What is it? The official video game of the 2021 Formula One World Championship.
Expect to pay $60/£50
Reviewed on Core i7, Geforce RTX 2070, 16GB RAM
Multiplayer? Two players offline, up to 22 players online
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
Short of fielding phone calls from your mum, it's hard to imagine what could have made last year's F1 2020 any more comprehensive. So F1 2021 has literally added phone calls from your mum. It's all part of the six-hour-long story mode, which sees you playing as two drivers from one of the lower F1 teams, struggling with a tricky teammate rivalry and the ever-present menace of Devon Butler, a fictional driver you may remember from the brief story section of F1 2019. Refresher: he's a git, and you'll want to beat him.
But that's exactly why this mode was needed. Rivalry systems have always added spice to racing games, and the difference some personality makes is amazing. You may well have made up enough positions to continue the story, but when Butler is only 2.3 seconds up the road, motivation to go faster is compelling.
The acting in the CG cut-scenes is actually pretty decent, especially when it comes to the older of the two team-mates. And while the story beats are completely predictable and the drama is rather hammy, the game is richer for its inclusion. It's also reasonably reactive to your actions, too, with the fictional social network noticing when you win or beat a rival, which goes some way to making the universe more believable. It is challenging, though, and even the second of the three difficulty levels will be plenty hard enough for most, though it makes for some exhilarating and exhausting racing as you concentrate and drive your soul out for some 11 laps at a time.
Besides the story mode, My Team returns, allowing you to start a new F1 team from scratch, choose your livery and sponsors and set up your R&D department to focus on the areas you think will benefit you the most. And while classic cars have been removed from this year's game, classic drivers like Senna, Prost, Nico Rosberg and David Coulthard are available to race for your team if you choose to enable them—and can afford the fee. Nice touch.
The R&D tree has been simplified a little, and so too have the practice sessions—now down to three R&D objectives at each race, from five. You can also play a game of chance to secure the R&D points without actually driving around the track at each event, which is welcome, though it's still beneficial to practice before you race.
The races are astonishingly realistic in their ebb and flow. Weather cycles first play out in the sky and then on the track, giving you decisions to make over tyre strategy. Rival cars crash off-screen and bring out the safety car, and all manner of technical issues can spring up, including getting stuck in 4th gear. Of course, if you'd changed gearbox before the race, that might not have happened. But managing an issue and still prevailing makes for some incredibly satisfying gameplay.
The handling model has been tweaked after feedback from real drivers, and so is more realistic than it was a few years ago. It's still not as free-feeling as PC-exclusive racing sims, but the car behaves well and has plenty of that 'too much power' feeling if you turn down the traction control. Racing is still as tactical as ever, thanks to the Overtake button which acts as a turbo boost, giving you a battery full of go-faster energy that you must manage as you race—and that's on top of fuel level and tyre degradation. It's a cerebral experience, but any and all of this can be disabled if you just want to hold accelerate and steer around the corners. It'll still look and sound superb.
Speaking of which, the game runs really well even on modest modern hardware, as long as you stick to 1080p. On an Nvidia RTX 2070, the game runs over 50fps at 1080p even with Ray Tracing switched on and all the wet weather effects doing their thing. 4K is a bit too much to ask with everything on ultra, dropping to some 22fps, but the quality of the picture at that resolution is wonderful, so if your rig can handle it, crank it up. Otherwise, you're still in for a great ride at 1080p—and it doesn't look that much different without ray tracing, so don't feel it's a must-have if you haven't got the means.
Also new this year is the chance to download the real 2021 season's stats and start your season from any race that's already happened. You do have to play as a made-up driver, but there's nothing to stop you calling yourself Max Verstappen and sticking it to Hamilton in Baku to set things right after real life let the Red Bull driver down so spectacularly. Weather patterns for these races don't echo the real-world, but the chance to change the real standings is welcome.
Online will see esports championships later this year, and there's the usual online racing to enjoy, although now you can tackle the entire career mode with a friend via the internet. You can choose to stick in the same team and therefore go as a package wherever the lead player signs, or you can just play at the same time and race for different teams, with the possibility of joining up at some point. Either way, it's going to please some players a great deal.
A lot of detail has been poured into the core game modes at the expense of other side modes we've seen in the past, but that's OK. There's still the 2020 season of F2 to play as well, and the online time attack leaderboards will keep you entertained for months to come if chasing times is your bag. There's not much else Codemasters can do at this point, but apparently the team's EA buyout has made its future plans even more ambitious. Until then, this'll do very nicely. Now phone your mum.