F1 2016 – Review
PC, Xbox One, PS4
Ask anyone who’s in the know and they’ll tell you that the best F1 game of all time is Grand Prix 4 – the final of the series created by the legendary Geoff Crammond. For years, Codemasters insisted on touting it as a benchmark for their games. But year after year, they never came close. Sure, we saw an incremental improvement in each iteration, but nothing that could shine a light on Crammond’s masterpiece.
With F1 2015 came a hint of promise. The car handling improved ten-fold and with it, the racing. But 2015 suffered from the same systemic downgrade as other games did in their first foray into new hardware and, hence, wasn’t as well received as it should’ve been. As it turns out, it was the perfect baseline for Codemasters to build on, and oh what a difference a year makes. Not only is F1 2016 one of the best racing games to come out in recent times – and there isn’t exactly a shortage of them – but it commandingly takes the crown from the Grand Prix series as the best F1 game of all time.
Big words, I know. But here’s why I’m right.
F1 2016 brings back a number of staple F1 features to the series – career mode and the safety car being the two most requested features fans wanted to see make a comeback. I’ll explain the safety car in a second, though, because the career mode is, to be blunt, spectacular.
Finally, you can create your own avatar, complete with your name and personal race number. This, just like in real life, is the number you’ll race with throughout your F1 career. The expectations on your performance will depend on what team you pick to start your career with. It is possible to start with a top team like Mercedes or Ferrari, though you’re expected to win races, or at least be on the podium from the outset. Whereas if you’re like me and choose to race with a lower end team, like Renault or Manor, expectations are that you’ll beat your teammate, but not necessarily to fight for points. This can change over time, depending on your past performances, as well as how the team expects the car to perform against the competition.
Codemasters have flirted with the concept of improving a car through R&D over the course of a season in the past, but it was applied poorly – in a way that would make Pastor Maldonado seem graceful. In F1 2016, R&D is handled far more elegantly, giving you instant feedback on just how much improvement each upgrade is expected to give compared to the competition. It’s also graphs out where your car sits in terms of performance against the others, giving you a good visual guide as to where you are at in the development race compared to your immediate rivals.
For the first time ever outside of learning a new track, practice feels like an important and integral part of the race weekend. Car development is fueled by resource points, which are earned by completing the team’s pre-organised programmes during practice. These programmes include doing some track acclimatisation, tyre wear runs and a practice qualifying run. Each programme has a specific goal the team is trying to reach, be it a target lap time or target score. If you manage to hit it, you maximise the data the team gets back from your run and you earn a bunch of resource points, allowing you to put the R&D team to work on improving your car. Each area of the car you can pump resource points into gets progressively more expensive to research as you upgrade it, meaning that how you spend your points becomes part of the strategy. You might want to focus on a specific area of the car’s performance – in McLaren’s case you might want to pump everything into Honda’s engine department – or you might want to spread the R&D across all areas. Either way, it’s entirely up to you.
F1 2016’s presentation, from top to bottom, is the best the series has ever seen. From the TV style introductions for each track, complete with pre and post session coverage from Sky F1’s David Croft and Anthony Davidson, through to the smallest details like seeing your name above your own garage or noticing the driver’s legs swaying in the cockpit as the g-forces pull them from side to side. It’s slick without being obnoxious and strikes the right balance between tv-style presentation and maintaining the driver’s perspective, giving you that sense of anticipation you want before a race.
As for the build-up to the lights going out, that’s all gone through an overhaul with the addition of the formation lap and manual starts. The formation lap is where the drivers pull their cars off the grid, in order, and drive a pace lap before taking their place on the starting grid. Not only do you need to warm up your brakes and your tyres, but you need to keep your engine cool as well in order to maximise your start. A minor gripe with this is how it takes control away from you towards the end of the formation lap, instead automating the gridding process. It would’ve been cool to have to hit the prescribed two and a half burnouts you often hear about in real life to pump enough heat into the rear tyres for the start, but like I said. It’s of little concern.
Manual starts are such an integral part of modern F1 racing and I’m very happy to say they’ve been implemented with more elegance than I had expected. The process is simple; when the lights go on, press the gear up button (which acts as the clutch) and hold the revs in the optimal spot til the lights go out. Then release the clutch and you’re off. It’s so simple, but can easily gain, or cost, you four or five positions. One example is in my first career race at Monaco. I was driving for the Renault team who, without mincing words, don’t have a very good car this year. Still, I had somehow managed to qualify myself up in 7th place, behind the two Red Bulls, who were starting behind the two Ferrari’s in third and fourth. My engineer mics up and says not to push too hard into turn one, and that was to be my plan, until about half a second after the start. It was perfect. The lights came on and the tension was high. The engine revs, the lights go out and I pull away – perfectly. Meanwhile, both Ferrari’s completely bogged down off the line, as did both Red Bull’s. I went for the gap in the middle and the momentum difference was such that by the time we exited Saint Devote to head up the hill, I was in 4th. Fantastic.
Handling-wise, F1 2016 is as impressive as ever, not only feeling excellent with a gamepad but even better with a force feedback wheel. Tweaks to the handling and the force feedback models are noticeable from 2015 and, as such, it results in an even more satisfying driving experience. The simple act of driving a Formula One car in a Codemasters game feels pleasurable, and you don’t know how good it feels to finally say that. Differences between tyre compounds are easily felt, as is the difference between a wet and dry track. I’m still a little up in the air over the transitions back from wet to dry and exactly how the drying line works, but it still looks and feels better than it has in any previous iteration.
Did I mention how excellent this game looks? Because it’s jaw-dropping at times. I’m not lying when I say you’d be hard pressed telling some of the wider shots apart from real life with all the details set up to Ultra High. Granted, you’ll need a pretty beefy PC to do that, but my goodness it’s great. There is something about being able to see each individual droplet of rain as it falls towards your visor that could make a grizzled hard-arse like Ron Dennis smile. The damage model has been improved as well, with the wheel tethers making their first appearance, as well as the new Simulation damage setting, which effectively just makes the car more prone to damage from car or barrier contact. Great if you like realism, bad if you like driving into walls.
Then there is the breadth of multiplayer options, and they are plentiful. Returning is the hopper system from last year, serving up a series of quick races for each lobby as players come and go. Then there are the custom races which are good for when you want to set up a session for you and some friends with the settings set just how you like. Lastly, the thing that makes me happiest above all is the return of the multiplayer championship. Now you and your most patient and committed friends can fight it out for the Drivers and Constructors world championships like Mercedes pair Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
Look, I could go on and on and on about this game for, oh, at least another few thousand words. But I won’t. What I will tell you is that I have given this so much thought and I can’t come up with anything other than to say that, without any shadow of a doubt, this is the best Formula One game that’s ever been made. That’s not to say it’s perfect, because it’s not, but I’ll be damned if I can’t find anything that’s glaringly wrong. As someone who holds the Grand Prix series above all else in F1 racing game terms, I am as shocked as you are, but the title has finally changed hands. The extensive career mode, lively yet precise car handling and the longest list of tiny details I can remember being pushed into a Codemasters game are just some of the many reasons why you, or any F1 or racing game fan should go and buy F1 2016. Right now.
James Swinbanks is a Games Critic currently writing for GameSpot, although you’ll still occasionally see him popping up on Player 2, because frankly, he loves the smell of the place.