Codemasters’ F1 2020 is the most accessible Formula 1 game ever, letting you race the current season as if coronavirus never happened.
Like all sports, Formula One has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic, managing only just now to embark on a truncated and comprehensively remodelled season, whose latter stages remain undefined. But there are no such problems for the official Formula 1 video game: F1 2020 features the full season as it would have been in a virus-free world. But perhaps its most impressive aspect is that it contains much more besides, including clever new settings for those whose driving skills don’t exactly rival those of Hamilton, Leclerc, Verstappen, and co.
Formula One has a huge, fiercely partisan fanbase but this year, F1 2020 developer Codemasters has sought to extend its annual game’s appeal further than ever – even to those whose tastes in driving games tend towards the arcade style. It has done that by introducing a new casual driving style option which, as well as cranking up all the assists, makes it easier to drive over off-track areas such as gravel traps, and will automatically return you to the track if you spin off.
Casual mode is impressively well thought out, cranking up the assists to cover a multitude of sins (for example, it will override any spin-inducing heavy-footedness when accelerating out of corners). Combined with the insane levels of grip that F1 2020’s Formula 1 and Formula 2 cars possess, it will make anyone – even those who are way too young to have ever driven in real life – feel like an F1 superstar. But if you do know your way around a racetrack you can turn it all off and play the game as a true simulation.
Casual mode arrives alongside the return of a (vertical) split-screen mode allowing two people to race on a single console or PC, which has been missing from the game since 2014, and that emphasises F1 2020’s ability to morph into what almost feels like an arcade racer, should that be your preference. But F1 2020 also manages to provide plenty of new features designed to delight the major league petrolheads who would rather approach it as a simulator.
Chief among those is My Team, essentially a version of the primary career mode which casts you as the owner of a new team, as well as its principal driver. An endearing flight of fancy – there haven’t been any owner-driver teams in Formula 1 for decades – it adds tasks such as acquiring sponsors and building and upgrading departments and facilities to the other elements of career mode which stray more into team management territory, such as researching and developing different areas of your car.
An acclaim mechanism, tied to your success or otherwise in races, governs the speed at which you can ramp up and invest in facilities which help your computer-controlled number two driver to improve. In other hands, My Team could have ended up as an overcomplicated jumble but Codemasters has long since nailed the structural side of its Formula 1 games, so it ends up succeeding brilliantly.
Codemasters has also made small adjustments to the game which make it more customisable, in career and My Team, you can opt for different lengths of truncated seasons, and choose to either start in Formula 2 (including the full 2019 and 2020 seasons) or plunge straight into the big time. There is a decent-sized store of fantasy championships which encompass historic F1 cars and tracks, along with invitational events that put you in interesting scenarios at the wheel of some iconic machinery from yesteryear.
In terms of graphics and car handling, F1 2020 is truly immaculate. Playing it on an Xbox One X it feels like it’s extracting the maximum possible from the current generation of consoles. It looks startlingly true-to-life (although the driver models in cut scenes do flirt with the uncanny valley) and the cars feels phenomenal to drive. When you turn all the assists off, you get to appreciate just how hard the cars must be to handle in real life, and where your true level of driving talent lies.
Online, F1 2020 impresses too, as it should since it will form the basis of a burgeoning F1 esports competition (which the real-life drivers have been fiercely contesting during the lockdown). If you have the driving chops, and a wheel and pedals rig, you can use the game as a springboard into F1 esports itself: F1 2020 is much more tightly integrated with that competition than its predecessor. But you can also jump into unranked online practice sessions on your favourite circuits with some assists intact, to gauge your likelihood of working your way up the online ranks.
One of the saddest consequences of the virus pandemic is that this year we won’t see races at the two circuits added to the calendar: Vietnam and Zandvoort in Holland, which returns to the Formula 1 roster for the first time since 1985. That’s a real shame, since both tracks are cracking from a driver’s standpoint. Although a narrow street circuit, Vietnam has long straights and some superb high-speed corner sequences, while Zandvoort – famously slippery due to its proximity to sand dunes – is wide, also high-speed, and very conducive to overtaking if you’re brave enough.
If you aren’t a Formula 1 fan, you might be tempted to dismiss F1 2020 as too specialist for your tastes. That would be a huge mistake. It is, quite simply, the best racing game currently out there, spanning the whole spectrum from arcade style to simulator. The only problem is that you might already have a copy of last year’s equally sublime F1 2019, and therefore a reluctance to splash more cash this year. But somehow, Codemasters has managed to make F1 2020 even better than its predecessor.
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