The Game Jar Files: Review: F1 2013

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 18/10/2013

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In September 2010, Codemasters answered every Formula 1 fan’s prayers, and brought the sport back to our consoles. The game was an instant hit, and proved that fans still wanted F1 to be a regular part of their gaming collection. Having now become an annually updated title, Codemasters have the unenviable task of making each new release a meaningful experience in its own right. Have they succeeded is making the latest version – F1 2013, an essential purchase for owners of the previous game? There’s only one way to find out. Pass me my helmet!

If there’s one reliable rule about annually updated games, it’s that their progress is more about refinement of existing gameplay, rather than a radical overhaul, and it’s no different here. If you’ve played any of the three previous F1 games, F1 2013 will be immediately familiar to you. The career mode is present and correct, and as customisable as ever. The clinically insane for example, can indulge their passion for punishing realism with full length races, in-car camera view, and manual gear changes, whilst the weaker amongst us can turn things down to a more manageable level. The Season Challenge option within Career Mode offers up a stripped down version of career in which you have to better a self-selected rival over three, short distance races. It’s fun enough if all you want is a quick hit. The now familiar Grand Prix, Multiplayer, and Proving Ground modes round out the list of expected features.

The actual racing is pretty much spot on. The cars are powerful, twitchy thoroughbreds, full of energy and desperate to charge off in to the distance. Handle them skilfully, and you’re reward with a race car that performs like no other. Variables such as weather and cold tyres play a realistic part in the action, and as a result, each race becomes a carefully planned series of events – don’t pushed to hard when your tyres are cold, manage your fuel load through out the race, out think the other drivers to gain the upper hand. The more hardcore you go with the game settings, the closer the race gets to a game of chess. It’s incredibly rewarding for the thinking driver. The the only aspect of the racing that isn’t quite perfect, is what’s going on around you. The opposing AI drivers aren’t quite as smart as their aggression demands, and car damage can feel a little flaky at times. But don’t let that put you off, as these things are but minor flaws in an otherwise excellent racing experience.

F1 2013’s big new feature is F1 Classics mode, which allows you to get behind the wheel of some of the sports most iconic cars. Four game modes are available; Grand Prix, Time Trial, Time Attack, and Scenario. Grand Prix mode allows you to race a full Grand Prix on either the classic circuits, or any of the modern circuits on the current calendar, and all the usual options for tweaking race length etc are there. Scenario Mode is all about putting you in the seat of a F1 car and competing against legendary drivers. There’s three scenarios in all, and although I enjoyed the third most, each one is fun in its own way. Time Trial and Time Attack are pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t go into to those beyond mentioning that it does give F1 fans the rather interesting opportunity to compare old against new.

There’s a choice of five cars in Classics Mode – two Lotus, two Williams, and one Ferrari, and each car is driven by the appropriate pair of drivers. Amongst the Legends found in the Classics Mode are Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, and Micheal Schumacher, and going up against them is an interesting proposition to say the least. Only two circuits make the Classics list; Jerez and Brands Hatch. Both circuits have been lovingly rendered, are great choices, but is two enough? No, not in my opinion – especially when you consider the list of circuits not chosen . To complete the look and feel, Classics Mode also features suitably altered UI elements and camera filters. It’s a little touch admittedly, but it does go a long way to helping you get into to character, so to speak, and it’s indicative of a mode that’s been created with a loving touch. Classics Mode is perhaps where Codemasters love for the sport shines through most.

The obvious question with Classics Mode though, is where is Ayrton Senna, and where is McLaren? I don’t if there’s some sort of rights issues preventing them from appearing, or whether they’ll turn up in future DLC. What I do know, is that Senna and McLaren’s absence is a gaping hole in the Classics Mode. Prost and Senna’s rivalry was an unforgettable era for the sport, and one that I witnessed as a child, so I cannot begin to tell you how disappointed I was, not to see a single iconic moment between these two great drivers feature in the Scenario Mode. The cynical part of me feels that this lack of content is where the Marketplace menu option in the Classics Mode is going to come in to play, which is a shame, because the mode is great otherwise. It just needs more of everything. NOTE: As I finished writing this, two pieces of DLC adding extra classic circuits became available for Classics Mode. Make of that what you will.

Having seen what Codemasters are capable of with GRID 2 earlier this year, I found F1 2013 to be a little visually underwhelming  on the whole. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good-looking game – particularly when the weather comes out to play, but it doesn’t have the same sex appeal of its sister title. To be fair to the developers, most circuits on the F1 calendar aren’t particularly picturesque to begin with, so asking them to make Silverstone look sexy is perhaps a little too much to ask. Functional, not flamboyant is how I’d sum it up, and maybe that’s the way a F1 game should be. The “in-garage” bits are still the least impressive looking parts of the game, and whilst they’ve improved it with every edition, your garage still feels like it’s staffed by automatons rather than convincing humans. Finally on the visual front, Codemasters seem to have taken tips from Rockstar Games when it comes to text size, as far too much of it is bloody tiny. Please stop doing that, game developers!

F1 2013’s biggest problem (if it is a problem), is the subject matter it seeks to replicate. Formula 1 is not the kind of sport you’d associate with the words “casual” or “knockabout”, and as a result, the game is much the same. Every lap, even on the easiest difficulty setting, demands precision and accuracy, with the slightest mistake usually costing multiple places. F1 is a world where winners and loser are separated by tenths of a second, and F1 2013 reproduces that with crushing accuracy. If your usual flavour of racing game involves the odd bit of rubbing and a smattering of missed apexes, this game probably isn’t for you. Unless you’re short of coasters.

This game isn’t really aimed at casual racing fans though, it’s for the Formula 1 hardcore, and I’m pleased to say they are gonna love it. Each and every lap is a technical cocktail of breaking zones, tyre wear, DRS and KERS use. Deft control of the throttle and brakes is essential, with intimate knowledge of racing lines a must. This is a game for connoisseurs. For drivers who want to hone their car set up with lap upon lap during free practice sessions. For drivers who want to plan their tyre strategy with maniacal accuracy. For drivers that understand the beauty of a the perfect lap. Sure, it’s a lot more involved, a lot more technical than other racing games, but that’s what Formula 1 fans want, and it’s what Codemasters have given them – a pitch-perfect reproduction of the pinnacle of modern motorsport.

So what can we conclude about F1 2013? Well, take away the classics mode, and F1 2013 is very much as expected. It’s an updated version of what came before, and only you’ll be able to decide how important up-to-date stats and driver line-ups are to you. The actual mechanics of the racing are as slick as ever, and there are plenty of gameplay options to play around with, so tailoring the experience to how you want it won’t be a problem. Classics Mode is a little lightweight in my opinion, but that doesn’t stop it being as fun as hell, and therefore a worthy addition to the series. For owners of F1 2012, there probably isn’t much value here beyond the Classics Mode, but for anyone that skipped the last game, it’s time to return to the series.

Good Points: As always, a faithful reproduction of the sport. Plenty of options to tailor the gameplay with.

Bad Points: Classics Mode is lightweight – where’s Ayrton Senna and McLaren? Aimed squarely at the F1 devotee, this isn’t a game for the casual.

Why a 8?: As ever Codemasters have a produced a polished, well made racing game that’s sure to satisfy fans of the sport. It lacks a little value for owners of the previous game though, and Classics Mode needs more content.

The Game Jar Files: Grid 2 Review.

Originally published on The Game Jar.com –  04/06/2013

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Right from the early days of Micro Machines and Colin McRae Rally, I’ve been a fan of Codemasters racing games. They always had a certainly quality to them that you couldn’t find in other racing games. Over the years, a Codemasters name on the box remained a hallmark of quality for me, right up until the first Grid game. For some reason that I’ve never been able to fathom, it left me completely cold. Like fingernails on a blackboard, I just hated it. Warily, I agreed to review Grid 2, secretly hoping that it wouldn’t disappoint me.

The backdrop for the career-based section of the car on car action is the launch of the WSR – World Series Racing. Your Motorsport fairy god father, Patrick Callahan, is trying to establish a new global racing series that pits the very best drivers from around the world against each other across a variety of different disciplines. Realising he needs a sprinkling of star-dust to sell his idea, Callahan identifies you as the new hotness, and sets about recruiting you to act as a sort of wheel-to-wheel salesman. As the WSR’s poster-boy, you’ll be travelling from country to country, selling the WSR to various famous car clubs. With their support, the WSR will gain worldwide respect and notoriety and go on to world domination.

The career mode is a rather linear affair. The country you travel to, the car club you compete against, and even the event types you race in are all predetermined. The constraints do reinforce the narrative of an up-and-coming driver rising through the ranks quite well, but I can’t help but feel they could have added a bit more choice, and still maintained the integrity of the story. The mode is divided up into seasons, and during each one you’ll need to race against two or three car clubs before gaining enough fans to unlock the final event, and move on. Promo events, car challenges, and sponsor challenges offer additional opportunities to gain much-needed fan support if you’re struggling to beat the clubs.

Each club specialises in a particular type of racing, and you’ll have to be competitive across all of them to progress. Eliminación from Spain for example, stick to elimination races, whilst the Kowloon Dragons from Hong Kong spend their time racing Touge style.  By the end of season three the various car clubs are suitably impressed with the WSR blueprint, and  have all signed up. With the recruiting done, you move on to racing a series of WSR special events before unlocking the season ending championship. Describing the early parts of the game as slow going would be a little unfair I think, but certainly I felt that the game didn’t really hit top gear until the fourth season.

The downside of the rigid career path comes when you’re handed a series of events you don’t really like, or are not very good at. I faced this very issue during season three, when I hit Asia. Between the three car clubs I had to race with, one specialised in checkpoint racing – which I don’t find very interesting, and one specialised in drift – a discipline I’ve always been bad at. The lack of freedom meant I was faced with an unpleasant choice: give up on the campaign completely, or struggle through this particular bit of it, and hope what lies beyond is more to my liking. Obviously I carried on, but getting through it was tough.

The best analogy I can come up with to describe Grid 2’s career mode is this: It’s like watching your favourite movie on a glorious big screen high def TV through a letterbox. You know there’s a great film going on, and you also know how good it must be to be sat right in front of it, but someone else is only letting you see a small bit of it at any one time. More than once I was pleading with the game to take the shackles off, so that I could gorge myself on the bits I loved.

If different race modes are what you’re after, you can relax, Grid 2 is full to bursting with them. Along with the usual circuit and point-to-point Race mode, Grid 2 has more than few other tricks up its sleeve to tickle your driving taste-buds. Touge was new to me, and I really enjoyed it. Essentially it’s a point to point race, but you can also win by gaining a five second gap on your opponent. Finding the right balance of pushing hard to increase your lead but not crash leads to an interesting race. Time Attack is another of my favourites. In this mode, drivers compete to set the fastest lap time round a given circuit. You have three laps to go as fast as you can, and I really loved trying to achieve the perfect lap under pressure.

Not all of the modes were right up my pit lane. Checkpoint is all about racing between gates within a set period of time, and was rather ordinary in my opinion. I also had a hard time liking Endurance. In this mode you race for a set period of time, and when the time is up, the driver who’s driven the furthest is the winner. Basically, you get to the front and stay there. Drift is all about graceful sliding around corners for points, and is just as impossible for me in Grid 2 as in other games. At least I’m consistent, I guess. Elimination is a fairly standard affair, the driver at the back of the pack gets eliminated until there’s only one driver left. Face Off is a series of one-v-one point to point races, against AI drivers who aren’t afraid of trading paint.

The one aspect I simply cannot get my head around is LiveRoutes. Grid 2 is a racing game, right? That means (to me at least) learning a track ’till you can see it with your eyes closed. You know where your braking points are, and how hard you accelerate out of the corner. There’s none of that in LiveRoutes. The system randomly chooses the layout of the track on the fly, which means you can’t see how sharp the bend is until you’re in it. Or whether it leads into another corner, or even how far behind the opposition is. I’m sure fans of this mode are shouting at the screen right now, but to me the mode is completely counter-intuitive to what a racing game is supposed to be about.

When you do get to race the right car on the right circuit though, the racing game you’ve always felt was lurking under the hood gets to burst out. For me it was a touring car around the Yas Marina at night. Everything just came together – the atmosphere of the track, the aggression of the AI drivers, the raw speed of a well-balanced race car. It’s been said many times by critics that video games cannot  ever be art. Well I would beg to differ, because right then during that race, Grid 2 was nothing less than pure racing art.

Graphically, the game can only be described as gorgeous. Making tarmac look sexy is a pretty tall order, but Codemasters have managed it some how. Dubai for instance, is set against a stunning beach side vista. Chicago has steam escaping from the risers and litter blowing about in the wind. The Yas Marina during the night-time is vivid and colourful. With such impressive environments to race in, the machinery needs to be equally sexy, and I’m pleased to say that it is. I’ve not come across many racing games that have done a better job of rendering or destroying race cars.

The customizable liveries are a nice touch. Not as fully featured as Forza’s painting system, but good enough to come up with something personal to you. I would have like to seen some way of adding your own text to your car, but also realise that giving that amount of freedom to the internet comes with a whole heap of problems, so I live without it. Codemasters have made up for it anyway, with a huge selection of wheels to pimp out your ride. The Essex boy-racer in me was a happy boy.

I only have two issues with Grid 2. The first I’ll freely admit is due to my personal taste in racing games, rather than any deficiency in the game. I prefer to play simulation racers, with proper racing cars on proper racing tracks. I’m not into Drift or checkpoint racing, so to be funnelled down those paths by the structure of the career mode frustrates me. Like I said, that frustration arises from my personal tastes rather than a lack of quality, so I don’t doubt those with wider tastes will be perfectly at home with the variety.

The second issue I have is that I feel it’s a little too unforgiving for beginners. Racing veterans will be fine jumping straight into the heated world of tire smoke and paint-trading, but newbies need a little more hand-holding, and in my opinion Grid 2 doesn’t do enough of that. Multi-player certainly is unwelcoming to the casual, as it dumps you straight into the deep end with all the big boys. Other games have beginners only playlists to ease you into things, and I really feel Grid 2 needs the same sort of thing.

Despite those minor gripes though, Grid 2 is a giant of a racing game. Yes, the WSR career mode is frustratingly restrictive at times, and yes, the multi-player is brutal if you’re relatively inexperienced, but these soon become minor issues when the game hits its sweet spot. Very few racing games achieve the kind of highs Grid 2 does, it honestly doesn’t get much better than this.

Summary – Grid 2 is a sexy, visceral and aggressive racing game that gets in your face and refuses to be ignored. Without a doubt, Grid 2 is one of the finest racing games of this generation.

Good Points – Fast and furious racing, backed up with gorgeous visuals.

Bad Points – Career mode is too restrictive, maybe a little to intense for beginners.

Why a 9? Simply put, a near flawless example of the genre.

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