NEED TO KNOW
What is it? The latest licensed F1 racer, now with added cutscenes.
Reviewed on i5 8600k, RTX 2080 ti, 16GB RAM
Expect to pay $60 / £45
Multiplayer Up to 20 players
Link Official site
It seems so obvious now in retrospect. The best way for an annualised, licensed motorsport game to stay fresh every summer, clearly, is to chuck in an entirely different racing series as well. With the inclusion of the 2018 F2 championship, F1 2019 feels, for the first time in the series, like a wider world of motorsport. It offers that irresistible rags-to-riches journey in career mode, and a handling model all of its own to master.
It makes a lot of sense. Codemasters has had the handling down for years now. It's twitchy and frightening, and gives you just the right amount of rumble in your hands as you wrestle your car implausibly fast over an impeccably rendered apex. It feels in this game, as it has for many prior instalments, like a carefully struck balance between detailed physics modelling and 'sim-cade' accessibility.
But the developers needed to add something more than a few handling tweaks, and that's a story-driven career mode. Elsewhere in sports gaming, this kind of ascendancy through the junior ranks up to the big league is becoming de rigeur. And for the twelve other people who play the underrated MotoGP series as religiously as this one (see you at the next bridge game, folks) it's deliciously ironic to see Codemasters borrow an idea from Milestone for a change—Moto2 and Moto3 categories have formed the entry point for MotoGP's own career mode for many years now.
F1 2019's career mode is a bit of a surprise, though. Rather than a full season of F2 racing, it's a scripted sequence of condensed race highlights akin to Codemasters' beloved TOCA: Race Driver, and it serves as a prelude to your F1 career. Fictionalised drivers Lukas Weber and Devon Butler mix with familiar names like Russell, Norris and Ghiotto, and the former are very much cut from the 'broadly drawn racing stereotype' cloth. Cocksure English villain with waggly eyebrows: step forward, Devon. Bavarian stickler for rules and procedure: take a bow, Mr Weber.
That's not necessarily to the detriment of this potted F2 season matinee. What is, however, is the fact it's over so quickly. Barely half an hour passes before you're spat out of the other side of F2 and picking an F1 team. Granted, not everyone wants to get stuck into a full race calendar—and indeed it’s possible to do so in a separate F2 season mode which has no bearing on your career, but it would have been nice to have the option of working a bit harder for your F1 race seat. As it is, choosing your F2 team determines the level of interest you'll receive from various F1 teams, so your choice does at least feeling meaningful even if the season's fleeting.
When you graduate to the big cars, the career mode format takes on a familiar complexion from last year’s game. It's once again gratifying to earn the trust of your team by hitting their performance targets. As you move forward you gain access to the RPG-like car upgrade tree and spend points to improve your car. My Williams was in dire need of aero upgrades in my debut season for example, whereas the Renault-powered teams need to find engine performance to bridge the gap to Mercedes. That kind of granular detail in its simulation of the sport has long separated the F1 series from other licensed racers, and it remains impressive in this game.
That’s the format. But there’s a twist in the tale: Lukas Weber and Devon Butler graduate to F1 along with you, replacing two real drivers and popping up in cutscenes which amp up the sense of rivalry (and, to be honest, am-dram theatre). Butler and Weber are free to drive wherever the game takes them. They might even become your team-mate at some point.
Yes, it all seems very silly if you sit watching the cutscenes like Roger Ebert expecting Oscar-worthy spectacle. But this rivals plotline really does work: you feel motivated not just to win a contract with the race-winning teams, but now to do so before your contemporaries. Winning the championship means that little bit more in F1 2019, and hammy cinematics are a small price to pay for that.
Changes are afoot over in multiplayer too, with a focus on visual customisation. Custom car liveries have been introduced, along with team-agnostic overalls and gloves. So rather than each multiplayer event being a game of F1 cosplay you’re free to express yourself—if you can afford the cosmetic items. Most are possible to unlock by spending in-game currency accrued elsewhere, but a few appear to be microtransaction-only affairs. At the time of writing, we’re unable to click through to the Steam Store to see how they’re priced.
A new leagues system and improved race highlights mode both bolster F1 2019’s eSports cred, which is good news for pro sim racers and those aspiring to be the next Brendon Leigh alike. I’m still not totally sold on the virtual stewards and how they dole out penalties, but I’ve yet to play a racing sim online that has cracked that particular nut agreeably.
This isn’t a tangible leap forward in the fundamentals of the F1 series—the handling and visuals remain roughly where they were last year, which is to say: excellent. What Codemasters have managed to add into the series in an impressively short span though is a wealth of new solo content that enriches career mode and offers a totally different challenge outside it. Many more hours of online racing will be needed before the strength of its infrastructure can be commented on—but at release, F1 2019 is generous, stable, and thrilling as ever.
Correction: A previous version of this review implied that drivers wouldn't change teams. In fact, driver transfers are fully supported.