Sports franchises are weird, aren’t they? On the one hand we want realism and authenticity: the most accurate representation of any given year in a league or championship. On the other, we want excitement and new stuff to play around with. It must be a struggle to provide the two, especially when the only new additions to F1 are often banal regulations, the addition of a virtual safety car or—at best—a brand new circuit. This year, Codemasters has seemingly given up trying, removing almost everything other than the barebones of a career mode and some online multiplayer options. Surprisingly enough, F1 2015 also represents the purest and most thrillingly breakneck representation of F1 yet.
Even the career mode that remains has been stripped back. There’s no longer the option to create your own personal racer and take him from zero to hero in seven years of championship racing. Instead it’s just one season playing as an already-famous F1 driver. Without the option to create your own driver and start at the bottom, that progression element that dominated the first few seasons of a lengthy career is lessened considerably this year, but the racing is far more immersive because of how little faffing there is to distract you. There are no emails to sift through and no team contract offers to ponder over between championship races.
With so little new to shout about, Codemasters has resorted to calling out features like Pro Season—a championship mode in which all the assists are turned off, the AI difficulty is at its hardest setting, and you’re restricted to cockpit view for entire races. While it seems a little disingenuous to pitch this as something new when you could create these kinds of conditions in previous games, F1 2015’s graphical improvements and the major changes to its handling model are notable. There’s a vibrancy to F1 2015 that was lacking in all previous games. Monte Carlo feels suitably flash and the neon lights of a Singapore night race are dazzling.
My favourite part of the F1 games has always been the feeling of the unknown as you head into a long race, and that’s even stronger here. Sure, you can set up a handful of three or five lap races if you’re short on time, but the 25% length is where the game really hits its stride. On a 50% race in the dry, at the wheel of Vettel’s red Ferrari, I was pulling out a decent gap in second, managing my tyres pretty effectively. When the first stint of pit stops came around I lost my advantage and ended up in a ten to fifteen lap tussle with Massa and Rosberg, all of us vying for second, third and fourth position. It was frantic, precise and at times extremely tense. None of it was for first position, but every last point felt important. As my tyres begun to wear and the grip levels dropped it got really close.
Your new race engineer, Jeff, gives you a lot more information as you race, even advising on how you’re dealing with tyre wear as you complete each lap. Sadly there’s no safety car feature, which makes racing incidents a little unnatural. A a huge pile-up can occur into the first turn, only to have green flagged racing conditions resumed by turn three. Fortunately, opponent AI has been improved alongside the game’s handling. They’re defensive when you’re on the chase, and aggressive as soon as they get the jump on you, utilising DRS to pull off any passes they can. It can be a little frustrating sometimes when the game’s penalty system dishes out unfair punishments to you for an AI mistake, but the unlimited flashbacks option lets you replay any incidents to avoid that.
F1 2015 is best played at the toughest setting you can handle. My personal preference is with opponent AI on "legend" difficulty, braking assist and ABS turned off, and with traction control turned on. With a pad, this feels like the most challenging, satisfying balance. Codemasters has greatly improved the sense of torque in the rear wheels, and you can really feel the power of the car’s back end as you exit a sharp turn—snapping the wheel back quickly is essential to avoid a spin.
It's still a slim package, however. Other than the single championship, Pro Season and Quick Race options, there’s very little else here. The Time Trial leaderboards return in identical form, and online multiplayer is the only way to play with friends—Codemasters has culled any split-screen options. At the time of review, the online options are temperamental at best, and broken at worst. Codemasters has divided races into preset tiers of difficulty with differing combinations of assists. I managed to find a couple of games throughout my time playing, but the majority of the time I was met with a failed-to-find-match message. Hopefully this gets sorted in patches.
I’ve also seen a lot of negative reviews on Steam about game stability, with control pad issues and game crashes. I’ve experienced three crashes to desktop during my entire 10-or-so hours with the game. These are obviously frustrating, especially if you’re twenty or thirty laps into a race, but game instability is not nearly as prevalent as I was expecting. Frame rate has been an almost rock solid 60fps, dipping infrequently on the run to first corner, when there’s an especially large pile-up, or when the rain is absolutely hammering it down. The most disappointing thing about F1 2015 for PC owners is the fact that it just doesn’t look that impressive when stacked up against games like Project Cars. You have a raft of options at your disposal, from anti aliasing and anisotropic filtering, to all manner of reflections, shadows and weather effects, but it’s not a graphical powerhouse.
With so little new, it’s tough to recommend F1. On one hand it’s the best representation of F1 racing to date, but it’s also not nearly the iterative revolution that Codemasters promised when they essentially admitted that F1 2014 was a stopgap. After four years at the wheel, playing each game pretty extensively, I thought I might be bored of racing round the same tracks by now, but F1 2015 surprised me. I haven’t had this much fun with the series since F1 2011, despite its inexcusable lack of content, unstable multiplayer suite and unchanged foundations. Sports franchises are weird.