Version tested: 3DS
Back when Codemasters first got its hands on the then-dormant F1 license, it found its feet with the help of Sumo Digital - steady hands who had helped guide OutRun 2 onto home consoles with all of its glory intact, and who subsequently surprised many with Sonic and Sega Allstars Racing by treating the game's roster of mascots with more respect than Sega themselves had for years.
F1 2009 was a small marvel, the diminutive horsepower of the Wii and PSP doing little to hide the ambition, care and craftsmanship on show. It was, until the work of Codemasters' Birmingham Studio broke cover on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in 2010, the best take on the sport in some years.
With a brace of new handhelds emerging, Sumo has been cast back to the F1 circus, with this 3DS outing the first to appear - and again, it's a case of the developer working in the face of technical paucity to conjure a replica of one of the most technically complex sports around. It hardly helps that now there's the glimmering spectre of the HD games in the background, ensuring there are expectations here when last time out there were, quite possibly, none.
That F1 2011 on 3DS achieves what it does is impressive. This is a feature-complete take on the 2011 season, with all 20 rounds represented in as authentic a fashion as possible. There's a multi-season career mode, taken wholesale from its bigger brother, while it's possible to engage in three-lap sprints or indulge in a full Grand Prix weekend.
There's even room for a handful of bespoke modes that acknowledge the instant gratification that handheld gaming requires. A series of mini-challenges arranged in a succession of pyramids is a warm reminder of Sumo's generous work with OutRun 2: Coast to Coast, offering a feast of bite-sized tasks that are perfectly judged. Rival ghosts can be unlocked through StreetPass, part of a multiplayer suite that's fully featured - though sadly, a fortnight after release, we're still yet to find a game online.
But once on the track, things begin to slowly unfurl. With the 3D engaged, the game stutters like an engine that's on the brink of eating itself - throw another 23 cars on the track and burst the clouds and it becomes flick-book F1. Bring the slider down and it's passable. Textures are still sad smears while rival car detail is often woeful, but it's a close enough approximation of what the PSP achieved a couple of years back.
Other problems arise when all 24 cars are trying to share the same piece of tarmac. F1 2011's field seems to be comprised entirely of Schumachers, unwilling to acknowledge your own presence on the track and pushing you off-road at any given opportunity. It's galling stuff, with one erratic AI move enough to nullify the delicate race strategies that F1 2011 accommodates.
The backbone to the 3DS's F1 2011 - and what makes it just about worthwhile - is a handling model that soundly trumps that of Codemasters' last handheld effort. It doesn't have the nuance that the Birmingham studio has recently attained, but it does satisfy and engage. Cars are very much on the nose, darting around with purpose, though they'll slip their tails out under duress. The handling is responsive, demanding and ultimately quite engrossing - get caught up chasing seconds in a qualifying session and F1 2011's other problems blur into the background.
That speaks for the competence ticking away underneath the fractured bodywork of this version of F1 2011, and it makes for a driving experience that is, for all of its faults, unparalleled on the system. But it can't disguise the fact that this is still a stuttering start for F1 on the 3DS.
6 / 10