When we look back on the history of driving games as a whole, certain pieces of software have established themselves as landmark releases for their ability to push the boundaries in what is on the outset a very rigid and concrete genre allowing minimal innovation. With only so many ways to depict a high performance car traveling around a closed circuit from the comfort of your own home, games such as Grand Prix Legends, Richard Burns Rally, and GTR 2 have become notorious for their technical fortitude and ruthless authenticity – often at times when the technology seemingly didn’t allow for such a hardcore experience to be replicated on rudimentary hardware.
Yet despite home computers progressing far into the future – now possessing the ability to render each individual hair on Mario’s mustache while taking into account a gentle breeze in the area – racing simulators have become lifeless shells of what the future once promised them to be. The joys of rushing home to a feature complete $60 game a decade ago have now been replaced with eternal science projects, message board wars, and rampant apologist rhetoric – brainwashed supporters bending over backwards to defend what in any other market would be blatant anti-consumer practices.
It is for this reason that Formula One 2017 not only succeeds in being Codemasters’ finest grand prix racer to date, but establishes itself as quite possibly the greatest racing game that has ever been released to the general public. In an era where simulated motor racing is an embarrassingly bleak hobby to enter, Codemasters have constructed a package so anti-status quo and so pro-consumer, I’m honestly left wondering why other developers would even bother trying to compete with a game so polished and robust. Finally matching the abundance of bells and whistles crammed onto the DVD with an equally satisfactory on-track experience, Formula One 2017 is absurdly good, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you intentionally ignore what Codemasters have created.
Though DiRT 2, DiRT 3, as well as the hardcore spin-off DiRT Rally all offered a set of driving physics that were equally satisfying regardless of whether you commandeered your rally car with a generic gamepad or pricey toy steering wheel, this integral portion of the core gameplay experience never once carried over to Codemasters’ officially licensed Formula One games on the other side of the studio. From the series’ inception in 2010 (I don’t count the awful Wii game), flashy graphics and a robust career mode were never enough to distract you from the abhorrent driving physics – which despite praise from Formula One personalities past and present, never once resembled the real thing. Year after year, Codemasters would put out a game that looked great on paper, all the way up until you started turning laps for yourself after paying the pricey entry fee.
Enter David Greco, a real life racing instructor and avid sim racer, who was recruited by Codemasters in the spring of 2014 to help inject some element of simulation value into the high profile Formula One series. While the first few releases were shaky, Formula One 2017 signifies the exact moment this partnership has paid off. This is no longer an awkward Codemasters grand prix game, complete with strange wheelspin physics, insanely high lateral grip, and a very uncomfortable feeling on the edge of adhesion; out on the track, F1 2017 has more in common with the PC simulators Greco plays in his leisure time than any other game in the Codemasters library, past or present.
Does that mean the cars are now total death traps to control for all but the most talented of sim racers? Well, no, it’s quite the opposite actually. Rather than sim racers being forced to learn and understand all of the typical Codemasters quirks we’ve seen over the years, what’s now happened is that the cars are predictable, intuitive, and responsive at the limit. Driving deep into a corner, laying on the brakes for the minimum amount of time needed, and then rolling into the throttle while the back end struggles to plant itself is now a natural feeling, and you can really wheel the cars for that extra tenth or two, as opposed to years past when this was all down to car setup and approaching corners in the way the physics engine wanted you to. There is still a limit to what you can get away with – whether that means plowing through a corner or smoking the wall – but unlike past iterations, it’s something you can jump in and grasp, rather than being turned off by it.
The sensation behind the wheel in F1 2017 is comparable to my time spent in Reiza’s Time Trial of the Week competition for Automobilista earlier this year. Once a kind alien had provided me with some of his private setups for the Formula V10 we were all turning laps in for that particular week, I went from white-knucking the car around the circuit, to being surprised how easy it was to wheel it with a proper setup by someone who understood what they were doing in the garage area. F1 2017 doesn’t feel like there are hidden aids on to assist the car in remaining stable, it just feels like a good dude in the community gave you his entire setup collection, and out of the box the car is working with you, rather than against you. Some of the older sim racers among us will spend the next few months screeching that Formula One cars shouldn’t be this intuitive to drive, and a Codemasters game should never be considered a simulator, yet the minuscule list of fatalities in the series since 1994, coupled with unprepared personalities like Yuji Ide appearing on the grid in the mid 2000’s, gives more weight to the idea that maybe what Codemasters have produced isn’t all that far off.
So while hotlapping is fun, the time trial mode benefiting from a diverse array of cars from the 80’s and 90’s on top of the absolutely wild 2017 machinery, not to mention a few additional short layouts like Suzuka East and Silverstone National to pad the track count, where Formula One 2017 shines the most is where it previously drew the most criticism. Again, while the off-road games from the studio were traditionally bundled with exceptional artificial intelligence, past Formula One entries have been an absolute disaster when it came to racing against a field of computer opponents during any of the game’s offline modes. Though F1 2016 made slight improvements in this area, Formula One 2017 is practically an entirely different game in the way you’re able to race the bots door-to-door, lap after lap. Rather than being ruthless cunts who refuse to give you an inch, and would often flat-out wreck you for not yielding when they felt they had a position, the AI cars have now been programmed to operate under a “player first” mentality – though their aggression has not been compromised as a result. Poke your wing under the tire of an AI car, and though it would be virtually impossible for them to know you’re there in reality, the bot will provide you with just over a lane to work with, and allow you to maintain your line until somebody concedes the position.
It’s an AI behavior that I feel could be easily exploitable in the hands of a skilled player – merely throw the car into a corner and the AI will always yield to your presence so long as you enter their predetermined safe space – but the pros in this instance far outweigh the cons. Insane opening lap wrecks are a thing of the past, pack racing during the first few laps is exhilarating, and the traditional single file procession produces exponentially less bullshit scenarios when an AI driver attempts to take the position from you, or vice versa. This doesn’t mean the AI have been slowed down, however; at the same time, I’d say they’re more aggressive than in years past. Cars no longer contemplate their life choices and awkwardly twitch back and forth before setting up for an overtake, and cars/drivers that are outright quicker than you, whether it be down to equipment or driver skill, will still manage to hold their own and reclaim the position if you force them to run an alternative line.
Combined with the introduction of a traditional numbered difficulty slider rather than named preset skill levels, and you’re looking at a grand prix game that isn’t just an improvement compared to previous iterations in the series; you’re looking at something that will undoubtedly challenge Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix 4 as the undisputed king of offline racing.
And obviously, that’s a pretty big deal when you consider that Formula One 2017 was constructed primarily as a single player experience. Sure, there are plenty of online options for those wanting to tackle a season with their buddy, set up a quick session, or host a multi-week online championship, but the reality is that the meat of Formula One 2017 lies in its extensive career mode and its overarching presentation. With elaborate TV-style introductions for each session, copious amounts of lighthearted paddock shots, complex research and development trees, equipment degradation, quality assurance checks on developed parts, and no shortage of in-game personalities holding your hand through the on-site team headquarters, it’s hard to believe that on the other side of the genre, sim racers are being wooed by mere custom championship tools. Again, the simdads will cry foul at all of these distracting elements supposedly taking away from the core driving experience, but when the rest of the genre is permanently stuck somewhere between 2006 and 2008, it’s absolutely bewildering to be graced with a game that exhibits this level of detail and immersion. Formula One 2017 is not merely just a game that features F1 cars and tracks from the current season; it’s our equivalent to FIFA or Madden, and something we as a community can be genuinely proud of.
And then there’s the classic cars. While the inclusion of 80’s/90’s/00’s content isn’t anything new – we saw most of the same vehicles appear in Formula One 2013 a few years ago – what is new is how they’re handled. Though promotional material claims you’ll be able to drive these in easy-going Career mode challenges after being discovered by what’s essentially a sugar daddy, the reality is that Codemasters have essentially gone and recreated an unlicensed version of BOSS GP for you to dick around with at your leisure if you never plan on touching the main campaign mode at all – and of course, all of these cars are unlocked from the start. Drawing inspiration from the real-world Big Open Single Seaters Grand Prix series, where wealthy gentlemen purchase retired F1 and Champcars for use in short multi-class competition events, Codemasters have provided players with the ability to partake in several offline championships with these cars to get some additional use out of them. In short, the hype surrounding their inclusion is actually justified, as an entire portion of the game has been dedicated to them.
While the 2017 cars are every bit as crazy and exciting to drive on their own, having a fleet of highly recognizable cars from the 80’s, 90’s, and of course the 2000’s just adds to the already stellar package Codemasters have created. Given how enjoyable the driving experience is compared to years past, blasting around these ultra-high fidelity circuits in something absurd like the Ferrari F2004 is the proverbial icing on the cake. These cars all have their own individual character as well, so the high-horsepower cars on grooved slicks may reach impossibly high top speeds, but also take a bit more to slow down, and some setup work to plant the rear end when you get on the power. My lap at Australia in the F2004 was a full second faster than the real life pole time, but in taking the same car to Sao Paulo, I only clicked off a lap just five tenths faster than Barrichello, so in terms of the almighty simulation value we all bitch endlessly about, Formula One 2017 is right in line with the other pieces of software the diehards hold in such high regard.
But of course, even though this game ships with dynamic weather, a dynamic racing line, dynamic drying line in wet weather conditions, puddles on the race track, a voice activated race engineer, engine degradation based on the five key components of the engine, fuel mixture management, parc ferme rules, weekend tire selection, engine component management between races, a comprehensive R&D tree, animated pit stops, a formation lap, three types of yellow flag periods, manual race starts, manual pit lane control accompanied by a pit limiter toggle (new for this year), wheel tethers during accidents, dirty air, tire punctures, and unique practice programs to automatically generate a custom-tailored pit stop strategy to your needs, elitist sim racers will still sperg over the mere mention of this game on hardcore-oriented simulation websites, implying this is a game for teenagers to pretend they’re some kind of pretend Formula One driver and nothing more.
Formula One 2017 is the greatest racing simulator that has ever been created. This $60 purchase is impossibly good, and while we’ve had to suffer through some abominations from Codemasters in previous years, this one has been well worth the wait. This is the absolute pinnacle of driving games, and ignoring this modern masterpiece in favor of ultra-stale simulators that offer little more than “here are some cars and some tracks” is only reinforcing the stereotype that sim racers merely use their favorite genre of games as an elitist masturbatory tool. In a rare instance, the unanimous glowing reviews surrounding Formula One 2017 are not the work of paid shills, but rather the result of perseverance from a team who certainly got their shit together.