Last year’s official F1 game was easily Codemasters’ most triumphant and feature-filled edition in the 11-year history of the franchise.
Now, Codemasters and its official F1 franchise – much like the very sport they emulate – is in a year of transition. Absorbed by gaming behemoth EA, Codemasters’ newest F1 game is not only their first under the EA Sports banner, but the first on the newest generation of consoles.
But does F1 2021 make the move onto new hardware more skilfully than F1 2015 managed to the last time the series made a similar leap?
Before diving into what’s new about this year’s game, there are some unfortunate issues which need to be addressed.
While F1 2021 naturally features all ten teams and 20 drivers competing in this year’s championship – as well as last year’s Formula 2 field – the game won’t be launching with all the circuits that the sport is currently scheduled to visit on this season’s ever-changing calendar.
Imola, Portimao and the new Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah will all be absent on release, with Codemasters working to add them through free updates later in the year. Sadly, we won’t be able to play the Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul in this year’s game, no matter whether the race itself eventually takes place this October.
The cancelled Chinese, Canadian, Singapore and Australian Grands Prix are included in the game. However the Albert Park circuit – as with Catalunya and Yas Marina – retains its pre-2021 layout and has not been updated to its revised format.
It’s easy to sympathise with Codemasters facing a constantly changing calendar under the shadow of a pandemic – especially as constructing track models is no quick task – but releasing the official F1 game of the 2021 season with several circuits missing at launch and a promise to add them later is a rather inelegant solution which will leave may players dissatisfied.
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And while the sport prepares for the debut of its new Sprint Qualifying at next weekend’s British Grand Prix, you won’t find the controversial new format emulated in the game either.
A lot of supplementary content from previous games has also been removed from this newest version. If you enjoyed racing the classic cars in years by, get ready to be disappointed – that’s all gone from this new game. So too have the shorter alternative configurations of Silverstone, Suzuka, COTA and Bahrain. All the additional offline championships have gone too.
So with all this peripheral content stripped out, what does F1 2021 offer up in its place?
The answer is the series’ first ever story mode, ‘Braking Point’ – the headline new feature that sits front and centre at the heart of this year’s game.
Braking Point tells the tumultuous tale of two team mates – plucky British rookie and F2 champion Aidan Jackson and grizzled Dutch journeyman Casper Akkerman. As the player, you swap between controlling Jackson and Akkerman as the story of their fractured, hostile relationship plays out over fictionalised versions of the 2020 and 2021 F1 seasons.
Gameplay consists of short racing scenarios that challenge you to, for example, reach a target position within a set number of laps or prevent a rival from passing you, with key story beats playing out through some admittedly impressive motion-captured cutscenes.
There’s clearly been a lot of effort put into Braking Point and it’s always good to see developers take risks and try something different to shake up what can easily become a stale annual sports game formula. But it’s hard to say whether the end result justifies the investment of time and resources that have clearly been put into Braking Point compared to other areas of the game.
As well presented as it is and as skilfully as the actors bring their characters to life, the story being told here is an entirely predictable one. While the writers have thankfully avoided the temptation for ham-fisted melodrama, the conflict between Jackson and Akkerman also never feels like it earns the magnitude of tension the game presents it as having.
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As the player, you’re meant to empathise with both Jackson and Akkerman’s perspectives by racing through their eyes. But the reality is that the event that triggers their conflict and the underlying reason behind Akkerman’s disdain for his team mate is so ludicrously unnecessary that it’s hard to be all that sympathetic towards him. Returning character Devon Butler is also back from F1 2019’s career mode to fulfil the sports movie villain cliche of being aggressively obnoxious to every person he interacts with for no discernible reason.
The world is fleshed out rather effectively through sections in the drivers’ motorhomes, where you can browse news reports on the TV, listen to phone conversations between characters, or scroll through the musings of paddock dwellers in a social media feed. As enjoyable as it is to see the likes of Rosanna Tennant, David Coulthard or Jimmy Broadbent reacting to events in the story, however, it’s hard not to think how something similar would enhance the immersion of the player’s own career mode or My Team instead.
There’s also an unshakeable sense that this is a sports story set in the world of Formula 1, rather than a Formula 1 story. The fact that the original characters only seem to interact with each other – with only one real driver having a single speaking line in the mode – makes it hard to suspend your disbelief that these three are truly among the elite 20 drivers in the world.
If you’ve played the likes of FIFA’s ‘The Journey’ or Madden NFL’s ‘Longshot’, you know exactly what to expect from Braking Point. It’s a mode that’s best enjoyed over a weekend, with a day spent on each driver’s campaigns. But while there’s fun to be had here, it’s unlikely to linger long in the memory once the credits roll.
With all the focus on Braking Point, how have the other main single player modes evolved since last year?
After its debut in F1 2020, My Team returns to allow you to create and manage the 11th team on the grid. But if you were hoping for major improvements for its second outing, you’ll likely be disappointed.
Everything in My Team operates in fundamentally the same manner to last year, with only minor enhancements. The basic loop remains the same, with team activities to earn rewards, sponsor bonuses to invest towards updating facilities and R&D points to spend on building up your car. With the main menu and facilities screens all identical to last year, you’ll likely feel a sense of deja vu firing the mode up for the first time if you sank many hours into it last year.
There is a new element this year in the form of department events, occasional dilemmas that you’re presented with by your team where you have to choose between one of two solutions that each has pros and cons – such as whether to back your chassis designer’s recommended development course or the one preferred by your second driver, with the risk of affecting the morale of whoever you don’t side with. It’s relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and only adds a minimal amount to the immersion at best.
If you purchase the Digital Deluxe edition, you will unlock the unique ability to hire one of seven F1 Legends as your second My Team driver – Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, David Coulthard and Felipe Massa. You have to earn the right to hire them, with the likes of Schumacher or Senna having far loftier demands for their services than Coulthard or Massa, meaning you’ll have to spend some time building up your team’s finances and resources before you can coax them onboard.
It’s an interesting, if immersion-breaking, feature to bring to My Team that will allow many players to live out their F1 fantasies of racing alongside their heroes, but it’s a shame that the most notable addition to My Team is locked behind the premium edition of the game. The Legends are only accessible by the player, meaning you won’t see your AI rivals sign them, and you can forgo having them on the available roster entirely if you wish.
Career mode, much like My Team, remains similar to last year with all of the R&D and time management copied over from its sister mode. One interesting new option for this year is the ‘real season start’, that allows you to jump into your career mode at any point in the real 2021 F1 season and pick up with the exact championship situation of the real world series. As the actual season progresses, you’ll have the option to jump in at any point – meaning if you want to role-play yourself being a dramatic mid-season replacement for a driver you feel is underperforming, you can.
While it’s all fairly familiar, there are some welcome new details for the single-player career modes. Practice sessions in particular have been streamlined, with only three practice programmes now to complete each weekend that rotate randomly every time. You now have additional mini challenges to complete within each programme, such as staying within two metres of the racing line for a whole lap or going fastest in a particular sector, to earn extra R&D points or discounts on new parts.
If you’re thoroughly sick of doing practice programmes, you can now simulate them entirely using a new ‘quick practice’ option. You decide what runs to attempt over the course of the time allowed, with each potential reward having a different probability of success, and the game simulates your runs for you. While it’s a lot easier to maximise your R&D rewards by completing them manually, it’s a good way to speed up what is often the most time-consuming aspect of career mode, allowing you to concentrate on qualifying and racing while keeping your component wear at realistic levels.
You also have the freedom to choose how career mode works in terms of how quickly you earn money, resource points and acclaim. If you feel you were able to rise up the ranks too quickly in F1 2020, you can set your own team’s development rate to ‘decreased’ and be forced to work longer to reach the front of the grid.
This year’s game also now gives you the ability to adjust how frequently the Safety Car and Virtual Safety Car can be called, meaning the long-standing issue of the safety car failing to appear at all for many career mode players may finally have been solved. There is also the option to choose how accurate the weather forecast is during a race weekend, allowing you to know exactly how the conditions will change over the course of a race or leave a degree of mystery to proceedings.
In a highly welcome move, players can now enjoy the standard career mode with a friend with the return of two player online career mode. You and a friend can team up together or compete as rivals in career mode – with even the option to replace an unreliable friend with another player should they drop out midway through a season.
When it comes to the actual racing, F1 2021 is as strong as ever. Whether enjoying a quick race or locking yourself in for a two-hour marathon around Singapore, the joy of battling side-by-side against the AI or watching other cars fighting amongst themselves is one that the likes of Gran Turismo, Forza and other console racing games simply do not match.
While handling feels largely unchanged from last year, the sensation of driving using a controller is greatly enhanced on PS5 using the adaptive triggers of the DualSense. While the haptic feedback is little different to the DualShock 4, the resistance of the triggers offers a whole new level of control for throttle and especially braking. Turning off anti-lock braking assistance, you can now accurately gauge the limits of the brakes simply from the resistance offered by the L2 trigger, offering an entire new dimension of control. If you’re able to, it’s recommended you turn the resistance up to ‘strong’ – you’ll be unable to play a racing game on a controller without it again.
As far as presentation goes, if you expect F1 2021 to be a revolutionary giant leap forward for the series, it’s best to dab the brakes on that early on. This is still very much a cross-generation game in the mould of last year’s edition. On the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, it feels like an enhanced version of the game, rather than an entirely new experience – to be expected given the game remains on Codemasters’ Ego engine.
There is a definite visual upgrade, with an overall sharper look. You can even enjoy full ray-traced models of the cars on the presentation screen. And with the option to choose between ‘quality’ and ‘performance’ graphics modes, you’ll even have the ability to race at 120 hertz – if you have a compatible TV.
It’s a little disappointing to see noticeable frame rate drops and screen tearing during pre and post-race cutscenes with replays also still limited to 30 fps, but the gameplay itself is consistently smooth, even during race starts in full wet conditions. Thankfully, solid state drives in the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S mean console owners can now join PC players in benefitting from much faster load times – races and front ends appear in seconds.
There is a new cockpit camera audio profile available which attempts to more accurately simulate how it feels to be in the car with a helmet on, with muffled engine sounds and a clearer team radio. Power units also have a more notable turbo whine to them. The audio sting which plays when the FOM broadcast runs a replay is also now present when resuming from flashbacks.
Car and driver customisation has been an increasing part of the F1 series over recent years and it’s little surprise to see the Podium Pass return this year. While the Podium Pass was not active during the review period, players are likely to feel let down by the limited customisation options available at launch.
With only a handful of customisable liveries, helmets, gloves and suits available so far, the lack of options will likely be quite jarring for anyone migrating over from F1 2020. The same limited emblem designs choices are available as the launch of last year’s game. Hopefully players will not have to earn back the exact same designs they unlocked over the course of last year’s game. In a change for this year, you can customise your driver’s winning radio call and halo graphic.
Look closely at F1 2021 and you’ll spot a few minor touches which long-time players will appreciate. Car damage modelling can now extend to the rear wing, side pods and floor. It’s now possible to actually get a good start in Formula 2 cars against the AI. You can skip through individual laps when watching back full race replays, meaning if you want to watch back an incident on lap 55 of 60, you no longer have to spend 20 minutes fast-forwarding to get there.
When EA took over Codemasters, many fans feared what they might do to the franchise. But with EA claiming that they will take a relatively hands-off approach to the series, F1 2021 seems to back that up so far.
We will have to wait until next year at the earliest to see what the weight of EA’s resources can truly do for the official game franchise. But while F1 2021 does offer the same high-quality racing action that the series is known for, it’s hard not to feel slightly underwhelmed with this first step onto a new generation of consoles. In particular, we await with interest the arrival of the three missing tracks and, hopefully, the revisions to the various reworked courses.
Perhaps it will take the bold step of leaving the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One behind to allow the developers to fully realise the potential of this franchise. But with many years of Codemasters F1 games still to come, hopefully the best days of this virtual version of the sport still lie ahead.
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F1 2021: Video review
Publisher: EA Sports
Published: July 2021
Price: £49.99 (PC Steam) – £54.99 (Xbox/PlayStation)
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