Many gamers are wary when they see a sport series with yearly releases, expecting few changes from the previous year’s iteration. Luckily Formula 1 is a sport that changes quite a bit every year, more than football, soccer or baseball. The rules are rather fluid, and often dictated by the progression of technology, while a new track brings a fresh experience as opposed to a new stadium, that ends up being just another rectangular grassy field. Of course the evolution of the sport should always be accompanied by an equivalent evolution of the game.
Codemasters has been at work on the F1 series for a few years since it acquired the official license for the sport, and quite a lot of water has flown under the bridge since the first title, so I sat in front of my wheel with rather high expectations.
Consideering that the game is based on exactly the same proprietary engine as its predecessor (EGO 2.0), its visuals didn’t evolve much. Codemasters has put considerable attention in modeling the cars, and they indeed are a thing of beauty down to the smallest detail, with reflections and effects (especially in the rain), that don’t fail to impress. Only some of the textures are still a bit low in resolution, resulting in a slightly pixelated look on curved surfaces, but the problem is much less evident than it was last year.
Unfortunately the same degree of visual glitz hasn’t been extended to the tracks, that tend to look rather boring, flat and under detailed. While their equivalent in the real world isn’t exactly a tourist attraction, I feel that something more could have been done there, especially for the PC version of the game, considering that even console racing games manage to come around with better looking environments while keeping the quality of the models of the cars just as high.
Of course F1 2012 includes a full field of twenty four cars on the track, so we can’t expect the same overall level of detail shown by a game that only shows eight or twelve cars at the same time, but I can’t help but feeling that the engine is the real limiting factor, and that the visuals as a whole could be quite a bit better with a more powerful engine.
This is not to say that F1 2012 looks bad. The weather effects are absolutely great, making a rainy race a pleasure for the eyes, and a very realistic lighting engine paints the slightly dull environments and the lovely cars in a very flattering light.
Unfortunately night races are the exception, and have become less visually attractive than in the previous iteration of the series. In my review of F1 2011 I criticized the fact that night races were way too saturated. Unfortunately Codemasters seems to have overcompensated by quite a bit, and in the sequel the night environment is excessively dark, with an effect that ends up being definitely worse and more dull than the one shown by the predecessor.
The representation of the drivers is another rather evident flaw, with models that aren’t what I’d expect in a game released at the end of 2012. It’s not exactly surprising since they’ve been basically recycled from F1 2011, like a sizable percentage of the assets of the game. Even the animations included in the “victory cutscenes” are exactly the same, which is honestly something I cannot justify, especially considering that the game still lacks a podium cutscene, that is one of the most iconic sights of a F1 race.
Replays also remain a little unsatisfying, with no noticeable evolution from F1 2011. There’s still no way to change the car on which the camera focuses, forcing the player to watch the action centered on his own car and nothing else. In addition to that, there’s only one static camera for every given section of the track, meaning that you’ll probably get quite bored after watching a few laps of the same race.
As usual, if you want to see more about the visuals of F1 2012, you can check the gallery below. 480 screenshots should be enough to give you a good idea.
The sound effects and voice acting are definitely well made, with engines that sound distinctive for every car and well delivered voice acting, even if a large amount of recycling is present even in this aspect of the game. There is, though, an extremely pleasing (and useful), new aspect: every track now has an animated introduction with a voice over explaining every turn in detail. This is something that is sorely missing in most racing games, and a very welcome addition to this one.
Maybe the lingo used in the videos is a tad too obscure and professional for many to fully understand, but it contributes quite heavily in setting the atmosphere, making new tracks a little more accessible at the same time. maybe players that are new to racing won’t understand every single reference, but most will get the idea and virtual racing veterans will be delighted.
F1 2012 is advertised as a simulator, which means that production values are important only to a point compared to gameplay and features. Of course shiny cars and great engine roars help quite a bit in improving the immersion, but the way cars behave on the track is what makes or breaks the game.
The driving model is quite realistic, even if I wouldn’t classify it as a full fledged simulator. While some elements like spin recovery have been simplified to make the game more accessible, the feel of the cars is definitely much closer to reality than to that of an arcade racer.
One of the best elements is definitely how different each car feels from each other. If you start your career with a bottom feeder like Marussia and then move up to a top-ranking team like Ferrari in the following seasons, it’ll be like jumping from a tricycle to a starship, adding a distinctive feeling of progression that definitely proves satisfying and rewarding at the end of a successful career.
That said, in a few cases the cars behave in a way that feels a tad unnatural. Most show a slightly excessive understeer in many situations, as the front wheels will tend to try and pull you out of a corner a little too easily. Conversely, oversteer seems too rare even with the weakest downforce settings, unless you have the wrong tires. Tire management also seems to be a tad on the extreme side, with differences between dry and wet tires that feel exaggerated.
If you have dry tires on, and it starts raining, you’ll be able to race pretty much normally for almost precisely three laps. At the end of the third lap you’ll slide and spin, no questions asked. It’s almost inevitable. On the other hand, if you’re mounting wet or intermediate tires and the rain stops, you have about three laps of leeway, at the end of which you’ll inevitably spin again.
I’m no professional racing driver, but I’m quite sure that a car with dry tires is still driveable in the wet if you go slow and very careful, and even more so, a car on wet tires should be slow and wear out fast on a dry track, but it shouldn’t behave like you’re driving a brick on a slab on ice if you’re conservative enough. Moreover the very predictable and sudden “failing point” of each tire type limits the viable strategies by quite a lot.
Deciding to push on with a less than ideal tire set to finish a race that maybe is only a lap or two longer than that point is simply suicidal. Add to that the fact that wet races seem to come way too often (I found rain in Abu Dhabi, I kid you not), and the problem is amplified further…
One of the most disappointing elements of the simulation is still the damage model. You can’t do much else to your car than breaking the front wing, puncturing the tires or damaging the engine. That’s pretty much it. That’s massively underdeveloped considering the complexity of a Formula 1 car and the fact that keeping it working in perfect order is one of the most crucial areas of real racing. It detracts quite a lot from the simulative aspect of the game, and it’s simply a pity that Codemasters didn’t manage to improve this element of the game from its predecessor.
Despite the aforementioned flaws, F1 2012 is definitely fun to drive, and will satisfy racing sim enthusiasts as long as they’re not expecting extreme realism. Novices won’t have much to worry about, as the system of assists is one of the best I’ve tried in a while, letting you trim down the simulation to a much more manageable experience if you don’t want to cope with physics too much.
While using a good racing wheel is definitely advisable and improves the experience tenfold (I used the Fanatec CSR wheel that I reviewed last year), giving you a lot more control both on the steering and on the gas and brakes, Codemasters implemented an hardcoded assist system that kicks into action if you use a normal controller.
The steering assist applied to the controller mitigates lateral inputs quite strongly in relation to the speed of the car, preventing inexperienced players from overcompensating with exaggerated inputs and allowing them to keep the car under control much more easily. The problem is that it also limits what you can do by quite a lot, almost guiding you on a predetermined line through each corner. Newbies will probably love it, but experienced players that like driving without assists will probably go bonkers due its presence.
Luckily on PC the assist can be overridden by setting the controller as a wheel (even if the possibility is undocumented, so many won’t even notice it), and simulation enthusiasts will probably use a wheel anyway, so it will probably be a problem only if you play on consoles, like driving with no assists, and you really can’t afford a wheel.
Talking about assists, the game features the same flashback system as its predecessor. If you make a mistake you can simply rewind the action and retry from a point of your choosing. You can set between one and four flashbacks available per session, and honestly I fail to understand the reasons behind this limitation.
I don’t like to use flashbacks much, as I enjoy the risk of a crash that can cost me the race, but the feature is a very valuable learning tool for newbies that want to learn to race without assists, so limiting it seems pretty nonsensical, as every player should be able to gauge his own ability and decide when and if to use flashbacks whenever he deems necessary to improve and to have fun at the same time.
The most mind boggling problem within the game lays in the implementation of the AI. If you set it to “intermediate” expecting an intermediate challenge, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Your opponents will be extremely inconsistent in their driving, performing almost decently on some tracks and extremely badly on others. In particular they will completely melt during low speed corners that have to be negotiated in 1st or 2nd gear, and since those corners tend to be strategically placed before and after the first straight, in many races you’ll be able to jump in the lead starting from way back in the grid, or to perform absolutely unrealistic overtakes at the very last corner.
In addition to that, AI drivers are surprisingly cowardly. If you put as much as a wheel in their ideal racing line, they will automatically back off even from an easy overtake where they have a massive speed advantage, turning controlling them into an absolutely elementary task. If you manage to get in the lead and you don’t fall asleep at the wheel, it’s very unlikely that you’ll lose the position in any other situation than a pit stop.
“Professional” AI is a little better and faster, but it still suffers from the aforementioned slow corner tardiness and overtaking cowardice, but unless you’re a complete beginner, I advise to start here to have results with a decent amount of realism, otherwise you’ll end up seeing your puny Marussia that doesn’t even have KERS (a boost system that gives quite an advantage in accelerating and overtaking) lead every single race, leaving Ferrari and Red Bull in the dust without much effort at all, completely removing any satisfaction from progressing to a leading team.
“Legendary” AI suffers from the opposite problem. It’s way too fast, and it gives the impression of cheating in order to achieve that result, with cars cornering like sharships and holding grip at absolutely unrealistic speeds. The gap between Professional and Legendary is way too wide, and can bring a lot of frustration to those that approach the game with a skill level placed between the two.
I honestly didn’t even try the “Amateur” level, as the performance of the half tamed baboons driving as Intermediate AI was pitiful enough. Unfortunately the fully trained primates (they’re still monkeys, but better) that pose as Professional AI may prove too weak for quite a few, while the aliens from outer space running on Legendary will end up frustrating many, resulting in a challenge that is either too easy or too hard for a good portion of the player base.
On the positive side, the AI drivers are always very aware of your position on the track, so they’ll drive in a much cleaner way as opposed to many other racing games and simulators. In two seasons i never had the AI collide with me unless it was my fault, and that’s a result that should be commended, considering the poor yields other developers normally get on the issue.
Feature-wise F1 2012 is a well rounded package, bringing a few elements of novelty in comparison with its predecessor. One of the most welcome is definitely the Young Driver Test, that carries the player to the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi for a stylized reproduction of the test that new drivers coming from less prestigious series have to face in order to be noticed by Formula 1 teams.
Not only the test is great to set the right atmosphere at the very beginning of the game, but it also works as a tutorial, something that was sorely missing in the previous games of the series, leaving players that weren’t familiar with Formula 1 high and dry. In addition to that, it adds a bit more flexibility to the start of the career mode, as performing well in the Young Driver Test realistically unlocks teams that are a notch better than the previously available bottom feeders, like Toro Rosso and Williams.
The new Season Challenge mode lets you drive a “mini-season” of ten short races, competing against AI drivers and choosing a rival between them. Beating your rival will allow you to literally “steal” his seat, allowing a quick promotion to a better team. While this mode may be interesting for players that have limited time and attention span, its rather limited scope reduces its desirability for anyone more dedicated than a very casual gamer.
The Champions Mode is much more interesting, as it allows the player to race in different challenges against the virtual alter ego of six different former world champions. Considering the fact that the challenges usually put you at an initial disadvantage (unless you play them on easy difficulty), they provide an interesting and quite refreshing break from competing against the overly easy AI.
The beating heart of F1 2012‘s single player is, of course, the Career mode, where the player is prompted to chose a team between those he unlocked with the Young Driver Test and compete over a period of five seasons of 20 races each. Good performance will prompt contract offers from more prestigious teams, with better chances to challenge the world championship. The duel for leadership against the team mate, and the possibility to select a rival to steal his seat in the next season like in the Season Challenge add a further layer of depth to the whole affair.
Playing a whole F1 career can be definitely satisfying, and it’s basically the main reason why I’d advise to play this game despite the aforementioned flaws. The only problem comes packaged with the badly balanced AI. If you drive on a level over your degree of ability (which would probably be Legendary and its alien drivers), the first season will be very frustrating, as you’ll already be sitting on an underpowered car that understeers like an overloaded garbage truck, turning even reaching the most limted objectives into a big pain.
If you chose a weaker level of difficulty, it’s very likely that, unless you’re a complete amateur, you’ll win your rookie season on a car that wouldn’t realistically win a cup made of cardboard, not only diminishing the value of the simulation, but also flattening the progression of the game quite radically. All you’ll have to do is to select a driver of your favorite team as your rival, and in the second season you’ll already be sitting in the car you want, leaving you with nothing else to aim for and winning races with a minute or more of lead from the second.
Of course you can create an artificial progression by purposely selecting intermediate teams as rivals before climbing up to your objective after multiple seasons, but that isn’t very balanced or entertaining either.
Luckily the whole system has a saving grace in the fact that you can dynamically change the level of the AI not only before every race, but even before every session of the same weekend. This allows you to adapt the challenge to your performance as you go, keeping things manageable but not excessively easy. If you don’t fall right in the dead middle of the large gap between Professional and Legendary, this rather clever implementation mitigates the AI problem by quite a bit.
The career options let you select the duration of a race, ranging between a full weekend and a quick one-lap qualifying session followed by the race if you’re in a hurry. Unfortunately the “full weekend” isn’t really full, as Codemasters decided to remove the first two practice sessions, leaving the most dedicated virtual drivers with a single hour to hone their times and find the right setup. Honestly I can’t really understand the reasoning behind this decision. I also feel that the options could have been richer, for instance allowing for a short weekend that included a single practice session, a single qualifying session (instead of the usual three that can be a bit boring for more casual players) and the race itself.
Of course there’s also a series of multiplayer modes, letting players find races online, via LAN or splitting the screen in two. Online races have a rather traditional lobby system divided by duration, but unfortunately the whole mode is plagued by frequent disconnections (at least on PC) and by less then civil opponents.
While racing online with your usual road or GT cars is normally rather tolerant of the usual donkey bouncing around the track with no care if he hits an opponent or a wall, Formula 1 cars are very touchy, and even a very minor collision can ruin the victim’s race completely. This means that either you play exclusively with friends you can trust to be fair competitors, or you’ll have to prepare for a large amount of pain and frustration, especially considering that the penalty system seems to be excessively forgiving.
As you get slammed around the track and spinned into oblivion you’ll probably hear an aged voice saying: “No, no, he didn’t slam you, he didn’t bump you, he didn’t nudge you… he rubbed you. And rubbin, son, is racin’.” Unfortunately that was Nascar, and this is Formula 1. “Rubbin” may be somewhat fun when you drive a (virtual) 3,400 pound stock car, but in Formula 1 it’s not, and I can’t say I managed to find a single race in which I haven’t been rubbed. A lot.
A co-op championship enriches the online suite, if you can find someone that will race with you on the long run. Unfortunately the lack of a split screen option in this mode kind of limits its application, but it can be definitely fun if you manage to dodge the many synchronization problems and glitches that still plague it.
Ultimately, despite the many flaws and glitches, F1 2012 manages to be an enjoyable game and a competent simulator, but it brings very little innovation to the table compared to its predecessor, and while there are a few fresh features, others have been removed for rather unfathomable reasons.
I have to give Codemasters props for making the game a lot more accessible to newcomers and those unfamiliar with the sport than F1 2011 and, assuming that you manage to find the right level of challenge for your skills, the career mode can still be a compelling and fun experience. That said, Formula 1 is a sport of excellence and perfection. Unfortunately F1 2012 is not.