Alright, look. I’m going to level with you right away: I don’t know anything about Formula 1 racing. Why then, you might ask, am I the one reviewing the year’s premiere F1 title? The short answer is because I like throwing myself into games I don’t have a frame of reference for and seeing if they surprise me. Here’s the good news: F1 2016 did surprise me.
As I said in the intro, I don’t know much about F1 racing at all, so jumping into F1 2016 was a bit of an eye-opening experience. It’s much more calculated than the average racer (and I came to this review off the back of the bugnuts insane, boisterous romp that was Forza Horizon 3 which meant it took a bit of getting used to).
After being taken through the basics in a fairly bland-but-comprehensive tutorial mode, I was turned lose onto the track and before long found myself struggling with this new mental challenge. Formula 1 drivers have a lot to think about you guys, and they have to do it while travelling at 250kmph.
I’ve been stuck in a 57-lap monster somewhere near Bahrain and I’m watching the fuel gauge drop in real time as I enter the sixth-to-last lap. My tyres are disintegrating and I’m pretty sure one of the front ones is going to explode because every single corner on this course is a right-turn. My options are limited — fly into the pit stop and sacrifice my top spot, knowing I won’t be able to get it back in time, or put my foot down and see how far I get before the car falls apart. I’ve been in this race for an hour and a half. If I stuff it up now, I’ll have to start over. I worked hard to get to the front of a vicious pack. I need to make it to the finish line.
I barely finish the thought before I head into the very next corner and the steering slips. The tyres are so worn I’m now losing grip. My earpiece squawks as my engineer demands that I return to the pit. Fuck you, disembodied voice of concern and reason, you’re not the boss of me. I wind the fuel consumption down to the point where the car is only breathing from the tank instead of drinking (because apparently you can do that in an F1 car, an invention I would like applied to my Camry immediately), silence the engineer like Luke switching the targeting computer off and proceed to make a nuisance of myself. I may have to slow down, but that doesn’t mean I have to let anyone else through either. The guy behind me wants that lead and he lets me know it on the straights. I can’t outright bop him on the nose — the cars are made of paper mache and at this speed it might end us both — but I can keep getting in his way on the turns, boxing him out and forcing him to throttle down.
We hit the final lap and, muttering a few reassuring words to the car, I turn it on, and scrape first place by the skin of my teeth. The car is a wheezing, ragged ruin but I won. It’s at this point I realise that, for the last hour and a half, I have had my hands wrapped so tightly around the controller that they throb painfully. My eyes are so dry that it feels like I haven’t blinked in days.
Everything I have just described happened in only the game’s second Career Mode race.
This is F1 2016‘s great trick. What appears to be, on the surface, an exceedingly dry, overly realistic simulation of Formula 1 racing is actually a perfectly crafted fantasy of what it would be like to actually be an F1 driver.
I bow to Codemasters on this one, they really seem to know what they’re doing. The career mode is juicy and immersive, and a friend who played last year’s edition tells me that they have reinstated the security car — a grim and objectionable prick who seems to show up specifically to destroy any lead I might have had.
They also pointed a few things I was taking granted like the “formation” lap which allow you to zip around a course before the race to warm up the tyres and get to know the course without the intense stress of trying to stay competitive.
Little touches in places like the backstage hub will tell you a lot about the kind of race you’re about to have — if you see water running down the screen, you’re gonna have a bad time out there. Rain is bad. I learned that very quickly. Crashing out also appears shockingly realistic, especially when you turn the sim damage setting on. It makes your car exceedingly brittle and you’ll probably find yourself turned into a 200kmph rolling fireball in short order.
The thing that really impressed me about F1 2016 is how friendly it is to series newcomers. This is a game that is aware of how impenetrable its subject matter seems and it works hard to make it as easy as possible for newbies to jump in. If you want to get struck straight into the elite level races, you can. If you’re content to slum it at the shallow end of the speed pool, you can do that too. You’re also free to adjust individual race settings which is good because it means if you start a race season, it doesn’t mean you’re forced to deal with a single set of rules for the whole thing.
I wish that I could provide a more comprehensive review, but I simply don’t know enough about the sport to convey the way it translates. What I do know quite a bit about is what makes a fun video game and F1 2016 has that in spades. It’s fast, the race AI is vicious, the options are a tweaker’s dream come true and it lets you live out your racetrack fantasy, even if its your first time on the track.
Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Incredible sensation of speed; Deep tuner controls; Solid simulation of real racing conditions and car wear
Lowlights: Tutorial still a bit bland and info-dumpy
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release Date: Out now
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC