F1 2017 is the latest annual release from Codemasters in the F1 franchise. Annual releases are a painful subject in the gaming industry, and recently, Assassin's Creed took a year off from the relentless cycle, to great effect. I took advantage of the Steam free weekend for F1 2017 and its heavy discount in order to run it through its paces.
About your reviewer
I'm a bit of a petrolhead. I've played just about every car-related game on PC and some on consoles as well, going all the way back. I know driving games, from iRacing to Assetto Corsa and Project CARS.
I know F1 games as well. Not just the Codemasters annual franchise. We're talking Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix 2 and onwards.
I don't normally establish my credentials before any review, but in the case of the motor racing genre, it's often helpful to know that I am approaching it from the experienced end of the spectrum, as opposed to a "generic" game reviewer with no specialised car or driving knowledge.
The case for a yearly release
This is a tough call. FIFA or Football Manager could easily be exactly the same game every year and offer downloads for club roster updates. Instead, the lucrative microtransactions in FIFA (worth far more than the actual sales of the base game) and the chance to resell a slightly tweaked title each year with Football Manager is what drives developers to essential recycle a game.
The F1 series is slightly different. The sport continues to change regulations, practice and qualifying formats, and technology every year. It's not just a simple case of updating a few driver names and car liveries: some years, it's almost like a completely different motorsport.
Having said that, some things don't change. You don't need to 3D model Silverstone every year from scratch: it changes little, if it all.
Let's just say Codemasters have a stronger case for a yearly franchise than other titles, but I'm still not entirely convinced, and wouldn't be the type to slap down £50 every year to get the latest title as soon as it releases. Hence this delayed review.
Suffice is to say that before publishers realised that they could milk consumers dry for every penny they owned, I was quite content to rely on the modding scene for Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix 3 to update the car liveries, driver names, and tracks, to keep the game concurrent with the real world sport.
Do you even sim, bro?
Motor racing games have always fallen somewhere on the line between full simulation and full arcade. Nobody's going to claim Micro Machines is anything like a realistic driving simulator, but there are plenty that might say F1 2017 is the closest to the real-world sport you can possibly get.
Please take that opinion and immediately throw it in the trash. Codemasters games fall somewhere right in the middle of arcade and simulation. The most realistic experience available for this type of racing is iRacing.
Why has nobody heard of this? The audience for an always-online, multiplayer-only racing simulator that charges for each track and car, and also charges a monthly subscription fee, and requires a steering wheel, is pretty small. Hence the limited knowledge. The reason iRacing is able to offer such an insanely detailed simulation is also the reason that people are willing to pay a premium to access it.
So why F1 2017 then, if there's "better" simulations out there? Sometimes you just want to pay your money and get a game, without the need for a monthly subscription. Sometimes it's nice to play a single player game. Not everyone has a steering wheel, and not everyone knows the effect of high negative camber on a car's handling, let alone wants to have to set all that up just to get into some racing.
There's nothing wrong with that of course. It's nice to have a bit of fun, just you and the PC, with a controller sometimes. But let's be clear: F1 2017 is distinctly halfway between sim and arcade experience. I have few doubts that it's the most immersive F1 driving experience available today. And that might be enough.
The decline of Codemasters
There was a time, way back in gaming history, with which newer or younger gamers might be unfamiliar, in which Codemasters leaned much more heavily towards simulation. They released titles such as Colin McRae Rally and TOCA 2, on much less powerful systems than available today, and were much more influenced by the core gameplay than the polish, bells and whistles of today's Codemasters.
Gaming, and gamers, evolve over time. Codemasters have carved out a niche within the "not quite sim but very accessible" style of racing games that are very popular with today's mainstream audience, and, in doing so, have alienated themselves from the hardcore sim racer.
Games like iRacing and Assetto Corsa focus on the pure simulation behind the driving. Others like Forza and Gran Turismo focus on the sheer variety of vehicles and driving styles available in the world of motor racing. Codemasters tend to focus on the high polish, high accessibility games that, it turns out, are hugely popular.
They've no doubt left their roots behind as hardcore simulations, and to some, that's the best thing in the world, while, to others, it's a crying shame. Whatever your own opinion, it is what it is, so let's dive a bit deeper.
Controller, or wheel?
Racing games are strange in that they tend to favour one control method quite heavily. In iRacing or Assetto Corsa, you pretty much have to have a steering wheel to play. Sure, the support controllers, in the same way you could drive a tractor to the supermarket: it's possible, but not at all practical.
The F1 series has always favoured the accessibility provided by controllers, and Codemasters have put little effort into the responsive, highly customisable realism provided by steering wheel support. Sure, you can use a wheel with F1 2017, but once you've played games that properly support a good steering wheel setup, it's left highly wanting, and the experience is just much better on a controller. It's a divisive topic, for sure, and your own mileage may vary.
It's hard to argue that this is a very good looking game. On PC, there's a great variety of options for getting the visuals set up the way you want, within the confines of your available hardware.
Less impressive is the stuttering issue. While I was able to get a mostly solid 60 frames per second in 4k on a GTX 1080 Ti and an i9-7900 while in the driving seat, there's a huge issue where the game will lag momentarily, perhaps due to loading some texture or model, while out on track. Thankfully this isn't common, but I experienced it at least once in every race, sometimes multiple times, and it's the kind of thing that is absolutely going to mess up your driving.
Whereas you could excuse this in a slower paced game like Civilization or Take on Mars, it's unacceptable in this type of game, where you're making precise controller inputs very quickly and at very specific moments in time. It's not something that will entirely ruin the game, but something to be aware of.
Less impressive were the out-of-car visuals, such as the views of the pit wall or the crew area, or even the replay system, which perform hugely worse, for some reason. I was barely able to get 30 frames per second out of these, sometimes dipping below 20. It's not anywhere near as important, because you're not in control of much at these times, and I'd always rather a developer focuses performance optimisation on the parts that matter, but it's still somewhat disappointing.
The main appeal of the game is no doubt the fully featured career mode, which is impressive. You begin by creating yourself a driver, and then pick a team to join, and you're able to play through a number of seasons, either starting at the top with Ferrari or Mercedes, or at the bottom with Haas, and trying to progress.
I do wish less effort had been put into the character creation system and more elsewhere: it's hugely irrelevant to offer so many customisation options like faces and helmet design, since you're not going to be seeing them very much and it doesn't affect gameplay in any way.
One curious omission in today's world of equality is the option to create a female driver. "Well, there's only men in Formula One, so that makes sense." Except that's not true. There have been a number of female drivers in the sport over the years, none hugely successful, but there's nothing in the rules that limits the gender of the competitors, and it's a shame that Codemasters didn't think to include this.
The other curious reason for this omission is that your character has no voice in the game, so there's no extra effort required here. Also, your manager (more on this later) and your radio operator will rarely say "he" when talking about the competition. It's almost always "they", suggesting that the inclusion of both genders was originally planned, and then pulled for some reason.
Stuff that isn't racing
For a game about F1 racing, there sure is a lot of stuff in this game that isn't racing. You are given a "manager" who will tell you what your season goals are and tell you about your rivals, and a whole bunch of other pretty weird things too.
Everything seems to be centred around your laptop, which involves loading a scene where you're in some luxurious "behind the scenes" area at the racetrack, and your menu is basically the screen of the laptop.
This is a bizarre design choice, because someone has obviously realised how hugely expensive it would be to 3D model all of the areas for every track, so you're left with the exact same areas at every circuit, with only the background changing to reflect where you are in the world, even down to the exact same fruit bowl on the table, with those same oranges in the same position forever. You can't eat the fruit, by the way.
After the initial "hello" from the manager (which takes place in a 3D environment you're never going to see again, by the way), the interactions are very limited, and she will leave you a voicemail which is basically the same 2 or 3 lines before every race, or occasionally appear in person, saying the same lines over and over again.
I'd rather the budget was spent on more racing-focus elements of the game, because this kind of thing can easily be represented by text on the screen, or a kind of simulated email system, often seen elsewhere such as Project CARS.
Formula One has always been less a pure driver sport, and more about the combination of driver and underlying technology, in order to promote certain big-name manufacturers.
This is represented in game by technology research and development, and I have very mixed feelings about this one. You will need to collect "points" in order to "buy" upgrades on your car, which can range from engine performance, to aerodynamics, to durability of the car's components.
The plus side of this is that you are given a car that performs better or worse than your opposition, much like the real sport, so if you're picking a lesser team like Haas, you will have to driver better than your opponents in the Ferraris just to keep up. It also means you can pick a top team and have an advantage from the get-go, depending on your preference.
It also "kind of" simulates the progression of technology in various teams, in that the better you do as a driver, the better the team will do, because you will earn more R&D points and your car will be better than those of the other teams eventually. This is "sort of" how Formula One works, although not in the "collect R&D points" kind of way. Codemasters have abstracted the highly complicated world of money out of the game entirely, and this technology system is a largely adequate replacement.
I have a few beefs with this system. The largest is that it's too slow to collect points to be that interesting. It feels like the point distribution is very stingy, and this could be solved by having a larger upgrade tree so that you're picking upgrades more often. As it is, you need 1000 points to "buy" a decent upgrade, and it's very rare you can get 1000 points out of a single race weekend.
The other massive complaint I have is with the research failure system. For every upgrade you "buy", you need to wait a few races before it becomes available, but there's a chance that it will just be a failure, and you get nothing. This is controlled by nothing other than good old fashioned luck, and it's not acceptable to punish a player based on luck alone, especially in a game that relies so heavily on skill while on track. Game designers should know better.
There are some "instant upgrades" on which you can spend points in order to reduce the probability that some research will fail, but these are so gamey that it feels horrible to spend your hard-earned points on something that will enable your next set of points to possibly not be wasted. This entire system needs way longer in the oven.
This was a genuine facepalm moment for me. Why do we constantly need horribly gamey objectives like "this guy is your rival and you have to beat him or oh no, horrible things will happen" in our games?
Your teammate will be your rival initially, and you're rewarded "points" (yes, more point systems) for beating your rival in qualifying and in races. If you gain enough of these bullshit points, you "win" the "rivarly" and you get another one.
Here's my problem with this: playing as second driver for McLaren, not a top team at all, I was able to scrape a "rivalry" victory against my teammate, Alonso, and was instantly given another rival: Räikkönen. He was finishing in the top three almost every race, and was pretty much unbeatable given that my team didn't have a very good car.
This rivarly system is barely acceptable when it picks a reasonable rival to go up against, but when you're placed against impossible competition and you have no choice, your only option is to lower the AI difficulty so you can artificially boost your chances, which takes the whole fun out of career mode.
Codemasters need to stop force-feeding nonsense systems into games like this, and ensure the ones that are introduced are genuinely necessary and offer added value and fun for the player.
What's a practice session?
Codemasters have addressed one of the particularly long-standing issues with F1 games in a rather unique and novel way. For a gamer like me, who knows all the F1 circuits like they were second homes, there's very little reason to play through the practice sessions. It's easy enough to go straight to qualifying and get a decent grid position.
Codemasters' approach has been to "gamify" the practice sessions, and offer R&D points for completing particular objectives. This makes practice relevant again, but there are a few negatives as a result, too.
The objectives are the same at every practice session, but are quite varied. For example, one involves driving through a series of gates on the circuit, as fast as possible. I instantly thought this was a gimmick, a bit like "car bowling" in Forza (nobody asked for that, Turn 10, stop doing it!) but the gates are actually placed very sensibly on the racing line, so you're driving exactly as you would on an average flying lap.
The benefit here is that it allows players to get familiar with each circuit, in a practice setting, aiming to improve the number of gates traversed over a number of laps, and motivates players to learn the circuit instead of just jumping right into a race.
Less fun is the "fuel economy" practice objective, which rewards you for lifting the throttle early before a corner. Not only does this seem to be totally random, with the "objective bar" filling up seemingly different amounts for different corners, but it doesn't work in high-speed corners. Any average driver will know that the car is at its most stable under power through a corner, and the game is actively encouraging you to highly dangerously lift off the power through these, penalising you by failing the "test" if you don't.
The entire fuel objective is completely pointless, because at no point during an actual race will you be lifting early. The vehicle is fitted with a fuel map, which means if you're going to be low on fuel by the end, you can switch to a leaner mix, which will slow the car down but enable you to finish without the need to lift the throttle early.
See, the practice objectives are heavily tied into the R&D "points" system. The only way to get a reasonable number of points is to complete every objective, and some need to be completed multiple times with a different set of tyres or a different car setup. It's quite possible to skip them entirely, only, it's not, because you will get so few R&D "points" from each race that your team will fall behind massively and put you at a disadvantage.
A better system here would be to allow the practice objectives to be turned on or off when you're setting up a career (or in the middle of it), so you are automatically given a higher amount of R&D "points" for the race if you have this disabled. Let's not force players to do "gamey" stuff to serve a "gamey" system when some of them just want to race, eh?
Car setup and wear
I've never seen a Formula One game with so few car setup options! It's pretty lousy. Yes, you have control over the downforce, and a very limited number of spring setup options, but there's almost nothing to change that addresses more common issues you will face on the circuit.
Some of this is due to the real-world regulations, such as gear ratios being fixed, but at some point, you begin to ask when the real-world rules are interfering with the fun. Other options are totally absent, such as the more subtle adjustments to suspension setup, which would have been useful when setting up for rough street circuits like Monaco versus smooth, newer facilities like Bahrain.
One hugely crucial omission is steering lock. There is simply no option to increase the lock of the wheels to decrease the turning radius at low speeds. When racing at Monaco, the famous Casino hairpin is the slowest corner in the entire calendar, and I think someone in QA at Codemasters must have been snoozing on the job, because it's almost impossible to navigate this corner, even at slow speeds, without running out of room.
This does make the entire Monaco Grand Prix an exercise in frustration, instead of the joy it ought to be.
It's entirely possible to ignore the setup options entirely, as not every gamer is keen to learn the intricacies of the technical side of F1.
Another key feature of the career mode is the concept of "wear" on your vehicle's components. Parts like the gearbox and heat exchange will "wear" over time, and you are allowed four copies of each part for a season. If worn too heavily, they will begin to reduce the power of the vehicle or have other negative consequences.
Again, this is part of the real-world sport, so it's good to see it represented here, but again, it's been shoved in half-finished. There's not really any kind of warning on screen if you're planning to head into a race with a heavily worn part that might not make it through, and there's no real way of seeing how quickly parts will wear over the course of a season, or what the actual effect will be.
This ties in with the R&D system, and you can reduce the wear that occurs on your components by putting points into certain areas of the tree, but, without decent information on what actual effect it's going to have, it's hard to know whether spending those points is justified, or whether you are better off using them elsewhere.
It's nice to see a variety of options for race length in the career mode, but it's almost unfathomable why there isn't a full range. The options jump from "5 laps" to "25% real distance", which is a jump from 5 laps to 20 laps depending on the circuit, and that's massive. Why not just allow the player to choose either a number of laps, or a percentage of the real distance?
As it happens, 25% is a good figure to aim for, which will give you about 25 minutes of practice and qualifying, and 25 minutes of racing, for each circuit in a season. This gives you a total season time of about 20 hours, so ideal for players looking for a longer-form career.
However, there's bound to be players who find that 5 laps is just too short for any meaningful events to happen in a race, and 25% is too long to get through a season without significant time investment. There's absolutely no reason not to allow more options here, and it's going to annoy a lot of players, no doubt.
Although irrelevant for shorter races, in longer races, the pit strategy can be massively important in giving you an advantage over your competition. It's well represented here and there's a decent amount of options available to set it up as you please.
At Monaco, I was faced with a poor qualifying result, so I knew that the infamously narrow street circuit would make overtaking difficult. Instead, I opted for an early pit stop, putting me in last place until the other drivers pitted, giving me a clear road ahead.
The result was that I was able to make up time after my stop, and other driving were rejoining the track behind me, allowing me to gain places without the need for a dangerous overtake.
I love the flexibility on offer here, and, as with most of the other features, it's entirely optional. If you don't enjoy the strategy of stopping at different points in a race, you are able to leave it to the crew to make the decision on your behalf.
One slight niggle I have here is that sometimes the crew will decide, mid-race, that a different strategy might be better. This can be difficult to handle, because you have to decide for yourself whether you accept or reject the new strategy, and navigate a little menu system in the corner of the screen to give a response. It's disheartening that the system is not easier to use when you're in the middle of a tight battle for position on the track.
Also, my crew seemed to lack the mental ability to make a sensible suggestion, so I was constantly having to decline ridiculous pit strategies that would have helped push me way down the order by the end of the race.
It's nice to see the option to use the pit lane manually. When enabled, you will need to slow to the pit lane speed before arrival, and guide your car manually to the stop area, leaving you in total control. This offers little advantage over the automated system which will guide your car through the pit lane without exceeding the limits, but does add an element of immersion for those willing and capable.
It's a a bit cynical of Codemasters to include these, but every so often, a creepy looking beardy rich guy will show up and spout nonsense at you, inviting you to a special event. You are given the choice between two different events, but there's very little reason, I can see, to provide such a limit.
In these events, you'll be given a historical F1 car, and put on the track to achieve a specific objective, which might be to get a certain distance along the circuit before the time runs out, or to overtake a specific number of other vehicles.
The actual on-track experience here is glorious, especially for long-standing Formula One fans who remember these classic vehicles, and the screaming engines and less refined handling on offer will be a refreshing break from the otherwise pretty samey gameplay experience of the main career.
Unfortunately, this represents another squandered opportunity by Codemasters. You'll rarely be in the classic vehicles for more than two or three laps at a time, and the opportunity to drive one doesn't come about after every regular race.
I would love to see a full classic season, even just one, represented in this type of game, instead of the "sideshow afterthought" feature on offer here. At the very least, let's have some options for choosing from a wider selection of events and give us the option for a longer experience in the classic vehicles.
I don't know why this is so poor, but it's an awful representation, especially in the engine sound department. It's true that emissions regulations have caused a design change in F1 engines so they're a lot lower revving than in previous years, and a lot less impressive to hear as a result, but that's got little to do with the poor sounds on offer here.
Engines sound monotone and dull while in the car, with the lack of rattle, pop and crackle you would expect from their real-life counterparts. When the majority of the sound experience is made up of the engine noise, you would expect a lot more here.
You will find a lot more enjoyment and thrill in the engine sounds from the classic vehicles, but even these, while they reach the screaming pitch associated with the older, higher-revving engines, lack the distinctive addition of throaty exhaust or the pleasure of the effect that a fully open throttle has on such an engine.
Other sounds are done pretty well, whether it's the radio giving you information, or the change in air noise when the DRS (drag reduction system) is engaged. In Monaco, when a radio call happens during your acceleration through the tunnel, the radio is distorted and crackly as the game simulates a lack of signal.
The actual radio calls, while sounding good, are often just bizarre. When approaching the final corner of a race, it's hardly useful to tell me how far away the car in front is. I don't need to be told that I'm running a fuel surplus on a leaner mix when I've intentionally set it that way to save for a sprint at the end.
Some information is displayed clearly on screen, such as when your teammate arrives in the pits, and then pointlessly repeated on the radio.
More intelligence is needed in designing a radio system that will provide contextual, useful information more often, and the result is just frustration, when you don't get the information you need on time, and get a guy spouting nonsense in your ear when you're trying to concentrate.
It's long been a bane of single-player racing experiences: the AI in some games will flat out just cheat, not obeying the same laws of physics to which you are firmly bound, or they'll make ridiculous moves like racing-ending reckless dives from way too far back on the approach to a corner.
Overall, F1 2017 is impressive. The AI provide a significant but fair challenge, and while I can't say whether they're following exactly the same rules as you are, they at least appear to be. Following a faster car and a better driver will require some very precise cornering and liberal DRS usage to keep up, and I've rarely been blind-sided by a reckless AI driver intent on making up a place on a ridiculous corner.
AI drivers will attempt to overtake though. If you can't keep the required one second gap to the car behind, you will be nervously aware that the DRS on the car behind will quickly close that gap, and the AI is at its best when it makes a better corner exit than you do, and sensibly positions itself on the inside for the next corner. It will actively try to defend though, taking a position on the inside and forcing you wide early enough that you know you need something special from the next corner.
That said, there is always a "stacking" element to AI behaviour, and Codemasters haven't entirely freed their game from this experience. Especially at the start of a race, the other drivers will brake far too early to avoid being too close to another vehicle, and it's easy to be caught unaware, having to slam on the brakes a lot earlier than you were expecting, even when you take into account the traffic in front.
Unlike some other games (ahem, Project CARS), you won't suffer as much from the AI being way too slow in some corners and way too fast in others, which can be a constant annoyance when it's easy enough for developers to know what the best line and speed is through each corner, and scale it back for easier difficulties.
AI drivers can and do make "mistakes" though, and suffer other problems that might eliminate them from the race. There's no "fixed" order seen in other games like Forza where the same drivers tend to finish in the same positions regardless of the race. You'll regularly see different drivers in the top spot, but this is tempered against real-world car and driver performance, so Joylon Palmer might win the occasional race, but he's rarely going to be on top of the championship.
An Abundance of Dudebroism
I understand the need to satisfy gamers of all types. A modern racing game always seems to have some kind of thumping techno background music and shiny menus that pop out with shiny bits that shine and make enticing noises, like we're all feline racing drivers attracted to anything that moves fast or looks nice.
I feel F1 2017 has gone a little too far in this department, which is a common criticism of Codemasters games in recent years. We get it, you have the official Formula One licence. Do we really need to see an animated F1 logo video every time we begin a session? The commentary team are laughably bad, and it's so obviously phoned in. Every race won by Ferrari induces the same prancing horse comment and the same conclusion that it was a superb combination of driver skill and team strategy.
Although all of these astonishingly redundant set-pieces are entirely skippable, there's far too many of them, and it's almost like someone said "if we grant you the Formula One licence, Codemasters, you're going to have to make it such a spectacle that nobody will believe quite how ridiculous it is."
Get rid please. There's already a crazy amount of advertising out there on the circuit. Why it's a good thing to advertise, via gantry signs, the name of the game you're actually playing right now, I will never know. Some gamers have a short memory, but really?
F1 2017 is actually a lot more fun and a far better experience than I was expecting. It's full of the common frustrations with Codemasters games and "AAA" games in general, but at its core is a fun and engaging arcade driving experience.
There's huge lifespan in the career mode, and there's a decent challenge on offer. The game is at its best when you pick a lesser team, slap the AI difficulty up to where you're able to finish mid-table most of the time, and gradually work your way up.
It's often tempting to lower the difficulty to the point where you're easily winning every race, but where this game shines is when you're halfway up the grid, in a tense battle from the start of a race, and thinking carefully about a change in pit strategy that might get you a few places back that you lost from a minor mistake earlier.
For a game with so very many missteps, they're all minor enough that with the right passion and motivation, they're easy enough to dismiss. If any of the ones mentioned above are serious enough to dent your enjoyment beyond a simple repair, this probably won't be a purchase you want to make. If, on the other hand, you can ignore the endless dudebroism, the annoying radio, the horribly gamey points systems, and the whopping waste of money on all the non-racing stuff, you're probably going to have a good, if not great time with F1 2017.