It wont surprise anyone reading this website to learn that I’ve been playing F1 games for a long time. From the moment that my uncle bought me Microprose’s F1 Grand Prix for the Amiga as a child the sport and I have had a love affair, and in both gaming and the sport itself, that love affair has, in the best traditions of drama, been tumultuous and in some of the worst traditions of drama, been superficial .
I’m mainly a console gamer these days. I’ve never owned a steering wheel. My experience has always been with a Playstation controller (when playing the Microprose series I always used the keyboard). This has admittedly limited my gaming experience somewhat. Many people for example have great love for F1 Challenge and sims like RFactor and Assetto Corsa, but in my limited experience with those games they have been relatively unplayable or unenjoyable without a wheel. I say this mainly to qualify my review. I’m not reviewing this from the perspective of someone who has played those sims extensively, but at the same time I can recognise that any game as accessible as F1 2020 (and therefore suitable for someone like me), cannot possibly be called a Sim despite what mainstream gaming press would have you believe.
F1 2020 therefore remains the Fifa of the motorsport world for better and, most definitely, for worse. Like the similarities between each iteration of the Fifa series, In many ways I feel this review could have been written about F1 2019. New tracks and new modes have been added, but on the track, the part that matters, it feels exactly the same to me as a casual, controller wielding, gamer.
Like F12019, my main issues are with wheel to wheel racing. The AI has the same issues that its had for years, the same issues that Gran Turismo has had since its inception. GP4, released in 2002, has better AI than F1 2020. It seems that its not such a hard thing to ask that an AI car would not drive straight into your car as you leave the pits at Albert Park, but that is exactly what happened in my very first race in F1 2020. Leaving the pits after my tyre stop, the AI cars overtaking me had no awareness that I was there and decided to take the racing line, undeviating, straight into the side of my car breaking my cars front wing. I repeated this event several times using the Flashback feature and each time my car came off significantly worse than the AI, with damage or spins, no matter what I did. The only way I finally managed to get through the corner at all was to throw on the anchors straight away and come to a stop to let the AI car take its scripted line.
Through this extensive use of Flashback it became clear that another aspect that I hated about the AI in F1 2019 had remained untouched in F12020. It’s something that’s difficult to put into words, the AI cars just feel heavier than the player car. When you crash into an AI car, unless you do so with an intentional level of force, you will always come off worse, bouncing off the AI car into a spin, whilst the AI car remains unmoved, locked on its scripted racing line. It will only move from line if you intentionally brute force it, but in wheel to wheel combat you will always come off worse.
One other aspect that I am sad to see hasn’t changed is the application of penalties for track limits. In real life, F1 drivers are able to take certain liberties in respect of the track limits, and even when track limits are enforced the stewards will use a completely different standard to those used in gaming. I would love for F1 stewards to be as strict in real life as Codemasters are in the game. However, driving in F1 2020 I find it extremely frustrating to have hotlaps cancelled because my car was on a kerb for the briefest of seconds. I understand such rules for competitive play online but at least give me the option to turn off track limits in an offline scenario. Right now the only two options are ”Harsh” and “Extremely Harsh” and neither of these is realistic to what actually happens in F1, even if they may follow the rules to the letter (which the Stewards don’t and that’s a rant for another time).
I mentioned using Flashback a couple of times above. It’s one of those features that, as a purist, I hated when Codemasters took over the F1 franchise but the more I play these games I see it as akin to DRS. A necessary evil. Until Codemasters are able to fix these AI issues, the draconian penalties, then the only way I’m ever going to be able to survive and have fun playing this game without a great deal of frustration (and an intact controller that hasn’t been tossed at the nearest wall), is using Flashbacks and turning off car damage to mitigate it (particularly on street circuits where you really are likely to get boxed in by the unflinching, unwavering AI).
Nearly 900 words into this review and I haven’t written about any of the new features and mostly that’s because I don’t really care about them. The ability to shorten the season and get rid of some of the less great circuits is a welcome addition (although I don’t really feel that strongly about any of the F1 circuits really). And it’s nice to be able to do a full F2 season in the Driver Career mode now (why this wasn’t an option in 2019 only the devs know).
The big new feature, creating an eleventh team, is bare bones and the small amount of it I’ve played is enjoyable enough for a casual experience, but some of the options, like the awful livery editor, feel gated to increase revenue from season passes, DLC and Loot boxes which are becoming ever more prevalent in gaming. When you do anything in game you will earn points and level up and the game is at great pains to show you the thing you’ve earned as well as what you could have earned if you’d spent money and purchased a VIP pass. It reminded me of a pool game I play on my iPad and of the Gacha Games of Eastern Asia. Its sad to see ever more series going down this route. The optimist would hope that this increase in income for the developers would see greater resources thrown at the game, more tracks added etc, but I fear that the cynics will win and all it will do is line the pockets of some executives.
Classic cars also make a return with a special Michael Schumacher pack, but these really don’t interest me. I’d love the ability to download an entire seasons worth of cars and tracks and do an entire 1991 season for example, but on their own these cars are at best, nothing more than a sideshow, and at worst, a waste of resources that could have been spent elsewhere. But then again the only reason they exist is to sell the DLC pack or the special edition.
I mentioned F1 challenge above at the start and I always wished I was able to play that game because you could move through actual F1 seasons on your career. Codemasters have had the rights to the series now that surely they could implement this, instead of a fictional career with fictional and sometimes hilarious driver moves, a realistic career going through the seasons that Codemasters have had the rights could be a lot of fun.
In conclusion F1 2020 feels like im playing F1 2019. Warts and all. Superficial and costly additions cannot hide the problems the series has always had. Whilst it’s enjoyable enough with the right settings and played with the right mindset it, as always, feels like, even as a casual game, it could be so much more.