restart or two, but if you’re on a circuit known for producing chaos – such as Melbourne – we’re talking a solid twenty or thirty restarts just to make it through sector one without the game bitching at you.
Now there are times where you’ll be lucky and the car the stewards want you to let by was the first car in the pack – which is a problem easily rectified by simply lifting until the car gets around you – but other times the game will demand you to basically park on the track for a guy who’s been shuffled to 20th place. If I were Codemasters, I’d just eradicate penalties altogether for the first sector of lap one, because there are some circuits where it’s an infuriating mess.
Speaking of infuriating, the artificial intelligence can frustrate you to the point of wanting to snap the BluRay disc if you don’t adhere to the strict rules I outlined earlier in the article. Yes, the AI are extremely competent, and a candidate for some of the best ever in a racing game – if you respect their mentality. They will make some daring maneuvers on you, and once they’ve got their nose up to your rear tire, 99% of the time they are fully committed to the overtake – they will not give a shit if you try and stop them.
Throwing a passive aggressive block or merely trying to pinch them and take away the desired line into a corner is a quick recipe for getting dumped in dramatic fashion. If you’re an old-school single player racer who refuses to respect the AI and treats them as moving roadblocks, they will almost instantly channel their inner Dale Earnhardt. The more laps I’ve turned, the more comfortable I’ve gotten with their driving style and aggressive maneuvers, but for some people, it will be a bit too much. I can’t say it’s something I want Codemasters to change, but I can see a lot of people complaining about the AI’s aggression level as more and more racers spend time with this game. If you don’t give up the position when they’ve got a clear run, or at least give them a foot or two of room when defending on the outside line, your ass is in the wall. End of discussion.
Lastly, and this is something that will only affect those running on medium range hardware – the performance of the application can be a bit hit-or-miss at times. For most of the time spent on track, F1 2016 hovers around 60 FPS, but in my experience the game has a tendency to microstutter, and this can actually start affecting your control input – something that’s not good when you think of how technical the tracks on the schedule can be. For me, I’ll experience an interesting microstutter for about a quarter of a second every two to four laps – not enough to become the subject of a gigantic hissy fit, but it’s definitely there and noticeable. I’d advise you to read as much as you can about this title and search for feedback from other users running your equipment to determine how F1 2016 will perform on your system.
As I stated earlier, I’d really like for someone who’s passionate about Formula One to give this title a mammoth shakedown, as they’re able to spot the little insignificant details that I wouldn’t even notice in the first place. However, as a fully competent hardcore sim racer who knows just enough about Formula One to be competitive on one of the hardest difficulties in career mode across all circuits featured in the game, I’m seriously impressed by what Codemasters has put together. F1 2016 will not win any awards for its physics engine, nor will Codemasters begin each update changelog by proudly announcing yet another tire model revision, but the fidelity of the complete experience is extremely hard ignore, and only the most arrogant of sim elitists would be dumb enough to pass up on this title.