When asked, "what is your favourite F1 game of all time" my immediate answer has been Geoff Crammond's GP3: 2000 Edition. Whilst not the most graphically superior racing game even at the time, what it did have was pure realism and racing depth which is rare to find in a gaming realm. Well, 15 years on the answer to that same question now may very well be Codemasters' F1 2016.
This is the eighth F1 game by Codemasters to have appeared on a console and second on the current generation of PS4/XboxOne. Last years effort was okay: they had nailed the handling but lacked the actual content you'd expect to find in a sports game - where was the career mode and minutiae detail that F1 is known for? It was no surprise we only scored it a 5/10. This year it is very different - F1 2016 is a feature-rich, true representation of Formula 1 and an immersive racing game in its own right.
The key feature of any sports game is an immersive career that puts you in control of creating a potential star, immersing you in the sport you follow with passion. Codemasters has delivered an excellent experience here. You get to choose which of the 11 teams you wish to start in - each with their own expectations and goals for the season ahead. Choose a drive with Mercedes and you will be expected to be fighting for races and the title in your first year. Choose a drive with Manor and finishing in 16th place will be considered a success. I started off my career in Renault, choosing to take Kevin Magnussen's seat so my teammate is Jolyon Palmer.
You then move to being sat at a table within the motorhome at the first race of the year. The visuals are great and you can tell which track you are at just by looking out the motorhome ahead of you - a nice creative edge which hasn't been seen before. You are soon given your objectives for the season ahead and as you progress through the weekend you're given updates on your team's expectations for that race weekend. A nice addition this time around is that your race goal comes in the form of objectives such as "You must finish this weekend 16th place or higher in the championship" - so if you have a bad race but still classified within that target, your team are not disappointed with you.
As the weekend starts, the introduction brought to you with the same classy approach you get on the official TV feed with commentary. You find yourself sat in the garage with options of three different testing programmes to go through - track acclimatisation, tyre management and qualifying simulation. It's nice to see ways to fill up a practice session, all the while earning resource points you can use to develop your car. It would be nice, however, if there were 10+ different programmes within the game and three were chosen for each weekend to provide variety within each race weekend.
A key feature constantly asked for in F1 gaming has been the parade lap to form the grid and it is great to see it in F1 2016. It's good see there is full control but it could be easily improved upon - if you hit another car there should be a penalty (start from pitlane maybe?) and you should remain in full control to align your spot on the grid. There is also an annoying game save moment (screen goes black for a second) before the lights appear which disrupts the flow and excitement of a race start.
The racing itself though is excellent. The handling is spot on, your pit strategies work, you can change strategy mid-race and the battles with competitors are close and fair - the ability to go wheel-to-wheel around a corner and attack knowing you won't end in the wall has made this game so much more enjoyable. Still running at a super-smooth 60fps, F1 2016 is a fun and enjoyable racing experience just not found in many other racing titles. Sure, Project CARS comes close, but 71 laps around the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez is an enjoyable drive where you can push or manage accordingly in F1 2016, whereas in Project Cars you feel the car trying to snap away from you every second.
After the race you get the same podium ceremony and driver celebrations, but the driver's faces still look awkward on the podium. If Codemasters decide to redo this in a future game, they really need to capture the drivers smiling - a rare sight I know. Back in the motorhome you can spend your resource points on developing the car, understand how you rate against your rival, see a great new screen that shows your past race results and see how you rank against the community on your race weekend performance. The career experience is what you want and expect - in F1 2015 I did not complete a single season after owning the game for a year, whereas in F1 2016, I'm on the penultimate race of season one after 7 weeks.
It's not all roses however and of course there are areas that can be improved upon. Upon loading the game, the menus are quite bland and the menu structure remains unchanged pretty much year-on-year. Likewise, while the car development section of the game is an excellent feature, it is hard to know whether the game difficulty is set incorrectly or whether the AI difficulty is being made easier as a car is developed. I qualified six seconds off of pole at Baku, yet qualified on pole at Mexico. I doubt the Renault can improve on performance by that amount during the season, so it seems some balancing issues do remain within the game. The practice programmes also become tedious after about 20 races.
The tyre management testing programme is plain difficult in F1 2016 and you have to teeter around a track to get the optimum performance - the reality is that it is very different to how you race in the game.
There are presentation issues, too. Commentary at the start of each race weekend gets repetitive and you see the same driver interactions in their garages - it would be nice to see greater variations and scenes taken from different angles and areas of the F1 paddock. The pit crew are the same regardless of which team you drive for - and why do they all look like they are in their 50's?
A victory/slow-down lap would be nice to pick up marbles, interact with the crowd, perform burnouts and all that fun stuff, as would being able to turn into the pits and into parc ferme.
There are now so many things you can ask your race engineer it's nigh on impossible to do the movement on the gamepad to select the option you want to ask within the very short period of time you are given to select it. Although the option to tell Geoff to "shut up" is great. Whilst it is great to change strategy mid-race, if you decide not to, the engineer should accept your decision and not ask you every further lap.
Also, where is the engine management? It would be great if you decide to push your engine for a particular race but it could mean you wear it out quicker - over the course of a championship we have learnt how critical managing your five engines are.
Again, it’s the finer details that will set a game apart and take this franchise to the next level and as F1 gamers are perhaps the fussiest type of gamer out there (myself included) we are always wanting more. But Codemasters should be proud of themselves in getting there eventually.