Formula 1 is considered to be the pinnacle of motorsport, and the sport is currently going through a series of notable changes. A generational one, with the protagonists of the last decades like Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen likely retiring for good in the next years. And as the new breed of drivers arrives, so does potentially the first non-Mercedes world champion of the hybrid era this year, alongside a set of revolutionary rule changes for 2022. Codemasters’ licensed F1 games are going through a metamorphosis too, as the British publisher has recently been bought by Electronic Arts and their scope is undoubtedly increasing. Enter F1 2021 then, the first Formula 1 game published by EA since 2003, which we tested it for you on Xbox Series X.
New season, new drama
There have been long-running jokes and memes about sports games basically being reskinned versions of each other every year, without any meaningful updates from time to time. This may be more true for certain franchises than others, but the usual common thread between them is how major upgrades, indeed, tend to only appear every couple years, with the global pandemic that certainly didn’t help developers with already tight schedules to deliver the latest chapter in the franchise. And yet, while Codemasters’ F1 formula has not been drastically altered, there’s a surprising amount of new modes, features and tricks that change how our virtual rendition of Formula One is played and lived by players.
Perhaps the most notable and advertised addition is Braking Point, a scripted and dramatic story (in the vein of NBA 2K’s story mode or FIFA’s short-lived The Journey) where players get to live the path of two fictional drivers, starting at the end of the 2019 season and moving forward: young F2 champion Aiden Jackson and his more experienced teammate, Casper Akkerman. Players get to choose between 5 teams to begin their career in (Aston Martin, Alpha Tauri, Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams), and are therefore placed into various scenarios in their intense rivalry. These are not complete races or weekends usually, merely short scenarios the player has to get through, such as catching up on your teammate during the middle part of the race, managing your position with a malfunctioning gearbox or having to recover after a nasty crash.
Based on whether the objective is met or not, players then get to see cutscenes that bring the story forward, in this case with very limited agency on the outcome of the story beats. Even many of the on-track incidents are scripted, so if the mode dictates that Jackson and Akkerman have to crash on the opening race of the season, that’s the only potential outcome. Inbetween, players can access their e-mail address with comunications from teams, rivals and journalist; a faux Twitter where real personalities like Will Buxton and David Coulthard, alongside fans, comment and post jokes about the races; but also their phone, to talk to other key people in the world of F1, or even the drivers’ own families.
Following the path
Even Devon Butler makes a comeback; the cocky, aggressive but also damn fast British driver we learned to know from F1 2019’s career mode has graduated with excellent results into the pinnacle of motorsports in his debut year at Haas according to the game’s lore, and as such, he now became the benchmark for promising rookies to beat at their debut in Formula One. Predictably, our heroes will butt heads and clash horns with him rather often. The career goes from the humble beginnings from the 2019 season finale in Formula 2, through the 2020 campaign and all the way to the title current season, which ends on a satisfying note but also seems to heavily imply that this mode’s story will be continued in next year’s game as well. We certainly hope so!
The mode is a lot of fun, with various memorable scenes and it gives players a never seen before approach to a virtual F1 career. If anything, it feels a bit limited so far: there’s very little to do inbetween events bar reading mails, the faux Twitter and answering quite honestly copy-paste phone calls with the same 3 people or so. We also encountered 2 hard console crashes on Series X during post-race interviews and one during a replay – luckily the good autosave system made sure we didn’t have to replay the race before that. Likewise, an event in Austria in the final season felt completely off in terms of difficulty balancing, as the player is required to gain 25 seconds during a single safety car lap. Granted, I yet had to create my custom setups at that point, but lowering to the minimum difficulty I just barely managed to pull it off after multiple tries, whereas I could confidently complete anything else at the higher difficulties.
All in all, still a couple things to iron out in Braking Point, but it’s a promising start, and we’re curious to see where the story goes from here on. But fortunately, Codemasters aren’t leaving at the side of the track those who’d prefer a more classic and open-ended single player campaigns, as both the classic career mode and MyTeam return from last year’s game. Career mode is more or less identical to the previous installments, with some quality-of-life changes for the most part, though there’s a massive new option for players to explore: a 2-player co-op mode. This allows players both online and on the same console to share their career’s timespan and in-game lore of driver rivalries, market changes and so on, fighting for the same goals or even going their separate ways, as they can be team mates, rivals in opposing teams, or one could remain stuck in a backmarker team while the other is fighting for the championship. It’s all up to the players’ agency.
Customs and customizations
MyTeam is back as well, the much beloved addition from F1 2020 that allowed players to create their own team, a fictional 11th team that can be customized and handled in many aspects, almost as if it was a manager game of sorts. R&D, mechanics, paints, sponsors, even the drivers. Indeed, with F1 2021 holding the licenses for the 2020 season as well, players can create interesting deviations from real world events. What if Mick Schumacher debuted a year earlier in this rookie team? What if they managed to snag Max Verstappen from Red Bull on the brink of convincing developments throughout the years? Interestingly, not unlike EA’s lucrative Ultimate Team modes in other sports titles, a variety of notable drivers from the past can also be signed from a selection of Legends, including the likes of Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna, but also more recent retirees like Nico Rosberg and Felipe Massa.
But the career modes are not the only aspects of F1 2021 that can be tweaked to players’ own liking. Much like previous installments, Codemasters’ latest title offers vast customization of driving aids and assists, allowing everyone to find the compromise between pure arcade and sim-like experience. As usual, it doesn’t quite nail the realism of physics, tyre temperatures, car part degradation and so on of titles like rFactor or iRacing, but that’s not even the developers’ target. Just as the 2021 regulations made real-life Formula 1 cars have a much less stable rear-end, which is also noticeable on the amount of driver errors we had this season, the rear tyres of cars in the new game are far easier to lose, thanks to a better simulation of the consequences of riding over a bump or turning with too much intensity in a patch full of rubber pieces left by the degrading Pirellis.
As such, customizing your setups (or finding the best ones online) is going to be even more important this year, as the car needs to be handled with more care than in F1 2020 on the default settings. This is evident from the damage model too, which was revamped to include areas from practically all sides of the car. An opponent rear-ended you? That can damage the rear wing now, making the back of the car even less stable and predictable. Hopped on a kerb too hard like Lewis Hamilton did in Austria recently? Like in his case, the bottom of the car can get damaged, reducing the grip and impacting the lap times. In previous games, avoiding damage on most tracks was way too easy – this time, virtual racers will have to be careful of all elements of the car. Naturally, player cameras can be chosen by a variety of standard options: cockpit, nose-on-the-floor, third person, but with also every angle and distance that can be tweaked to everyone’s liking, just like the HUD which is almost 100% customizeable in its elements in regards to size, placement and so on.
Style is style, fashion is fashion. Girl, you’ve got style!
Pop icon Charli XCX, in her bold and bombastic single Vroom Vroom, envisioned herself crashing parties in a bubblegum-pink Ferrari, comparing herself to Fernando Alonso in the process. The mental imagery of Alonso in a pink Ferrari is certainly an interesting sight, and indeed, F1 2021 allows for excellent customization of cars, both in the MyTeam portion of the game and in a more general custom look players can choose for themselves for online lobbies, quick races and so on. With a wide palette of skins and colours and tons of sponsors to place on various parts of the car like in Codemasters’ DIRT 5 (or not place them at all, for a more naked look), but also various looks to choose from for your virtual avatar, it’s easy to stand out. While the servers and the in-game shops were not online during the time of our review, it seems that the game retains the model from F1 2020: a Pit Pass to unlock items with XP, other items to buy with in-game credits, and so on.
Let’s hop back to the driving aids real quick: this year, Codemasters’ title offers a wider than ever arrangement of customizations to truly create an experience that is suited for everyone. Traction control, brake assists, 2D or 3D coloured racing lines to help find the optimal routes and braking points, but even automatic breaking, collisions off, and so on. Even a lot of the more laborious aspects like interviews, car development in career and such can be automized, to allow players the chance to focus on the racing without missing out on car improvements and relationship with teams. Even somebody who never played a racing game can have a great time, and as seen by the blooming eSports scene of the previous titles, so can experts.
To have such an online presence, you first need to have a solid multiplayer, and F1 2021 seems to be missing none of the things that made previous installments great. Tournaments, eSports qualifiers, ranked matches, casual races, custom matches with completely customizeable rulesets, and so on. Like other online options, due to the servers being offline during the review window, we were unable to test out these modes ourselves, but there should be little change here compared to F1 2020. There’s even a well-made split-screen mode for two players to race each other (and others) locally or online, another great element that came back from last year. The optimization on this mode is good, with the game managing to mantain a consistent framerate even with twice the rendering to do.
What’s speed without beauty?
Those seeking pure speed and not necessary wheel-banging competition, will be happy to know that time trials are also back, with global leaderboards to climb once again. With 20 tracks, 10 different Formula 1 cars (both with equal performance options and realistic “power levels”) and all the F2 field, on top of the wet and dry versions of each circuit, the records to fight for are certainly many. This is also an excellent mode to find some truly competitive one-lap setups, as people can download other players’ tweaks and tunings to try and beat their times with their own tools. The only real downside to the track selection is that the late cancellation of the Vietnam event denies us that track from the playable rotation, and likewise, the changes to the Melbourne circuit that were set to be introduced this year are not gonna go live, and neither they are present in the game. In short, little changed from F1 2020, but it’s not really the developers’ fault.
This being the series’ first official foray into the newest consoles, including Series X where we tested the game, perhaps we expected a greater technical improvement. Xbox One and PlayStation 4 remain supported, and indeed the game looks and runs more or less on par with F1 2020 even on the new generation of hardware, though the SSDs drastically shorten the loading times and even menus feel snappier and more reactive than ever. Players can choose between quality and performance mode too: the difference won’t be noticeable on most screens as this only really impacts cutscenes, as the gameplay is buttersmooth 60fps across the board on those. TVs and monitors with 120hz support and beyond can, however, obtain 120 frames per second with only a reasonable resolution knock that brings the game down to 1440p from the full 4K it normally runs at in 60fps mode. In a sport where every thousandth of a second counts, having twice as many frames can make a lot of difference for high level players. HDR is naturally supported on consoles and TVs that allow said function.
In general, the presentation of the game is also more elegant than ever. Players can access the showroom anytime to watch the ins and outs of each every car: F1, F2, and those customized by players as well. It’s not as manic in terms of details and interactivity as Forza Motorsport’s Forzavista mode, but it’s a welcome addition. The introduction videos narrated by Will Buxton (whom many may remember from Netflix’s Drive to Survive, in particular), the well-made cutscenes in Braking Point, an improved HUD that focuses all key info in the mid-bottom of the screen where elements of the car are likely already covering up part of the screen; there’s a renewed attention to give players a product that feels premium and classy in nearly every aspect.
Speeding into the distance
F1 2021 is not the game that will convince those unsatisfied of Codemasters’ approach to the pinnacle of motorsport, as most of the changes seen in this title are iterative. Braking Point, however, is almost worth the price of admission alone, despite feeling slightly undercooked in some aspects: the narrative, the presentation and tension are truly great, and Codemasters’ first attempt at delivering an actual story mode is worthy of praise. Also, a long list of quality-of-life changes and further customizations offered to players makes F1 2021 perhaps the most accessible and complete Formula 1 experience by Codemasters thus far. The jump to the new generation of consoles isn’t particularly noticeable, aside from the 120fps mode, but Electronic Arts’ long-running expertize in sports games is starting to show its fruits on Codemasters’ 13th attempt to bring Formula 1 to consoles, after the British studio’s acquisition by the American colossus. It’s an exciting Formula 1 season, and the future of the videogame version of the sport is in excellent hands.
UPDATE on the 23rd of July 2021:
As mentioned in our review, we did not get access to the online portions of the game prior to launch, and as such we could not measure the stability of the online services. Since launch, I have been trying almost every night to join some online races, but it’s not been a smooth experience at all, with most attempts leaving me staring at an empty lobby or an error message. The only race I managed to do so far had massive lag spikes and completely borked timing screens, as I was shown as the leader despite lapping around 5th place. Codemasters are aware of the issues and are investigating them, as they also don’t seem to be affecting everyone equally. As far as I’m concerned, on Xbox Series X the online portion of F1 2021 is currently not functional. We reached out to Codemasters and we hope to give you a more positive update about this soon enough.