Through no real fault of Codemasters’ own, the authenticity that’s been a hallmark of its F1 series isn’t quite there this year. How could it be when the season it’s replicating remains a moving target? Having started some four months later than planned, we’re still not entirely sure what the rest of the F1 2020 calendar is going to bring, with visits to circuits like Portimao, Imola and Mugello on the cards – none of which will make it into this year’s game, while Zandvoort and Hanoi, two new races we’ll never get to see this year, find a place in the game’s circuit roster. Even the liveries have changed fast in the build-up to yesterday’s season opener – the now Rokit-less Williams is part of a day one patch, and you’ll likely have to wait a little while after launch until you’re able to race Mercedes’ freshly black and jaw-droppingly beautiful new look.
None of which detracts from a series that just goes from strength to strength. If anything, it only helps underline what fantastic games these have become – even detached from the finer detail of F1, there’s stuff here that anyone who’s ever loved a racing game can enjoy. Here’s something that’s now as accessible and entertaining as Dirt 2, and that’s as authentic and engaging in its thrills as TOCA was back in the day.
The biggest stride made this year comes in the shape of the My Team feature, which gives you your own outfit and puts you in charge of their day-to-day business – and then places you behind the wheel, too. I’d sort of written it off beforehand as another throwaway gimmick – like last year’s cute but inconsequential story mode that added in a handful of cutscenes, a feature which has this year been duly tossed aside – but before I knew it I was kept up playing well past my bedtime and then drifting off to sleep idly dreaming about the fortunes of my own outfit: a proper Norfolk-based revival of Team Lotus, run on a lavish budget from a couple of Chinese investors brought in by Hethel owners Geely.
Well, that was my own tale, and F1 2020 provided me with the systems to be able to play it out. You pick out your team colours and livery in an editor that, for all its limitations, provides some fairly convincing results. You select sponsors – they’re made-up brands and companies, which actually seems fairly authentic to the F1 underworld of financiers and mythical energy drink slurping enigmas – and manage contracts and facilities alongside the R&D upgrade tree, juggling resources amongst the lot. I’m a big fan of how 10-race seasons are now an option, making that progress all the more instant and just as gratifying – because when it comes together, and you’re working alongside the F2 hotshot you hired to make a crash and grab on the last few points-paying positions, F1 2020’s new team management mode feels legit.
It’s helped along by handling that keeps making forward strides. There’s a new, more accessible pad setting, complemented elsewhere by tweaked wheel settings that keep you that little bit busier when hustling around a track. Most importantly, whichever way you’re playing, everything feels whippet quick and responsive. It’s all a bit overstated, as is the AI, which is equal parts courteous and aggressive with not much subtlety in between, but that’s just fine. This isn’t iRacing or rFactor 2, yet in its own way F1 2020 is faithful to the real thing. Besides, I don’t think you’ll be playing either of those big sims on a sofa with a friend in splitscreen, as you can now finally do in an F1 game once again.
F1 2020 is also faithful to all the weird stuff that makes motorsport’s top tier what it is today – though if you’re here just because you love racing games and not necessarily the sport itself, don’t be put off. With its gizmo-assisted overtake zones and magically recharging energy systems all available at the press of a button, the crazy-coloured tyres you must shuffle through in the course of a race and the enforced resource management of power units, F1 in 2020 pretty much is a video game. And as the electrifying opening Grand Prix proved, the current breed of ludicrously fast cars combined with the modern rulebook’s idiosyncrasies often makes for a pretty entertaining video game too.
It’s one with room for improvement, too, as is the case with F1 2020. The systems aren’t necessarily the most robust – some of them, like the drawn out media interviews that litter the single-player campaign, are plain bust – and it doesn’t always hang too well together. There’s ample variety here, with the classics bolstered by the introduction of Michael Schumacher-themed rides such as the godly green Jordan 191 as well as the retaining of Formula 2, but it’s hard to find a decent thread between the lot. Invitationals in the growing list of retro cars still pop up in the career, and the returning driver career mode once again gives you the option of starting off with a few races in F2, but I can’t help but feel it could all be better tied together. I also remain as impatient as anyone for the introduction of proper VR support, and am holding out hope it’s something that might finally come alongside the series’ imminent generational leap.
Across this current generation, though, Codemasters’ F1 series has gone from strength to strength, and F1 2020 is a consolidation of all that. It’s open-armed, nerdishly specced out – with its dynamic weather and evolving track, this still has a feature list that should well be the envy of other console racers like Forza and Gran Turismo – and above all it’s an awful lot of fun. Indeed, over the years Codemasters’ games have become part of the fabric of the sport itself, with young hotshots like Leclerc and Albon fooling around with last year’s edition during the prolonged off-season. This year’s edition is even better yet, ditching the story mode of last year for a story that’s now entirely your own, and providing distilled thrills that make it an easier recommendation to the less hardcore. It’s not perfect, just as the real thing isn’t – but just like the real thing, with its surge of likeable new stars and a regular helping of on-track drama, you can’t help but feel that F1 is in safe hands right now.