Version tested: Xbox 360
Heard the one about the Spaniard, the German, the Australian and the two Brits? If you follow motorsports, it's unlikely you haven't, because it's difficult to remember a Formula One season as competitive and as exciting as this year's. The performance gaps are tiny, the talent on-track enormous. Even legendary, when you consider the presence of Herr Schumacher – the man may have underperformed dismally to date, but his past achievements in the sport stand (and his consistently inventive efforts to try and barge former team-mates off the track are at least entertaining).
As the season heads away from the European circuits, with less than a race win separating the five leading drivers and an identical number of events left on the calendar, F1 2010's arrival is as exquisitely timed as a McLaren pit stop.
Hot on the exhaust of last year's fun-filled Wii release, the 360, PC and PS3 version is Scalextric to its predecessor's Fisher-Price. But that's like putting a Ferrari F1 against a souped-up Fiat – a direct comparison is unfair, not least because the two are aiming at very different markets. Here, there's no room for arcade arrive-and-drive immediacy. F1 2010 aims to be as serious as the sport it depicts.
It also sets off with the intention of being the most comprehensive depiction of F1 in videogame form. So you get the usual suspects: all of 2010's 19 circuits, 12 teams and 24 drivers, every session of a race weekend, along with all of the major rules and regulations, a three-, five- or seven-season Career mode, Time Trials and single (or multiple – you select the roster) Grand Prix. But F1 2010 attempts to power ahead of past efforts by including some off-track elements such as impromptu press interviews or post-podium media sessions.
More on F1 2010
You experience these in Career mode, the powertrain at the heart of F1 2010. Disappointingly, they are the game's weakest component. Spoilt as we are by the character animation of Heavy Rain and the voice acting of Uncharted, F1 2010's 'human element' appears stilted, the press interview sections not helped by uninspired, limited questions and generic response choices. In addition, you get a sense that your choices don't have a significant effect on proceedings.
Part of the issue, particularly for UK players, will be the inevitable if partial expectation that you're entering an environment in the style of the BBC's F1 coverage – certainly, the excellent presentation suggests as much – while what you're actually getting would be more at home on Channel 5. Granted, team manager interviews, the views of your competitors, stewards' hearings and even "Fernando is faster than you" moments are all too far down the track given the development team's production schedule, budget and the likely licensing restrictions imposed by the FIA.
Still, Codemasters deserves credit for trying to bring a new element to F1 gaming and, if the result is disappointing, it's primarily because the contrast is so sharp with the rest of F1 2010 - which is so brilliantly accomplished.
You get an inkling things are going to be just fine the moment you're sat in the cockpit of your car, still in your chosen team's garage. From here you get access to the key elements of the race weekend: set-up (both simple and detailed options are available), timing screens, weather forecasts, tyre choice, your team-mate's performance breakdown and your engineer.
The latter serves as a gateway to the track but, in an ingenious inclusion, he also offers you the opportunity to help research and development during the practice sessions. Meet the lap time target and you move the R&D process along. Assert yourself as the number one driver in the team and not only do you get the upgrades first, you also control the direction of the development to suit your driving style.
Having you compete against your team-mate for fastest laps, pole positions, and qualifying and race supremacy is as understandable as it is authentic, but it's nevertheless yet another indication of how attentive Codemasters Birmingham has been to the source material. More obvious is the meticulous – and impressive - recreation of the circuits and cars, but it's in play that the strive for authenticity becomes most apparent. Flat out through Spa's Eau Rouge, turning into Suzuka's 130R at over three times the national speed limit or kissing each of the four apexes of Turn 8 at Istanbul Park draws the sharp intake of breath it would in real life, while any point of the lap at Monaco tenses parts of your anatomy other racing games can't reach.
To this you can add aspects such as tyre, brake disc and engine temperature management, the track bedding in over the race weekend, a loss of grip when off the racing line, handling changes due to temperature variation, the need to cool full wets or intermediates when the track starts drying out by running through standing water, and pretty much every other aspect of F1 racing you can think of.
For the seriously committed, there's the option to go further by tweaking the settings to allow for full rules and flags, tyre degradation, fuel consumption, manual pit limiter, manual pit box control, car damage, maxing the AI and turning off the driving assists.
Not that the game is a leisurely Sunday drive with all the aids on. (In fact, anyone but the absolute beginner will want to switch off braking assist at the earliest opportunity because while it helps keeping you from falling off the track, it also makes progression harder by preventing late braking.) Even with full traction control – three settings exist so you can wean yourself off it – you'll need to watch yourself. There's nothing in F1 2010 that's auto-cruise, no flooring the throttle out of corners while wondering about how you might spend your win bonus and which supermodel you should ask out next. You need to keep your focus on the track, because kerbs and slow corners will catch you out.
Turn everything off and things become a handful but, crucially, not impossible – even when playing on a joypad. But until you've put in hundreds of miles you'll want to roll out of the garage with the comfort of a handful of 'Flashbacks' in your possession (GRID's rewind-try-again mechanic wisely makes an appearance here).
And put the miles in you will. Although few of us will ever know what driving a single-seater that can do 0-100-0mph in around six seconds is really like, it's an effortless assumption that it should feel the way F1 2010 suggests. The behaviour of the game's cars comes across so naturally that you'd swear you can feel the aerodynamic forces at work. More importantly, however, it encourages you to push your own limits and when you're fully committed, the drive is both intense and hugely rewarding.
Key to the experience is the game's dynamic weather system. Just as it does in real-life F1 races, a sudden rain shower transforms the race and there are few things in life as rewarding as getting the jump on the competition with the judicious timing of a pit stop in anticipation of weather changes. In F1 2010 the forecasts will act as a guide but you can dictate the pit strategy should those clouds start to look ominous.
The AI intensifies things further. Admittedly, at their lowest level your competitors are little more than mobile chicanes, but up the difficulty and they become worthy – and mostly well-behaved – rivals, capitalising on the slightest overtake opportunity or valiantly defending their line. If there is a criticism it comes down to their occasional excessively skittish, nervous nature, which robs the game of a little authenticity. That said, there is a genuine tension when coming across the likes of Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel for the first time, even if their personalities aren't quite as apparent through their actions as you might hope.
Other niggles are equally minor. Some of the penalties for corner-cutting are handed out too eagerly (although they're at least more consistent than the FIA stewards), the choice of on-screen display makes it tricky to spot crucial detail such as gaps to rivals (and purists will most likely bemoan the absence of the official graphics), the lack of telemetry will upset some, the flags system is occasionally slow to react, and it wouldn't hurt your race engineer to deliver a little more substance in his communications.
Real F1 die-hards will no doubt also pick on the fact that the mechanic that pushes your front wheels when you're rolling back into the garage doesn't bother to wear gloves, despite the coffee-hot temperature of the tyres. No doubt they're part of the hardcore that played Geoff Crammond's Formula One Grand Prix using their Amiga 500 keys, just as they argued – quite rightly – that the Mega Drive version of F1 Circus was one of the most engaging F1 titles of its generation. Or perhaps they imported Human Grand Prix for their Super Famicom before, a few years later, being pleasantly surprised by F-1 World Grand Prix's considerable competence, particularly given the general dismal nature of racings titles on the N64.
If you identify with any of these scenarios, you'll have been around long enough to know better than to trust a modern F1 game to do justice to the sport it depicts. But F1 2010 does just that. True, the out-of-car segments are still the length of one of Monza's straights from being convincing, but their inclusion remains welcome and will no doubt be improved in subsequent editions. The fundamental point is that in every other regard F1 2010 can consider itself champion material. The best F1 season in years deserves the best F1 game in years – thankfully, that's exactly what it's got.
8 / 10
F1 2010 is released on 24th September for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.