The biggest problem with Codemasters’ F1 2014 is unfortunately nothing that the developer could actually do anything about. With an officially licensed franchise like this, authenticity is king, but unfortunately, in the real-life world of Formula 1, the differences year after year are relatively few and far between in the grand scheme of things. Now of course the 2014 season saw a huge and monumental shift in terms of engine and aerodynamics regulations, but the potential for how this can translate to a video game is extremely limiting given the physical nature of these changes and the fact that it’s extremely difficult to convey these changes in a videogame. That there have only been a handful of driver movements and the addition of only one new track, plus the return of an old favourite, to the now fairly traditional roster also exacerbates this.
Timing is also a problem for Codemasters. In an ideal world, a new F1 game would be released to coincide with the start of the season. However, this is close to impossible for a number of reasons. Firstly, while at the start of the season there had been some speculation that Mercedes’ development was far ahead of its rivals and that there was a chance it would be starting the season on its front foot, no-one, certainly not Codemasters, could have anticipated quite how far ahead of the other teams it’d actually be. Also, while the raw talent of Daniel Ricciardo was never in doubt, no-one could have anticipated him joining Red Bull and immediately outshining quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel.
Then there’s the introduction of brand new racetracks such as the Sochi Autodrom in Russia. With relatively little footage of this modern new track actually available, and no history of F1 races there, reproducing its characteristics to the exacting standards required for such an authentic game experience is no doubt extremely difficult and arduous.
Sure, Codemasters no doubt has access to official F1 resources and media that us mere mortals can only dream about, but predicting how all of these moving targets would eventually settle down in order to release this game at the start of season was clearly a real minefield for Codemasters. But then at the same time, the fact the game is released when we’re almost at the dramatic climax to this most exciting of seasons also suggests that perhaps the game just wasn’t quite ready.
There’s also the question of whether annualizing this franchise is actually a decent value proposition to the customer. When F1 2011 was released on the Xbox 360, it had been a long while since I’d played a Formula 1 game and so I feverishly, excuse the pun, lapped it up. I played exhaustively through many seasons, taking part in the whole trio of practice, qualification and extended race events. I drove hundreds of laps around my favourite circuits shaving hundredths of seconds of each lap, learning the correct racing lines, figuring out where the optimal braking zones were and working out where I was losing speed or able to gain it over my rivals. Hell I even managed to unlock the achievement for winning a race on expert using manual gears. When F1 2012 was released, sure there was the introduction of KERS (Kinect Energy Recovery System) and DRS (Drag Reduction System) to spice things up – ironically the most videogame-like things to happen to F1 in years with each system basically providing drivers with a time-limited speed boost they could use under certain conditions each lap – but with mainly the same driver line-up and the same old tracks, there wasn’t enough to keep me so enthused given how much I’d burned out on the previous release.
Fast-forward a couple of years and I thought I was about ready for a new F1 game, but after spending some time with F1 2014 I’m not convinced I will dedicate the same number of hours with the same level of enthusiasm as I did previously. Whether this is down to the quality of the game or my own past experiences is hard to determine but there’s no denying that F1 2014 feels slightly staid, overly familiar and a little by-the-numbers.
In terms of how F1 2014 actually feels to play, well initially I was pretty underwhelmed. The cars felt grippy and planted on the racetrack, like they rightly should, but I didn’t really feel like I was fully in control. Which was for good reason. When you first start the game you’ll take part in an evaluation test, which is used to determine your skill level, with the results determining which assists the game thinks you should begin with. Clearly I was somewhat rusty as my braking and steering aids were set to the highest possible settings. But once I’d set these both to low, thus giving me back some of the control, the game was transformed. I was able to throw the cars around corners with wanton abandon, the noses felt twitchy and on a hair trigger and I now felt that if I achieved a fast lap, it would be purely down to my own ability rather than the game itself slowing me down enough to get round each corner. The most exhilarating thing about Formula 1 is pushing the limits, knowing that if you brake even a meter or 2 later than you need to you’ll hit the barrier or skid across a gravel trap. It’s these precise, fine margins that generate so much excitement.
It takes time to learn these tracks, too, and to put in a decent lap time, but the rewards and satisfaction from doing so are second-to-none. In fact, every single time I play an F1 game for the first time, the first thing I always do is a few time trial laps around the ridiculously tight Monaco street circuit to see if it’s still ingrained so well in my memory. F1 2014 did not disappoint and the rush as the high contrast sunlight almost blinds you as you steam out of the famous dark tunnel into the sun-bleached Nouvelle Chicane is still one of the finest corners in F1 and is beautifully realized in F1 2014.
F1 2014 is a fundamentally sound and polished experience, but it’s not enough for Codemasters to keep releasing such a similar product year after year. This is not a franchise, like FIFA for instance, where the developer has much scope to add a whole load of new and exciting features each year. Granted, Codemasters has tried to flesh things out with the addition of a new career mode to supplement the traditional Season mode, time trials and online racing. And thankfully the now expanded Scenario mode adds further longevity by putting you in unique situations from recent F1 history. For instance Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari, struggling with very low fuel and only a few laps to go trying to hold on to a podium place. Or how about tackling a wet and rainy Malaysian Grand Prix on intermediate tyres while the rest of the pace races on full wets?
That there is no Xbox One or PS4 version of the game is also a huge disappointment. And while graphically it still looks tip-top and sufficiently realises that feeling of intense high-speed racing, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself what it would look like on the higher end systems with their increased resolutions and extra processing power.
If like me, you haven’t played an F1 game in a couple of years and are a massive fan of the sport, then F1 2014 comes highly recommended. But, if you already own one of the previous games and only have a casual or passing interest in the sport then I can’t really recommend F1 2014.
Ardent die-hard fans will buy this in their droves because they’ll want to race the new circuit, and the returing Red Bull Ring, and because they’ll want to develop rookies like Daniel Kvyat and Kevin Magnussen into world champions. But again, much like the real-life sport this game emulates, F1 2014 it’s suffering from something of an identity crisis. It’s no good just appeasing the existing fans anymore, you need to draw in new viewers and fans. But that can’t happen overnight or without a massive overhaul. What Codemasters should do next is impossible to answer but maybe they should focus more on the history of the sport and the legendary drivers, cars and races from the last 60 years. Sure they've dabbled in it somewhat in previous games but it's always felt something of an after-thought. Revolution not evolution, Codemasters.