F1 2011 (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Developer: Codemasters Birmingham
Publisher: Codemasters
Release: September 20, 2011
Price: $59.99

Consider the tedium of a career Lotus Renault GP F1 constructor during the Gran Premio Santander D’Italia. (You know, a race car driver.) Friday morning, the week of the “Grand Prizes,” this well-paid, likely European gentleman awakes early to read his email, check the weather, and peruse the calendar. He saunters into the garage (ger’-oj) and inspects the Pirelli tyres and Lotus Chassis. A short conversation with his engineer reminds him of the inclement weather. He orders a tyre change. He climbs into the driver’s seat, observes his competition. Revving the Renault engine (worth ten times his annual salary), he hears the crew boss remind him, “Take it easy. Today’s just practice.”

Layman Origins

To the locomotive enthusiast, simulators may be the closest and most authentic approximation of train operation he will experience. For the Formula One aficionado (Italian for “freaking obsessed”), F1 2011 scratches a similar itch. Any parties unfamiliar or unenthused by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) or Codemasters Birmingham’s F1 racing series will be irritated by the friction of presumption and difficulty. Unfortunately, I am the latter, rubbed raw by what is a well-made, detail-oriented, realistic simulation of the F1 racer’s occupation. It’s a game with such microscopic, crystal clear focus that it simultaneously repels and educates the player.

When I imagine Formula One from a comfortable, American distance I envision sleek racing frames rocketing across slick tracks in the pastoral Italian countryside. F1 2011 forces me to relinquish my rosy lens of the sport. The game’s motto, “Be the Driver. Live the Life. Go Compete,” perfectly describes the fractured career mode. Two-thirds of the time spent in career is off the track, performing the often needed rituals of a racer’s daily chores. Slightly less than a third is spent racing. The rest is consumed by heinous load times, a disturbing trend in the racing game genre.

I begin my career with the first of many interviews with the monotone British reporter and crew. I choose my difficulty (medium), country of origin (Hong Kong), name (*explicit*), and team (Team Lotus) staring down the camera lens. I’m introduced to my paddock, useful for buggering about on the Internet (standings) and reading volumes of press clippings and useless emails. By the time I make it to the garage in Melbourne, impatience sets in. A few whisked-through menus later and I’m on the track, chomping at the bit for some competition. It is the practice round.

Waiting for Premio

The practice rounds can have R&D objectives to net upgrades, but they’re more important for learning the course. While other racers drop in and out of view, presumably also practicing, it’s all about my knowledge of the course: which turns need what degree of braking (Pro tip: Brake early, then turn and accelerate simultaneously), how the current configuration will handle in the given conditions. Practices last a variable amount of laps - from three to a high enough number that it’s not even worth saying. Honestly, how many days have I carved out for the Buddh International Circuit?

I bring the practice to a merciful end. I slog through more loading screens, a bit of tinkering in the paddock and garage, and then take to the track again. I don’t truly start my engines yet- it’s the qualifying round. It’s even harder to place well in the qualifying round than the race itself, and more confusing to navigate properly. This is one of many instances where F1 2011 assumes foreknowledge of the machinations of F1 race weekends. A layman doesn’t stand a chance with no descriptive tutorial outside of extensive manual study. The dirty primer: Race until the crew congratulates the driver.

Finally, by the third day, after more paddock, more garage, and more loading, the race lurches into motion. Easily the best (and briefest) legs of the journey, actual 24 car races are a welcome departure from the time trials of the previous modes. Opponent AI’s act like real drivers, slowing down gradually and keeping space between. The affair may not appear as debonair as the televised version , but it’s fun. Shrapnel here, tyre debris (de’-bree) there; it’s where Codemasters fuses the gritty imperfections of less technical racing games with attention to detail. Supremo, fantastico, and so forth.

Then more interviews, paddock, loading screens.

Crash for Clunk-KERS

To reiterate: A hardcore fan of the F1 series will love the additions (deeper car customizations, two new tracks, up-to-date F1 drivers from Vettel to Button) since F1 2010. The management of the racing schedule, qualifying times, car build-outs, tyre types, and even helmet designs will feel like engaging persistence to a racing vet. If Gran Turismo can do it, why can’t F1?

Difficulty spikes can disarm cautiously invested players. F1 2011’s difficulty spike lasts from the first race to about five or six races in. Mind, six races means six practices, six qualifying rounds, six competitive races, and all the middling material in between. It’s a significant time commitment for a novice player or a newcomer to the series. Yes, there’s an easy difficulty, but its main differentiator is brake assist, i.e. the game brakes for you. I was frankly offended at this open-palm slap to my racing sensibility. Easier shouldn’t mean less control, it should mean… not as hard.

To its credit, the game (accurately so for the Formula One 2011 season) brings in a Drag Reduction System (DRS) and the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). Both can act as boosts in specific situations and give hope to feeble racers looking for respite from 12th place finishes. They’re handy to have, but not drastic enough to revolutionize the way races play out. The core strategy still lies in carefully timed braking, accelerating, and turning. True to the sport, bad for the game.

And Now for Something the Same

Grand Prix and online multiplayer modes are as expected. One is a local race option as heavily customizable as career, and the other uses online capabilities to match drivers with similar records for full 24 driver races (eight of which will be AI for the sake of latency). These modes cut to the race quicker, thankfully, but lose that RPG element in the process. Perhaps integration between the modes could have created a healthier, less daunting medium.

It was with relief that I reached the end of my career, having learned every track down to the corner pads, and with even greater relief that I found my skills to transfer so directly to local and online play. F1 is the contemplative NASCAR that rally, street, and drag racing cannot equal in necessary precision, pomp, or arrogance. The most recent game to celebrate this sport follows suit; it is as European as its origin. Don’t expect a revolution from F1 2011’s world of regulation and tradition. Expect simulation.

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Score: 5/10