Codemasters nerds out for its most detailed, most hardcore and most satisfying F1 game to date.
It's taken its sweet time, but Codemasters has finally got there. When the Southam outfit first announced it had secured the F1 deal in 2008 it was in a petrolhead pomp, high on the fumes of Grid and the excellent Dirt 2's acclaim and success. This, surely, was to be a match made in heaven, the expertise of one of the best racing developers partnered with the ultimate licence in motorsport. It was set to be spectacular.
And it very nearly was. Following the stopgap F1 2009 on the Wii - an adequate quickfire effort from master tradesmen Sumo Digital - F1 2010 was a fine debut that presented a foundation with plenty of promise. There were glimmers of something special that have dimmed in subsequent years - wasted on efforts that didn't progress quite enough or simply didn't progress at all. For all that potential, the F1 series has faltered in recent years, becoming the nearly man of driving games - the Nick Heidfeld or Nico Hulkenberg of its own domain, all that early brilliance ebbing away.
F1 2016, though, is a sharp return to form. This is the F1 game that Codemasters has been threatening to make from the off. The signs were there in last year's threadbare F1 2015 that the studio had gotten a firm hold on the fundamentals - pretty, approachable and authentic - it would have been great if it hadn't lost so much in the effort to get on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in good time. With F1 2016 Codemasters has folded back in all the things stripped away for F1 2015 - a full career mode, the safety car - plus the addition of plenty more besides.
It's in those details where F1 2016 really shines, and where you sense a subtle shift in philosophy over at Codemasters. Perhaps it's the influence of Dirt Rally itself; make a game for the die-hard, for those that really care about the sport, and the rest will follow. What's evident in F1 2016 is that those at the helm of the game are head over heels with their subject matter. This is an F1 game by F1 nerds for F1 nerds.
And so you can relish in all the ridiculous minutiae of the sport. Take to the formation lap and work those tyres and brakes until they're at the correct operating temperature. Hold in the clutch for a manual start, keeping the revs wavering just below the redline before all the lights are out and coming up 1000 horsepower is unleashed, managing the wheelspin in first and second gear while trying to get the better of the 21 other cars around you. Manage those super soft tyres to eke out another lap of an early stint, watching your speed as you hit the pit entry and making sure not to cross the white line on the way back out onto the track.
Enjoy the detail that's accumulated in Codemasters' take on F1. The pitboards that swing over the pitwall as the field makes it round each lap, the names carefully etched over each garage - including your own in career mode - or the ability to sulk like Kimi Raikkonen and tell your race engineer to zip it during a race. Codemasters might not have the budget of EA Sports, but over time it's managed to create an F1 game that's as authentic to its sport as FIFA is to its own.
F1 2016 adds depth to that detail, its career mode returning after a year's absence more fully featured and less fussy than before. From the outset you're free to sign up with any team on the grid, electing to help push Manor that little bit further up the grid or maintain Mercedes' stronghold on the top steps of the podium. Within that, there are now some neat new kinks.
Perhaps F1 2016's greatest achievement is how it's managed to make practice sessions meaningful - something that's eluded many racing games before it. Sit in your cockpit in one of the three practice sessions that precede a race - all set at the correct time of day, so you'll be able to see the Singapore street circuit in a low evening sun before the floodlights kick in - and you're able to select a number of practice programmes, the successful completion of which will net you resource points you can then spend on improving the car.
The programmes themselves are mini-games that don't feel out of place amidst F1 2016's quest for realism. Simulate a qualifying run by hitting a set time over three laps; acclimatise to the track by hitting gates that mark out the entry, apex and exit point of each corner; take a set of boots and prove you can tread gently in three laps of tyre management. F1 2016 could certainly benefit from a little more variety in the tasks it gives you in these sessions, but Codemasters has succeeded in injecting purpose in a race weekend outside of what happens on Sunday afternoon once the lights are out.
Outside the races themselves there's some slim but effective extras: the virtual paddock from F1 2010 returns, complete with a roster of familiar faces (Eric Boullier! Toto the Wolf! Maurizio "I'd kill to look like you when I'm 60" Arrivabene!), and it's here you can keep tab on contract offers, how you're faring against your team mate, and other rivalries that crop up over the course of a season. F1 2016 generally does a better job of immersing you in the wider world of F1, from the cutaways before each race that take in the bustle of the grid to the post-race formalities. Codemasters' engine might struggle to render flesh and bone the way it does carbon fibre and steel - witness the sallow-skinned, dead-eyed horror of many of its character models - but the effort is appreciated all the same.
What, then, of the on-track action? F1 2016 doesn't tinker too much with the series' formula of lightweight yet engaging handling - one I've always thought works perfectly well - and only makes a handful of small tweaks. Wet weather racing is now much, much more challenging than before, while kerbs have been reworked to have more of a noticeable impact when attacked. Playing on a T500 wheel there's a decent if not outstanding sense of feedback, while on a pad it's still perfectly possible to tame the frequent flick of the tail as all those horses overpower the rear tyres.
When all of F1 2016's elements work together, it can make for some real magic. Take one particular race early on in my own campaign. A downpour before the lights in Shanghai leading to a sodden track (one area where F1 2016 deviates from the real thing, thankfully, is that Charlie Whiting's not on hand to make sure you can't have some fun in the rain), with the first 8 laps taking place in treacherous conditions before the skies brighten. As lightening burns its way into the track it's a game of nerves, waiting for someone to blink until Sergio Perez is the first onto intermediates, a notification popping up that he's just set the fastest lap by some margin kick-starting a mad dash for the pits. Lose yourself to it and you can easily convince yourself this is the best F1 game on console in an age.
There are still faults to be found. The AI sometimes makes some funky calls - with two laps to go of one race and running in second place well clear of any competitors I was told switching over to a third tyre compound would be the optimum strategy at that point, an offer I politely declined - and it's still an F1 game that's complete with all the limitations and restrictions that particular licence implies. If you've any love for the sport, however, F1 2016 can be exquisite stuff. So intoxicating have I found its take on the sport that for me this isn't just Codemasters' most accomplished F1 game to date - it's the developer's best take on circuit racing since the heady days of the TOCA series.