F1 2012 Preview: Staying on Track

Codemasters' third outing sees F1 settling into its yearly groove. 

It's easy to forget that, three years back, it came as something of a shock to see Codemasters forgoing the expertise of its racing arm and farming out its newly acquired F1 license to its newly acquired Birmingham studio, an outfit that in its previous life had made the ultimate guilty pleasure in 50 Cent: Blood in the Sand. Fiddy's game certainly had a taste for excess and a questionable sense of politics, but that's where any similarities with the F1 world came to an end.

Three years on and Codemasters Birmingham has established itself as one of the brightest stars in the fast-dimming world of racing games. F1 2010 and 2011 went on to receive deserved critical and commercial success, and can lay claim to being the best take on the sport since Geoff Crammond worked the beat.

Third time around, though, and there's a growing concern that perhaps F1 isn't a diverse enough experience to maintain the yearly churn that such a big sports license dictates - and perhaps Codemasters doesn't have same kind of resources to throw at the series as EA does with FIFA, making for a game that's in danger of getting stuck in its own pretty little rut.

It's a perception that F1 2012's going to have to fight from now until release, but it's a fight that Codemasters is heading into with no small amount of spirit. Indeed, it's a perception that creative director Stephen Hood's been fighting from day one. "People have been saying that to us since we told everyone we were going to make a F1 game at Codemasters," Hood says of questions as to whether this latest game can add anything meaningful to the existing formula. "'There have been so many,' they say. 'What are you going to do?'

F1 2012's unfortunate to be dealt the ugliest field of cars that's ever assembled on a Grand Prix grid - let's hope that UI's pretty enough to distract from the multitude of Fiat Multipla lookalikes.

"F1 2010 came on the scene and made a big splash, because we're trying to access what's going on in the world of F1 and the strands of competition underneath. It's not just the racing, but also the race to upgrade your car and things we can plug into the game to make it compelling. There's so much more to do there, and we've come up with a roadmap for what we want to put into F1 in the next few years."

So F1 2012 finds Codemasters another couple of miles further down that roadmap, building upon the foundation laid out so well by its two immediate predecessors. There are no major headline improvements this year, but rather a series of tweaks and additions across the board that are all working together to enhance the experience. F1 2011, with its tagline of 'Go Compete', focused on the multiplayer, introducing split-screen co-op and re-jigging the online. F1 2012 will benefit from these amendments, but this year the focus is back on the single-player, with the new tagline 'Feel It' informing a handful of revisions.

First up is a rethink of the interface and menu system, with a move towards something more in keeping with the premium feel of the sport. Gone is the paddock that's housed the past two F1 games and that has, since Dirt 2, been something of a Codemasters staple. In its place is a slicker space more akin to a showroom, complete with the polished, corporate aesthetic that's now part and parcel of F1 - it's not dissimilar to Forza's pristine front-end, in which the car very much is the star.

"It's massively important for a game like this," says Hood of the new front-end. "It's a big sport with lots of money, and for me delivering a premium feel is really important. We're trying something a little different this time where we focus on the cars rather than drivers. Lots of sports games from EA have a very sexy UI in my mind - though they're not brilliant to navigate always - but there's a certain level and standard they've achieved, and I don't think Codemasters has achieved it thus far."

Stephen Hood, F1 2012's creative director, and a man whose tenure on the sport stretches back to Sony Liverpool's F1 2001.

F1 2012's cause will certainly be helped by the fact that it'll be feeding off what's promising to be the best season in some time. The three races so far this year have thrown up three different winners from three different teams, suggesting that Red Bull's grip on the top tier has been well and truly loosened.

The resulting racing has been breathless, the closing ten laps of last weekend's Chinese GP more akin to the Formula Ford festival rather than the processional action that once defined F1. F1 2012 will be looking to replicate that, bringing the cars closer in terms of their relative performance while overhauling the AI - using one of this year's new rules as a guiding light. "We're looking at the one-move rule, and how it stops people weaving all over the track," reveals Hood. "Whether we assign that for players we're not sure, but the AI would adhere to that, some giving more room than others, others more aggressive."

There's another rule-change that's had a profound effect on the cars this year, with the banning of blown diffusers creating a more skittish, unpredictable ride. "We weren't specifically replicating blown diffusers because we can replicate the effect of the diffuser," says Hood. "It was making the car stick to the ground more. In 2011 we made the cars a lot more skittish. We didn't have that in 2010 because the cars had too much grip, but when we introduced that in 2011 it made it more problematic for some players to drive. In 2012 we have new physics in the suspension and we're seeing cars sliding around more."

F1 2012's handling is aiming to strike a middle note, somewhere between the cars of F1 2010 that turned on a pin and those of last year that would happily spin around it. If there's one word that defines the new model, it's perhaps accessibility - and that's a word that defines much else of what's new in F1 2012.

"I don't particularly like that word," says Hood. "When people hear it they assume I'm trying to dumb the game down to get more sales. I don't particularly care about the sales, and it's not my number one priority. It's my belief if you make a better game overall, people will naturally buy the title.

Austin's the one new track to feature this year, with Germany's Hockenheim also returning. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, gets a new, more authentic lighting pass.

"What I do want to do is get more people who are into motorsport, or used to be into F1 and don't know the ins and outs, the rules, the complexity and all the toys, and get them into the game. F1 still comes across as a scary sport. The commentator does a great job of explaining these things, and we need to do more of that in the game."

Helping that cause is the one new feature that Codemasters is happy to fully disclose right now, with the Young Driver Test serving as an introduction to the deeper end of the sport. It's accessibility that's also about authenticity. Taking as its inspiration the handful of days of post-season testing in Abu Dhabi that have become a fixture in recent years, the mode will serve as a tutorial as well as a gateway to F1 2012's full campaign mode, casting the player as an upstart who's looking to attract the attention of the attendant teams.

"It's about getting the uneducated player in, and saying these are the toys, this is the racing line and this is what an apex is," says Hood, before moving to assure that it's got something to offer more seasoned players too. "It'll also take advantage of the fact people have played before, and getting better scores which will unlock better contract options in career modes."

There's more than enough to suggest that F1 2012 will be another quality outing for the series, then - though whether that's quite enough to broaden its appeal, or to win back those who've gorged on previous outings, remains to be seen.

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About the author

Martin Robinson

Martin Robinson


Martin is Eurogamer's editor-in-chief. He has a Gradius 2 arcade board and likes to play racing games with special boots and gloves on.


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