Games of 2010: F1 2010

Slick.

How do you measure your greatest gaming experiences? In the intensity of your involvement with the game - be it emotional, physical, sensory, cerebral? I think that's as good a yardstick as any. But it can put a professional games reviewer like me at a disadvantage.

I think Super Mario Galaxy 2 is an astonishing achievement, but I played it during working hours in a bland office block. I admire StarCraft II immensely, but in all honestly it's not the sort of game I would play for my own leisure, and reviewing it was an intellectual exercise. Halo: Reach was a tremendous summation of a series I love, but I'd played and written and thought about these games so much over the years that, at the fifth time of asking, I found I had little left to say - or to feel. The well had run dry.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that, when I came to draw up my personal top 10 of the year, the games at its summit weren't necessarily the best, but were the ones I'd played away from work. One of them, the lovely Dragon Quest IX, managed to fill the many idle moments of a relaxing week in the sun without ever turning it into a busman's holiday.

Its soothing rhythms spiced with gentle reinvention held the attention, while its plain-spoken, heartfelt innocence cleansed the palate. Suddenly I wasn't a detached writer any more, I was a hungry kid again, wolfing down Level-5's wholesome comfort food.

When I came back from holiday, refreshed, Codemasters released F1 2010, its maiden FIA-approved Formula One title and a game in which, as a fan of the sport and of racing games, I had a natural interest. What a happy coincidence. But these reasons alone don't explain why I played it so avidly, or why I think it's one of the most exciting games released this year.

I chatted to Force India driver Adrian Sutil at gamescom. Nice guy. He didn't beat Schumacher, though.

Just like Dragon Quest IX, in fact, F1 2010 is a subtle retooling of a game type you think you know, keeping the basics intact but changing the priorities. The moment-to-moment experience is the same - attack, heal, loot; brake, turn in, accelerate out - but it's been arranged into a beguiling new pattern and given a potent new point.

In another very conservative year for gaming, F1 was actually one of the freshest experiences to be had, and when you consider that it's both a sim racer and a licensed sports game - two of the most staid, iterative, change-resistant genres imaginable - that's quite an achievement.

Codemasters' big idea was to let players "live the life" of a Grand Prix driver off the track, taking part in contract negotiations, car development, team-mate rivalries and media interviews in order to shape an actual career over multiple seasons. This, we hoped, would serve up the politics, scandal and scuttlebutt that every F1 fan enjoys almost as much as the racing.

One reason we love to watch sport is because of the stories it tells - and no sport reflected that better in 2010 than F1's dramatic and competitive season. Yet spinning stories is something sports games (with the possible exception of the football management genre) are notoriously bad at, when they bother to engage with it at all, which is almost never.

As it turned out, Codemasters' attempt was over-ambitious and under-realised. The interviews were dull and had no discernible impact on the course of your career, car development was a series of simple unlocks awarded for completing lap challenges and the wooden presentation simply wasn't capable of human drama. Even the developers admitted they'd fallen short. Perhaps it was too much to hope that a game labouring under the demands of one of the world's most powerful and exacting licensors could ever be raw.

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