There are two ways to look at annualised licensed releases like F1 2017. One is to compare it to last year’s effort and take a stock inventory of all its little iterative improvements. The other is to compare it to the real thing: everyone’s favourite waste of a Sunday afternoon, Formula One. Either one demonstrates, in F1 2017’s case, what a stellar job Codemasters have done this year.
FIFA’s developers can be pretty sure football will be the same cavalcade of tumbling millionaires when they set to work on a new FIFA, but for the ever-changing Formula One it’s a different story. The tires are wider and more durable this year, and the cars manufactured to a completely different set of regulations. As a result, 2017’s cars are significantly quicker than last season (so much so that drivers complained of neckache from all the G-force during pre-season testing), and F1 2017 benefits from that enormously. The cars are simply more fun to drive than in the last game. They suck onto the tarmac through high-speed corners and bite into apexes as you turn in. They’re faster than ever, but not skittish like the aero-heavy cars of a decade ago.
They’re also being driven by very convincing AI opponents who exploit gaps in braking zones and pounce on your mistakes, but usually leave a fair amount of space while you’re battling. This is very much part of the iterative improvement stock take, since convincing AI has long been a series stronghold, but this year the racing’s noticeably closer and less liable to have you lambasting other drivers like Screamin’ Seb Vettel. Several front wings were damaged during my season-long feud with Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, for example, but the racing was always gentlemanly. Just about.
With the fundamentals in fine shape, Career Mode returns with a raft of improvements headlined by mid-season classic car events. The roster of Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and Renault championship-winning motors all feel great, not to mention frightening, but their inclusion via some faintly token mid-season track days belies the difficulty in having such a small number with which to create events that make sense. They’re best enjoyed in time trials, where their individual characteristics can be enjoyed at length and without any overarching objective.
Elsewhere in career, a dizzying upgrade tree of which Path of Exile would be proud awaits you, and your route through it will depend on your team. My Force India’s engine seemed to be made of elastic bands and lolly sticks, for example, and thus upgrading ICE and turbo reliability became paramount. In a different career though, I found myself at Toro Rosso with a resilient engine and gearbox, but struggling for aero grip.
This might not sound tremendously exciting, but to the kind of F1 fan who still remembers Juan Pablo Montoya’s ‘Oh deer’ joke it’s all crucial. In reality, racing is more about car management than hitting blistering lap times, and in every mode bar time trials and quick online races, you’ll be instructed by your engineer to lift and coast in order to save fuel, short-shift to save the gearbox, go easy on the tires, and switch engine modes. That kind of experience might not be for everyone, but to those willing to really engage with its level of simulation, it makes a P13 finish at rainy Silverstone with only six gears feel just as gratifying as a win.
Last year’s performance issues have been thoroughly ironed out, too. Max settings and a locked 60 fps weren’t possible on a GTX 1070 in F1 2016, but in this significantly prettified incarnation it’s child’s play. Controller feedback is leaps and bounds better than last year too, and although the F1 series has never excelled with wheels the way Project Cars and Assetto Corsa does, a similar step forwards has been made in that department.
F1 2017 is as much as you could hope for from a series with such a Sisyphean release cadence: polished, more authentic than ever, and brings well-optimised visual improvements to PC. Until the real sport signs off on loop-de-loops, this is as good as virtual F1 gets.