Formula One games and the real sport have an odd kind of synergy. The first true simulation game, Geoff Crammond’s iconic Formula One Grand Prix (released in the USA as World Circuit) in 1992, captured the peak of Mansell-mania. Grand Prix 2, released in 1996 but featuring the 1994 season, is essentially a memorial of a year that saw F1 change irrevocably for many reasons, some of them tragic. The PlayStation games Formula 1 and Formula 1 ‘97, developed by future Project Gotham and Geometry Wars studio Bizarre Creations, were probably the best console renditions for the next decade; the subsequent decline in the general quality of F1 games (as the license flitted between almost invariably lame efforts from EA and Sony, despite a couple more valiant PC examples from Crammond) mirrored the decline of the sport as Michael Schumacher and Ferrari dominated to such a degree between 2000 and 2004 that the main interest became who would finish second. Hardly a compelling concept.
It took the back-to-back world championship wins of Fernando Alonso in 2005 and 2006 to reinvigorate wide interest in the sport; Sony made an attempt to capitalize on this with the PS3-exclusive F1: Championship Edition, which arrived in early 2007 to moderate acclaim. But as the sport went from strength to strength with some classic seasons, incredibly close championship battles and inspired changes to the regulations, no more games appeared until Codemasters acquired the license and announced their intentions. F1 2009 would be a quick proof-of-concept game developed by Sumo Digital and released only for PSP and Wii, but F1 2010 would be the real deal, painstakingly developed in-house for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. And it could hardly have been better timed, as the real-life 2010 season (still ongoing as of this writing) is without doubt one of the all-time great seasons, with almost every race so far being enthralling, and with one of the closest battles for the championship in the sport’s history.
F1 2010 is instantly recognizable as a game from the Codemasters racing stable. The gorgeous menu system seen in games such as GRiD and the Dirt series is given a refined, even somewhat understated F1 paddock-style coat of polish, and the visually stunning Ego engine powers some truly spectacular graphics; the cars look extraordinarily tangible (even if the damage model is somewhat limited), the paddock bustles with people, the pit crews are fully active, and the 19 tracks of the 2010 season look absolutely phenomenal, from the historical Monza in Italy to the brand-new Yeongam in South Korea, from the magnificent anachronism of Monaco (likened by three-time F1 champion Nelson Piquet to “riding a bicycle around your living room”) to the opulent absurdity of Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi and everywhere in-between. The framerate is largely rock-solid, only dipping occasionally in replays. Sound, too, is excellent, as the visceral screams of the 800hp V8 engines redlining at 18,000rpm are conveyed beautifully, and you can hear the locations of competing cars even more easily than seeing them; your race engineer (a Geordie-accented character named Rob, a not-so-subtle nod to Ferrari’s much-loved Rob Smedley) will also keep you updated over your radio while you’re out on the track. The questionable physics system seen in the older Ego games, where the cars would seem to pivot around a spike driven right through the middle of them, is mercifully gone, replaced by physics that allow for handling that real F1 drivers such as Anthony Davidson and Adrian Sutil have described as, if not 100% realistic, then certainly close enough to get the point – and the feel – across. An array of well-designed driver aids and several AI skill levels mean newcomers need not be intimidated, however.
That said, even experienced drivers should feel intimidated by F1 2010’s extraordinary weather system, which Codemasters has been keen to push as a bullet point on the run-up to release, and with very good reason. F1 races can and do take place in the rain, and such conditions almost invariably produce classic races due to the extra variables thrown into the mix. F1 2010’s weather effects are not only breathtaking to look at, but also have a very real effect on how to drive. Water droplets form on your helmet visor. Get in the spray from behind another car and visibility will be enormously reduced. Grip is naturally far harder to come by than in the dry, but that’s what the two types of wet-weather tyres are for. The weather can change during a session, too; as the rain eases off, a dry line will form on the track. Wet-weather tyres might start to overheat, but going off the racing line and through standing water can alleviate that. Making the right call as to when to change tyres can mean the difference between a glorious win and ignominious defeat. It’s all here, and never before has an F1 game nailed this aspect of the sport so amazingly well. And, of course, you can choose your weather conditions or let the dynamic weather system take its course, with rain’s appearance depending on the track’s real-world location; it’s far more likely in Malaysia or Belgium than in Bahrain or Abu Dhabi, for instance.
You begin the game thrust straight into Career mode, with BBC Radio presenter Holly Samos (in a disappointingly phoned-in performance) asking you a few questions in a press conference. You have secured a drive with one of the smaller teams on the grid. Your available choices depend on your initial difficulty level and the number of seasons (3, 5 or 7) you opt to compete in over your career; perhaps you’ll be limited to 2010’s new trio of Lotus, Virgin and HRT, or maybe midfield options like BMW Sauber or Force India will be open to you. The bigger, front-running teams like Ferrari or McLaren will later express interest in hiring you if you do well enough in what is effectively your apprenticeship. You’d better get used to answering a few questions here and there, as Samos and BBC Radio F1 anchor David Croft (who acquits himself rather better) will corner you outside your team’s motorhome or at post-race press conferences. There’s not a lot of depth to this “Live the Life” aspect of the game, but your answers can alter the perception of you by your own team and others on the grid, which can bring various benefits or drawbacks. Somewhat more successful is the team-mate challenge, where the game compares you and your team-mate in a variety of criteria. Take the upper hand in the team, and car upgrades and even the entire R&D direction the team will take can be skewed towards your preferences as the season rolls on.
Besides the Career mode, F1 2010 also offers a few other ways to play. Time Trial mode is just you and the track, and whichever car you pick will have equal performance, so any difference is purely cosmetic. Grand Prix mode allows you to run a single race, a full season or even a custom season constructed how you wish, with myriad options. Want to run a quick 3-lap race with a random grid order? Go for it. Prefer a full race weekend with all three practice sessions, three qualifying sessions and a full race distance that could last close to two hours? Sure. Something somewhere in-between? It’s all there, and offers however much depth you feel like taking on.
In this day and age, of course, few games can get away with no multiplayer, least of all a sports/racing game. F1 2010 takes everything in the Grand Prix mode and more besides into its multiplayer offering, the only real drawback being that, due to the netcode not being able to handle the full grid of 24 cars at once and the F1 license requiring all the teams be treated equally, only 12 cars will be on track at once, one per real-world team. Still, considering the vast majority of online racing games only support a maximum of 8 players, F1 2010 has a leg-up on much of its competition here, and it’s a rare racing game that offers this level of strategy – or even practice and qualifying. F1 2010, of course, gives you all of it.
The game does have a few glitches, but in this reviewer’s experience (20-ish hours racked up in the game so far), nothing game-breaking. A competing car once turned into a ghost and drove right through mine to make a pit stop, and sometimes the game will hitch briefly as I’m driving out of the pit garage. The cars’ motion into the pits can also seem unnaturally jerky a lot of the time. Some players across the various formats have reported corrupted save files, a serious issue in a game so centered on its lengthy Career mode, but on the Xbox 360 version tested here, no such issue has yet been encountered by your reviewer. Still, caveat emptor; Codemasters have made it clear they are aware of the game’s teething issues and are investigating fixes. (Edit: it appears the corrupted save bug is caused by backing out to the paddock after doing an R&D session in practice. It is detailed here, it can be easily worked around for now, and a patch is forthcoming.)
I can forsee spending many, many long and happy hours with F1 2010. As a racing game, it’s very different to the Gran Turismos and Forzas of the world; by taking a single motorsport series and simulating it to the best of its ability, it hearkens back to how racing games once were. You won’t be buying parts and painting your car, but that’s not what this game is even trying to compete with. As a simulation, F1 2010 isn’t really trying to appeal – too much – to the rFactor or iRacing crowd, for whom hardcore ultra-realism to the detriment of all else is far more important than fun. (Cue hate mail.) It’s still plenty realistic enough for the enormous majority of gamers, and manages to be so without sacrificing accessibility; although it’s not setting out to be a simple, easy-to-pick-up arcade racer, it’s more than happy to ease you into its complexities, or simply take care of them for you if you just want a quick blast around a track.
This is, quite simply, the best F1 game since Geoff Crammond’s rightly revered Grand Prix series concluded with GP4 back in 2002. And as someone who has enjoyed those particular games – and considered them utterly peerless – for 18 years now, I don’t say that lightly. F1 2010 is occasionally a tad rough around the edges, but is still frankly brilliant, and with F1 2011 already confirmed and F1 2012 very likely, both from the same team, it would seem that Formula One games are finally back in very safe hands.