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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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F1 2011

Test of Vettel.

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.