Strip a modern F1 car of all of its sponsorship decals, goes the well-worn saying I’ve been guilty of bandying around myself, and you’d be hard pushed to tell any two models apart. So strictly defined is the modern rule-set, so homogeneous the designs, that underneath that lick of lurid paint every car is almost exactly the same – and it’s an accusation you could well level at F1 2018, the 10th mainline outing of Codemasters’ official take on the sport, and one of its most gently iterative outings yet.
To get a handle on what’s new you’ll need a cheat sheet to hand, and it hardly makes for compelling reading. The headline new feature is media interviews – something that returns from the series’ first HD outing, F1 2010, before it was quietly jettisoned a little further down the line. Eight years on and it’s not that much more convincing, a dead-eyed interviewer asking you some fairly banal questions with only a fairly banal selection of replies available, the results impacting gently on your standing within the team and its various departments. It’s cute but comes off inconsequential – there are no really mischievous answers available, or at least I’ve yet to come across the chance to ask a fellow driver to suck my balls – and of all the features to focus on, it’s surely low down on most players’ lists.
How about doing away with the barebones menus and returning to the more premium front-end of those older games? Or fixing the UI so it’s a little less cluttered and more in line with the FOM’s official feed? And how about introducing some of the feeder series that make up the travelling circus, so we’ve got something to play with beyond F1 cars? Maybe these updates are to come in future editions, as the series makes its typically gentle progress – tied down as it is to yearly instalments, even if you suspect the resources aren’t quite there to meaningfully move the games forward on an annual basis.
But to linger on that for too long would be a disservice to the work that Codemasters has put in over the years, and the outstanding package that its F1 games have become. Last year’s F1 game was brilliant, and thanks to a few tweaks here and there, this year’s is even better. The improvements are minor but many, and they add up to a more than credible whole.
Some of these improvements have been inherited from F1 2017’s post-launch support – a photo mode, for example, that lets you admire the dimples of the tread wear indicators on each tyre as you examine the car models in 4K glory – while others make a little go a long way. A new lighting model basks everything in more convincing rays that look all the more splendorous in HDR; never has the grey gloom that hangs over Northamptonshire on a typical summer weekend at Silverstone been better serviced. It looks fantastic, the changing conditions that are part and parcel of the sport – and sadly a part of too few racing games these days – more readable than ever before.
The feel, too, has been improved. It’s still not the measure of something like iRacing; there are some interesting analogues you can find with that particular game in the slightly expanded roster of classic cars that feature in invitational events, so you can make a direct comparison with the Lotus 79 and see how Codemasters’ game comes up short in a few departments, iRacing’s more granular detail lost as the car snaps a little too easily from one state to another without communicating exactly why it’s behaving as it is. But then F1 games have always had to play to a broader audience, and this is a noticeable step up from what’s gone before.
This generation of F1 cars, for all the thousand horses they can call upon thanks to their hybrid power units, are heavy beasts, and that weight is now more apparent in the hand. Suspension travel now seems more grounded, playing into a more believable overall dynamic as well as giving a little more verity to that beautiful moment when you nail Silverstone’s Copse and clip the outside border at the corner’s exit, the suspension arms performing a merry jig as the washboard sound of a tire skimming across the kerb lets you know you’ve just aced it. It feels immense.
Much of F1 2018’s appeal can be found in those small details. How, having earned a seat at Ferrari early on in my first season after putting the McLaren on the podium across a string of races, the engine note was noticeably different, sounding like the exhaust was being put through a fuzz pedal at low revs. How ERS deployment has now been added to the myriad systems for you to manage, deepening the strategy that underpins every race. How the AI now puts up a more meaningful fight than ever before, toeing the line between respect and aggression and making for some remarkable duels.
It’s only when that all comes together that you can truly appreciate F1 2018. When you’re part-way through a season, say, trying to make the most of the new front wing assembly that you poured your valuable resources into and fending off a rival, trying to read the darkening skies while eking out all you can from the set of ultra-softs whose best-before date expired a couple of laps ago. In moments like those – and plenty others that F1 2018’s bevvy of systems enable – you’ve got nothing short of the best pure single-player racing game on the market.
Not that the multiplayer’s too far behind, either, policed as it is – at long last – by a ratings system that takes into account your disciplinary record as well as your speed, allowing you to earn a Super Licence so that you can compete with the very best. Multiplayer now sits hand-in-hand with Liberty Media, F1’s new owners who, you feel, have embraced Codemasters’ series in way that Bernie’s bunch never really did, and who are behind the push towards eSports that’s already found buy-in from the major teams as well as prime-time Sky Sports coverage. From humble beginnings, F1 has evolved into something fairly special.
That phrase about the cars all being the same? I’ve come to think of it as hogwash in recent years, something put around by those blinded by nostalgia. You wouldn’t know it from the whining – as fundamental a part of the sport as fast cars, really – but in this season’s scrap between two four-time world champions with epic marques as their steeds, we’re enjoying something of a golden age for the sport, and in F1 2018 we’ve got the continuation of a golden era for F1 games.
Just as the current formula of racing isn’t to everyone’s tastes, the small incremental upgrades found here will disappoint as many as they delight – but for someone like myself who’s still a little in love with F1 as it stands today, there’s something fitting in a representation of a sport that’s always about finding that small extra edge – a sport in which teams invest in painting their pit boxes in a particular way so that it might gain them a tenth of a second advantage across a two-hour race – that F1 2018 is all about marginal gains. Small tweaks lead to big advantages, and Codemasters has crafted one of the very best F1 games to date.