Sports franchises like Codemasters’ F1 series are almost always caught between dull incrementalism and risky revision. With each new edition, the sales pitch inevitably becomes harder, because with the exception of roster changes and updated performance figures, the core game has little reason to change. But bold strokes are dangerous, because they risk alienating loyal fans and creating more problems than they solve.
With F1 2013, Codemasters find themselves following in EA’s footsteps, looking to the past as a way out of a somewhat stagnant present. But unlike the historical rosters you find in a typical sports game, racing F1 cars of past seasons actually makes for a profoundly different experience, one that enriches a still-improving, if slightly antiseptic, F1 racing game.
Two things have come into maturity with F1 2013. First, its handling model has found a delicious balance between accessibility and volatility. These cars will still get out of control the moment they get too much power, or put a tire on the grass under braking, but they don’t seem like they are actively trying to shake their driver off like a mechanical bull. They respond to inputs with ferocity, but still recognizably like automobiles. Just incredibly sophisticated, aggressive ones.
The other major change that dovetails with the handling is the much greater granularity Codemasters have added to difficulty settings. From AI settings to brake assist, F1 2013 makes it easy to find the exact right settings for a budding F1 driver to have a rewarding, exciting experience. Where previous years often had massive disparities when it came to these settings, whiplashing players between over-simplicity and merciless difficulty, this year’s version can manage to be instructive, helpful, and thrilling all at the same time.
The assists are so good that, when I was racing in a multiplayer match with a group of PC Gamer writers and editors, it took me a few laps to realize that brake assist had been turned to “low” by the host (don’t worry, you can override this). I didn’t notice because it wasn’t fighting me for control, it was just smoothing out my braking and perhaps adjusting my brake point slightly. Another writer, playing with a gamepad, was able to use the aids to become competitive within a couple races, despite having very little racing sim experience. This is exactly what driver aids should do: help the learning process along without undermining players’ agency.
There remains something off-putting about some of the art direction and career mode changes that Codemasters made with F1 2012 and continued with 2013. Everything is just a little too clean and impersonal. Menus are slick and clean, with spotless F1 cars parked in the background inside rooms so sterile and cold that only Ron Dennis could love them. There is something faintly Apple-ish about the way F1 2013 looks between races, a techno-narcissist’s dream of fake brushed steel and cool colors.
That’s also the case with the career mode, which has gone from being a nicely personalized “first-person” view of an F1 career in F1 2010 and ‘11 (right down to bland non-answers to reporters) to being a glorified series of performance evaluations and unlocks. There is no sense of there being a real “off-track” existence in the career mode, which actually matters in an F1 game. F1 is a soap opera, with coded messages included in every news clipping. Fernando Alonso never just shoots his mouth off about Ferrari, every “outburst” is calculated. Drivers don’t just get fired or replaced, there are weeks and weeks of tea-leaves to read before that happens.