Formula 1 has lost a bit of its charm in recent years. Races that were once impossible to predict now follow a plodding formula. Week after week you tune in hoping for drama, only to see the same face smiling back at you from the top of the podium. The racing year is a drawn out victory procession for Sebastian Vettel, and just how early he’ll secure his crown is the only unknown.
That makes the virtual iteration of the classic sport all the more important: if you’re looking to get away from the dullness of the tarmac, then F1 2013 is the only game you’re going to turn to. It boasts new race modes and classic content (which I’ll go into later) along with improved visuals that squeeze every drop of juice out of the current generation. As with every racing game, however, F1 2013 will rightly be judged by the quality of its driving.
As you’d expect, this is no arcade racer. Under the hood you can make minute tweaks to your car’s engine, breaks, and front wing, hoping to shave a crucial few seconds off your times before a tough race. Tyres will degrade with use, so driving like a maniac will soon have your race engineer barking angrily in your ear like a pissed off pit bull. Fuel will run out, leaving your car running on fumes for the ever-tense closing stages of a race. This is not for the faint hearted.
Break a second too late, and you’ll smash into a tyre wall, ending your race. A second too early and your rival will slip past you, unravelling all your hard work in the blink of an eye. The key to controlling your car is smooth breaking in a straight line where possible, and controlled acceleration away from the corner. You’ll be surprised at just how unforgiving the game is if you get on the power too early, and regular spin outs at crucial moments will not do your blood pressure any favours, especially when you’ve run through your finite pool of flashbacks – which allow you to go back in time for a short while before your mistake.
The difficulty can be offset by begrudgingly accepting your incompetence and turning on the various automatic driving assists, with full traction control, racing lines, and a braking aid that ensures you won’t be hurtling into hairpins at full throttle. Armed with these helpful tools, you will start to see your times improve, and you’ll be able to gradually wean yourself off them until you’re driving perfectly all by yourself, like the first time you had the stabilisers removed from your bike.
This is when you realise just how good the driving in F1 2013 is. When the hours of sweat and rage restarts finally climax in a flawless race in which you’ve clipped every apex, it’s one hell of a pay-off. When the computer assisted controls are off, controls are razor sharp, and the experience is accompanied by superb audio affects and realistic AI (finally) that really put you in the drivers cockpit until the chequered flag flies.
What I’m trying so say is that the driving is bloody brilliant, once you get used to it. Unfortunately, it’s the learning curve that might put some people off the game’s core offering: career mode. Once you boot up the game for the first time, you’ll be faced with a mundane “young drivers test”, which is both a tutorial and an assessment for the rest of the game: you’ll learn the basic controls and your performance will determine which teams you can join at the start of your virtual F1 career.
That career, once you finally get there, seems unashamedly long. Races can take hours to complete, and the option of full race weekends including practice days and lengthy qualifying sessions means you could spend days playing the career mode without scratching the surface. Even on the shortest settings, races will last a good half-hour, and the occasional restart for a bad mistake makes it a gruelling task.
It’s very satisfying to see your grid places improve through the year and receive contract offers for the big boys, but the career mode requires you to put a lot in before you can really start enjoying its true potential. For that reason, a lot of people will pack it in after a few low finishes and search for action elsewhere.
Luckily, elsewhere is just where a lot of the action is, with more game modes than ever before slotted into the game’s starting grid.
There’s Grand Prix mode, a simple one of race of customisable length with a real life driver, and season challenge mode, which features a shortened season of 10 races of five laps each and one shot qualifying in the build up to each weekend.
Scenario mode is the highlight. It places you in situations of varying difficulty – and realism – and asks you to complete a specific objective. Not only will they test your pure driving skills but also your ability to adapt to different situations. Sure, you can slip round corners like a pro on a sunny day in Monte Carlo. But can you get past Vettel on a soaking wet day in Montreal? You can? In that case, can you nurse a car – carrying a broken gearbox – over the line without sacrificing your hard earned race points?
The game’s classic content created a real buzz in the build up to release, with the promise of Murray Walker shouting “And it’s go, go, go” as 90s Ferraris pull away from the line whetting enthusiast’s appetites. And as cool as it is to hurtle round Brand’s Hatch in a Williams FW07, there’s just not enough content here to provide you with anything more than an entertaining slide show. Purists will revel in it for a few hours a best, and then get leave it in the past.
F1 2013 feels like the result of years of masterful engineering. As a driving game, it’s hard to beat, and improves in almost every way on Codemaster’s previous offerings. The controls are tight, the modes varied, and the amount of content huge. If you’re not into F1 then you might be put off by the difficulty and the learning curve, but if you can make it through the first few hours then you’re in for one hell of a ride.