Version tested: Xbox 360
Take away the sponsors' liveries, they say, and it'd be hard for the untrained eye to tell two F1 cars apart. So precise is the science behind the sport, and so rigid the rule set, that beneath the colour schemes the lines and sweeps are largely the same, designs dictated by wind tunnels, doing away with the wonderful eccentricity witnessed on the grids of yesteryear.
It's a problem that's familiar to Codemasters' F1 2011. Last year's game was a well-honed racer, benefitting from the experience the publisher has accrued in well over a decade of pushing motorsports games forward. Proving it could do a racing game was the easy part; proving it could do justice to the licence was a challenge it passed with ease.
So it was no surprise that last year's inaugural HD effort pressed all the right buttons, but F1 2010's real pleasure came in the subtly different spin that Codemasters took on the sport, drilling down to its core and making sure that chasing split seconds was as rewarding as chasing down the title. The affection for and knowledge of F1 was clear; the result was the best take on the sport for years.
Now comes the tricky third test; can it do enough to establish a yearly franchise, an exercise that's normally the reserve of publishers with a little more clout?
F1 2011's answer to that particular question is, sometimes, not too convincing. Some areas remain sparse and many of its improvements can be measured in tenths rather than seconds. Still, it's a sport where every little detail counts, and the finite changes do undoubtedly make for a better game.
Authenticity is the watchword here, and it's evident from the off. Gone is the piss filter that, although thankfully reserved in its application last year, has often sullied Codemasters' games. Revealed is a game that possesses moments of understated beauty.
Seeing the bronze foliage of early-autumn Monza reflected in the chrome bodywork of a McLaren MP4-26 on a clear afternoon should be a spectacle, and in F1 2011 it most certainly is. Increased trackside detail helps, as does a richer, more dynamic weather system that captures some of F1's more esoteric delights, whether that's the setting sun of Abu Dhabi, an encroaching shower over the forests of Spa or the low blanket of grey that always grips Silverstone in the month of July.
Alongside all that business about going fast, F1 cars are designed to be lusted over - and F1 2011 doesn't miss a trick in this regard. From the potent curves of this year's Red Bull to the eccentric lines of the HRT, it's one of the genre's most attractive garages, meaning it's a shame there's no option to properly gawp at these handsome models. The attention to detail stretches that little bit further now, with each cockpit and steering wheel faithful to the real deal - the kind of attention to detail that's manna to fans of the sport.
There's added authenticity in the handling, too, which makes a profound progression from last year's overtly snappy model. True to the current focus of the sport, tyres are the foundation from which the rest of the handling flows. The limit of adhesion is now a more tangible concept to tinker with and skirt around, and when it's overstepped, it's easier to recover control.
Even more authentic is F1 2011's simulation of the ever-evolving properties of a tyre, and it places an emphasis on compound choice that's unmatched on consoles. The performance differential between prime and option tyres - the two dry compounds available to the GP grid - is marked, with the right tyre being worth over a second on most tracks.
Getting tyres to the optimal temperature takes time, and peak performance is finite. It's an aspect that played a small part in F1 2010, but here it's pronounced, and to great effect: qualifying sessions become condensed time trials, while races are as much about managing the car as attacking the track.
Other essentials of the makeup of F1 in 2011 are also in, and they're confidently handled. KERS - the brief boost power that's on the majority of cars on the grid - is in, as is DRS, which allows drivers to open the rear wing on some straights. Combining the two when they're on tap in qualifying sessions is a challenge unique in games, and exploiting both in the race is equally satisfying.
And of course there's the much-requested addition of a safety car. It adds authenticity but little else, with speed being limited for up to two pedestrian laps. Thankfully it's optional, as too is mechanical damage. It's another appendage that does little aside from adding to the authenticity, and both features only make fleeting appearances; through the course of a season the safety car made only one appearance, while our DRS failed us a couple of more times.
Racing itself is enhanced by AI that's more consistent than before, and it passes the Retifilio challenge - the racing genre's equivalent to the Turing Test - well enough. Pile into Monza's first corner and the 24 cars will maintain a respectable speed, dodging each other and not coming to a standstill like they so often do in the genre. It's an intelligence that's maintained throughout the racing, and going wheel-to-wheel is an experience that's more gratifying than frustrating here.
F1 2011's advances feed well into the multiplayer, where AI is less of a concern - eight computer-controlled cars help flesh out the 16-player option, providing a full grid for online racing. Here, without the safety net of the rewind button, mistakes are more cruelly punished, and the tyre management makes F1 2011 a distinctively strategic multiplayer racer.
A refined UI gives a little extra feedback and helps inform the strategy, both online and off. It stops short of providing reams of telemetry to mine into - and if F1 2011 is ever going to win over the core simulation crowd, this is an area that needs to improve dramatically - but it's several steps ahead of the broken timekeeping of last year's effort.
With the handling and presentation having come so far, it's disappointing that other areas haven't been lavished with the same level of attention. Last year's career came with the tag 'live the life', a promise of wish-fulfilment for those that daydream of earning their crust behind the wheel.
The promise is the same this time out, though it's broken in much the same way it was in F1 2010. Careers are again managed from within a motorhome - an attractively well-rendered front-end that also, unfortunately, means the action is always a handful of loading screens away - and there's a handful of flourishes, though its failings are familiar.
Contract negotiations are at least more nuanced, beginning much earlier in the season and gaining some gravitas from the addition of the real team principals' names - so Tony Fernandes will be personally pleading for you to stay at Team Lotus while you ponder the unthinkable by shaping up a move to Lotus Renault. Interviews before and after races are disappointingly wooden, inconsequential and abstract, and in introducing emails from agents and team bosses F1 2011 only falls in line with previous, more sterile takes on the sport.
But at least the core remains, and the delightful pull of battling your teammate over extended Grand Prix weekends hasn't dimmed. Likewise, the slow rise from the back of the grid is just as compelling, even if the largely static calendar (India and Nürburgring are this year's new locations) engenders a little déjà vu over the course of the seasons.
It's a familiarity that ultimately stops F1 2011 from ascending to the heights of the genre. Strip away the new lick of paint and it's tough to tell F1 2011 apart from its predecessor, and though it's certainly tighter, smarter and more technically accomplished, some of the old faults remain. A marginally better outing than last year, then, and that's enough to ensure that, as F1 games go, this is still quite comfortably the best.
8 / 10