"The car's the star." It's the oft-quoted cliché of the automotive industry and often applied to racing games too, aptly so in the case of a Forza Motorsport or a Gran Turismo. The sprawling interactive car catalogues that dominate the serious end of racing games lavish polygons on photo-realistic car models and processing power on simulating every pitch and twitch of their handling characteristics, often to the exclusion of all else (including damage modelling and the intelligence of your opponents).
When it comes to Formula One, the pinnacle of motor sport, however, the car will never be the star, no matter how much its detractors claim that it's all about the hardware these days. In Formula One, the rivalries, fragile egos and contractual machinations of the star drivers grab the headlines and write the true story of the season, and that's especially true this year, with four world champions in the field, two of them British and in the same team, one of them a seven-time legend returning from retirement, haunted by the spectre of irrelevance. As sleek and technocratic as it is, Formula One is still a sport, and sport is still a dirty, human business.
Codemasters understands this well. Once we learned that the publisher, with its specialist Racing Studio, had snagged the F1 rights, a competent and graphically impressive rendition of the on-track action was almost a given. This, after all, is the outfit that has turned out great racing game after great racing game using the excellent EGO engine, and last year's Wii taster made in conjunction with Sumo did nothing to dissuade us.
What we didn't necessarily expect, and what Codemasters has just revealed this week, was an involved and innovative career mode that makes you, the driver, as much of a star as the car. Aiming to simulate the intrigue and rivalry of the Formula One paddock, it can accommodate dynamic objectives, shifting team fortunes, team-mate relationships, championship rivalries, in-season and out-of-season R&D, contract negotiations and even media interviews. It's what makes F1 2010 not just, potentially, the best F1 game in years, but one of the most interesting racing games of any stripe in development right now.
We'll get to that shortly. But, sinking down into a bucket seat and racing wheel arrangement for a few laps of Monza in a Red Bull, it's neither the car nor the driver that seems the immediate star of F1 2010; it's the tyres, or maybe the weather. EGO has always excelled at tangible textures and particle effects and the result is a simply stunning-looking racing game.
Whichever camera you use - they're all good, but I favoured the third-person cockpit view, TV coverage style, showing my driver's helmet bobbing and twisting under G-forces - the visible and highly realistic changes to your tyres as they wear down or pick up dirt immediately put you closer to the tarmac than any previous F1 game has managed, as well as offering some useful visual feedback on grip. Rainy conditions are astonishingly immersive, fountains of spray rising from the cars and spattering the camera while the cars's full wet tyres leave carve lines of dry asphalt through the standing water.
The handling is unsurprisingly twitchy and takes a little getting used to after months of the hefty-yet-supple Forza 3; you need to brake very early and be gentle with the wheel and throttle, as the Red Bull needs almost no provocation to spin out. It's not impossible to get things under control in five minutes with all the assists turned off, although a decent lap time is still a distant dream.
The team is keen to avoid talk of either "arcade" or "simulation" handling, preferring to use words like "authentic", "predictable" and "consistent". That could be because DiRT and GRID's lighter handling styles have disappointed sim fans, and Racing Studio is keen to extract itself from a debate you can't win. But it's also fair; making something as incomprehensibly fast, agile and volatile as an F1 both driveable and involving is no mean feat, and based on a short play-test this handling scheme seems well up to the task.
"It's quite awkward that the cars go quite quickly, if you look at GT or Forza most of the popular multiplayer races are in the lower ranks where you've got more time to brake, more time to react and catch the car," says chief game designer Stephen Hood. "F1, it's all over in a flash. But we're trying to make the cars quite consistent, so you're able get into a rhythm. I brake here, this is where I accelerate. Once you get into that rhythm, that's when you start to push it, you're on the throttle a bit earlier coming out of a corner and it starts to step out and you can catch it. We're doing a lot of work on that at the moment, I think that will be ongoing throughout the series, but it's looking promising."
Besides, "a lot of games have focused too much on car handling to the detriment of AI," argues senior producer Paul Jeal, and he might have a point. F1 2010 features the combative, situationally-aware opponents that GRID fans will remember, albeit less crash-happy. Codemasters shows clips of AI drivers making defensive lurches across the track or trying to shake the player off their slipstream. They also have the characteristics of their real-life counterparts, excelling at wet-weather driving, starts, overtaking or tyre management as appropriate.
With refuelling having been banned for the 2010 season, strategy now focuses on managing those tyres - usefully for Codemasters perhaps, since grip has more impact on the moment-to-moment driving experience (although the animators who got as far as motion-capturing a full pit team including fuel rig before the rule change was announced might disagree).
The track surface is fully dynamic in both dry and wet conditions, with the racing line becoming increasingly grippy as a race goes on, but the rubber "marbles" scattered by wearing tyres making the rest of the track more and more hazardous. You can even use wet patches on a drying track to cool your tyres, while the driver has control over wing angles and engine performance levels, as do the current F1 pilots, if they wish.
The number of cars on track is yet to be confirmed due to the instability of the team line-up this season; Codemasters was ready to field a full grid of 26 cars for 13 teams, but only 12 teams made the season's first race in Bahrain last weekend. In online multiplayer the numbers will be halved, with each player taking a whole team's slot, but that's still a healthy grid of 10 to 13 opponents. In both multiplayer and career mode, the game will set you objectives relative to the ability of your car and your standing against your opponents.
"If you're driving for a Lotus or a HRT [in multiplayer] you're not expected to win every race, you have an objective which looks at the relative quality of the car, your times on that track in comparison to the other people in the room, the ranks of the other drivers, and you might be given the objective of trying to finish in the top three, try to finish fifth," says Hood. "So you still have a goal, and it's not about that charge for the first corner."
It's when this objective system slots into the broader canvas of the career mode that things get really interesting. A career game can run for three, five or seven seasons; a shorter run will give you the option of starting in a top team, while over seven seasons, you'll need to start at the back of the grid in one of the sport's three new teams, Lotus, Virgin or HRT. The ultimate aim is obviously to win the championship, but in the early stages it might just be to reach the second round of qualifying or complete a race distance; and you've the choice of trading seats to the top, or bringing your original team with you.
"Some players might choose not to hop team, they might say, 'I love Lotus, they're my favourite team and I want to make them champions.' In this game... they can become a Ferrari, a world-dominating team," says Hood. "You don't feel as though they're just a stepping stone." Although, for licensing reasons, you'll be stuck in a sort of 2010 groundhog year as far as the driver line-ups and liveries are concerned, Hood thinks that the evolving fortunes of the teams, influenced by your own performance, will make them feel different. "Once you've gone past that first season which is very much 2010, then you kind of create your own fantasy," he says.
That fantasy will find voice between races and sessions in F1 2010's evocation of the Formula One's famous paddock. A development of ideas explored by Codemasters with the RV in DiRT 2 and garage in GRID, this aspect of the game will allow you to move between your garage and hospitality suite, interacting with the media as well as your engineer, team-mate and agent and rubbing shoulders with other drivers. Finish in the top three and you'll even participate in the post-race press conference.
In your trailer, you can view standings, the latest contract offers and use your agent to find yourself a new seat, if you're so inclined. In the paddock, journalists will ask you questions based on your performance - or perhaps ignore you, if your team-mate is a better story - and you'll be able to choose your answer, be it diplomatic, or a strong dig at your team-mate or team. This kind of psychological warfare will have a secondary effect on whether you're considered the preferred driver in the team, how good the team's in-season upgrades are, and whether your car setup is tailored to your driving style or your team-mate's.
These factors will also be influenced by your performance in races, qualifying and (if you take part in it) testing. Beating your team-mate will increase your standing with other teams and lead to better contract offers, as will beating your championship rival (who you can pick from three offered by the media). Putting in more laps will give the team more data and improve your upgrades. The idea is that you won't be driving the same car all season; real F1 drivers don't, and it has the added benefit of giving players the sense of technological progression they so obviously enjoy in the likes of Forza and GT. Your involvement in the setup of your car can be as sim-deep or as shallow as you like.
"We're quite adamant, especially after talking to Anthony Davidson [F1 test driver and consultant on the game] - he's very keen for us to replicate what goes on in real life," Hood says. "It's not about you being the engineer, as it is in most racing games, where you start with a base setup and, what do you tweak? Camber? What do all these things mean? You can access all that because it all runs through the physics engine, but if you basically drive the car and think it's not turning in enough, you can interact with the race engineer and say, maybe, the car's not turning in enough, you want more oversteer."
Although one F1 car is hardly going to differ from another like a Renault Twingo from a Bugatti Veyron, they will all settle onto a spectrum between neutral and aggressive, oversteering setups, according to the preference of the dominant driver in the team (e.g. Jenson Button for the former, Fernando Alonso for the latter). Codemasters is keen for there to be some differentiation across the field.
"We're very big on trying to have some differentiation for the player between driving for team X and team Y," he continues. "It comes through on the team's ability to upgrade your car, the expectations for them and who your team-mate is for example. But also in the handling, it's about how much you can shift the ballast around in the car, the power of the engine, the type of tracks that it suits, the way that it eats its tyres... some subtle things."
It's a fascinating proposition. On already solid-looking racing foundations, Codemasters is building a blend of interactive sports drama and the sense of progression offered by the RPG schematics of Forza and GT. What's more, it's doing so in a way that's sensitive to how involved the player wants to be, and most importantly of all, that reflects what's interesting and exciting about Formula One as a sport.
There are many untested ideas and lofty promises here, and the developers themselves are keen to point out that they hope to develop them over several iterations. But on this evidence, they already have one of the cleverest licenced sports games, and one of the most intriguing racing games, in years.
F1 2010 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in September.