I’m exhausted. Fifty-three laps are a long, long way. A distance that can take its toll on the human body even without driving in the rain three hundred kilometers-per-hour. But it’s raining so hard that I have trouble reading the speedometer…
I can see the last hurdle, the dreaded Casio Triangle of Suzuka. I can hear the engine of that Ferrari chasing behind me, over the sound of my own. He wants me, like a blood red hunting hound hungry for my flesh. My shoulders are numb, but my brain orders them to move anyway, for a final struggling effort. The worn out tires squeal as I enter the corner, I feel it in my bones: the rear end is losing grip. I must compensate!
My feet move frantically, the engine behind me wails as the red hound approaches, the wheels desperately bite at the wet asphalt. One second. Two, three, four… I can almost picture myself spinning out of control into the grass, but the last straight finally appears in front of my eyes. The blood red hound fades behind me as my body relaxes, enjoying the last glorious ride towards the checkered flag…
Codemasters is back with their newest licensed racing simulator: F1 2011, promising more polish, more realism and a better representation of what many consider the premier motor sport in the world. F1 2010 was a good game, but it had quite a few shortcomings that prevented it to be a great one, and more specifically, a solid simulative experience.
The first thing that meets the eye in F1 2011 are its visuals, that also mark the first noticeable improvement over its predecessor. The color palette is now much different, trending towards warmer and more colorful tones. It creates a more vibrant world that is more appropriate to the exciting nature of the sport.
Of course the most important aspect of a racing game’s graphics are the cars: the rides of F1 2011 look the best when observed from a reasonable distance, not too far and not too near. The new reflection effects on the bodies look awesome in motion, while the colorful palette and beautiful lighting effects make them stand out beautifully on the asphalt. Some additional details like the animated DRS (I’ll talk about that more in depth later) and the visible vibration of the wings make the look of the cars even more impressive.
Things start to look less enticing when the point of view draws near to the car’s bodywork. The resolution of the textures doesn’t cope too well with a close inspection, and a rather high degree of pixelation ends up being very visible, especially on logos and sponsors. Seeing the beloved “Cavallino Rampante” (prancing horse) badly blurred on the body of a Ferrari would make any racing fan shake his head in dismay. 3D models suffer from the same problem, as some of the elements of the cars are definitely low in polygon count. Just look at the suspensions when the camera moves behind the wheel during a replay to understand what I mean.
Of course this is partly justified by the necessity of displaying a field of 24 cars at once, that makes for a rather crowded screen compared to other racing games and requires some economy in texture resolution and polygons. That said, I can’t help but feeling that Codemasters settled on the minimum common denominator of console performance, without juicing the graphics cards of the most performing gaming PCs out there, that should definitely be able to display a better level of detail on that many cars without breaking much of a sweat.
What really shines are the cockpits. The level of detail is extremely high, with the whole array of buttons, led indicators and details perfectly reproduced for each car. Each team also has its unique wheel. This can sometimes be a hassle, like in the case of Red Bull, where the indicators are not on the wheel itself, but on the dashboard, meaning that they end up hidden while cornering. Despite the practical shortcoming it’s realistic and appropriate, not to mention visually impressive.
The environments prove definitely spectacular in most cases, with the advanced lighting engine bringing the tracks to life quite beautifully. The level of detail of the tracks themselves is impressive, with many little flavor details that go above and beyond the call of duty to make them feel more alive and realistic.
Even more visually pleasing is the fully dynamic weather, that can range between sunny and heavy rain during a single race. The changes in lighting and the rain effect itself are definitely a joy for the eyes, especially the clouds of water raised by the speeding cars and the reflections on the asphalt and on the cars themselves. This is perfectly complemented by the animated visual effect of rain drops on the body of the cars. It’s probably the most realistic I’ve seen so far in a racing simulator and it turns watching replays of a rainy race into even more of a pleasure.
Some night racing is also present, even if it isn’t as spectacular as the variation in weather. It definitely seems that the engine wasn’t specifically built to simulate the environment at night, so everything tends to be too flat and oversaturated, losing a bit in realism. Formula 1 cars don’t have their own headlights, so lighting during night racing is achieved with hundreds of spotlights that literally cover the whole track. This creates an extremely complex pattern of light and shadow that quite obviously the engine of F1 2011 can’t recreate.
It’s not bad enough to be jarring or to ruin the experience, but night racing in Formula 1 has a very special vibe due to the unique lighting conditions, and it’s a pity not to see them reproduced effectively in the game.
Despite the fact that the game is about cars and racing tracks, there’s a quite prominent human element in F1 2011, with drivers, pit crew and stewards fully modeled and animated. You can even meet journalists and race queens during breaks. While this is definitely an improvement over the standard of racing games, the execution is still far from perfect. Character textures and models often lack in detail, and even more in variation. No matter what circuit you visit, you’ll see more or less always the same faces around you.
While it’s true that even in real Formula 1 you meet a lot of the same people in the Paddock, what you see in F1 2011 goes a bit overboard in that, and indicates that while Codemaster tried to introduce those additional flavor elements, they spent the least resources possible in creating the related assets, detracting a little from the visual impact.
That said, the fully animated pit crew during pit stops looks absolutely spectacular, enriching the experience considerably during an event that’s definitely very important in F1 racing.
Replays keep to the mixed bag theme that seems to characterize F1 2011‘s graphics. On the surface they definitely look spectacular, with dynamic camera angles and beautiful cars that zip all over environments enriched by advanced blur and heat effects, but the more you watch them, the more you notice little details that tend to look disturbing.
The Dynamic camera angles aren’t so dynamic in the end, as the position and order of the cameras is always the same for every lap in the same track, no matter what happens. The inability to change the car on which the camera is focusing adds to that, meaning that you will miss a lot of the events of the race, especially if they happen far from your own car. Another problem is that often the engine seems to struggle with calculating the position of the cars in real time, resulting in evident little stutters as the car warps from a position to another because the engine can’t keep up and decides that the previous location wasn’t correct.