F1 2021 review – Formula One with a story to tell

This year’s official Formula One game adds a brand new story mode and a raft of new features to make it more accessible than ever.

Cynics often maintain that annual iterations of sports game franchises are all but indistinguishable from the previous year’s offering. F1 2021 neatly sidesteps such accusations with a number of significant new features, along with some clever tweaks that add accessibility to some of its more arcane elements. Plus, it is, of course, underpinned by the technical excellence for which developer Codemasters is renowned.

The highest profile new element Braking Point, a story mode along similar lines to FIFA’s The Journey, which instantly makes this year’s officially licensed Formula One game feel more rounded when viewed purely as a game, as opposed to a mere racing simulator. Braking Point turns out to be great fun, with the feel of a soap opera set against the backdrop of Formula One’s paddock. It charts the fortunes of two team-mates, Aiden Jackson and Casper Akkerman, the former a rookie and the latter a grizzled veteran close to retirement.

The two clash initially, with narcissistic rival driver Devon Butler gleefully stirring things up, but over the course of two seasons redemption beckons, via the sorts of scenarios that have sometimes appeared in past F1 games. For example, you might find yourself midway through a race, at the back of the field but on fresh tyres, tasked with catching and passing the two Haas cars which are a long way up the road (Formula One devotees will enjoy the fantasy element of Haas cars not bringing up the rear of the field).

Braking Point even has a nicely crafted difficulty curve; as it progresses, you have to do things like finish in the points over a whole race at the fearsome Spa-Francorchamps, which starts off dry but is soon afflicted by rain or recover after nursing your car back to the pits with a punctured tyre. Such challenges stand you in good stead for the career mode and Braking Point’s meatiness and redemptive qualities make it a fine addition to the F1 blueprint.

Elsewhere, devotees of Codemasters’ Formula One games will find the overall experience reassuringly familiar, albeit with a few new options. Most notable is a two-player career mode which lets you and a friend carve your way through Formula One, either as team-mates or drivers for rival teams. Given the multiplayer side of the game is primarily populated by those with superhuman driving skills it can be off-puttingly hardcore, so the friend options are very welcome.

Technically, F1 2021 is exemplary, even though it’s a cross-generation game, designed to operate on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 but to look considerably nicer on the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Codemasters has accommodated both existing console generations by allowing Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One owners and PlayStation 4 and 5 owners to play F1 2021 against each other online, although there’s no cross-company multiplayer.

Even if it wasn’t the officially licensed game of the aspirational pinnacle of motor racing, F1 2021 should still garner acclaim for simply being a very good racing game. It incorporates the widest possible array of driver aids (including traction control, which real Formula One cars don’t have) and settings that allow you to tailor or switch off all the various testing and qualifying sessions. So, according to taste, you can turn it into an almost arcade-like racer or a simulator that lets you experience just how tricky Formula One cars really are to drive.

For those who are familiar with Formula One’s tracks (which have been chopping and changing somewhat since COVID took hold), a welcome new feature allows you to simulate practice sessions without actually driving, to carry out the testing programmes that earn points with which you can upgrade your car.

That’s a crucial, role-playing like mechanic for the game that mirrors real-life Formula One, in which the teams massively upgrade their cars over the course of a given season. Codemasters has also rendered the upgrade system less arcane, by simply letting you see which part of the car you’re upgrading.

In career mode, you can now also opt to jump into the current season at any point, with the championship standings set as they were in real life, which will appeal to those who like to play the game as a means of emulating particular drivers.

The overall effect of these detail tweaks is a new level of accessibility – elements of past Formula One games could be a tad confusing if you didn’t happen to be a Formula One fanatic – yet the game’s flexibility, allowing you to play it however you want, hasn’t been compromised at all. As a result, it’s more inclusive than ever.

As far as the actual racing is concerned, F1 2021 delivers all the racing thrills you could possibly crave. The car feel is simply unbelievable, conveying an incredible sense of the astounding grip levels and insane speed that the current crop of cars possess.

Tyre degradation – a major, somewhat controversial factor in real-life Formula One – is cleverly emulated in the game; if you don’t learn how to stay on track with tyres that have lost their bite, you won’t prosper. Even with driver aids cranked up, you can still feel the loss of downforce and grip that results from closely following another car.

Codemasters has now been making F1 games for over 10 years and that experience really shines through in F1 2021. However, this year’s iteration stands out from its predecessors thanks to some really useful new modes and elements.

Braking Point is a particular joy, even though it could easily have felt gimmicky, and some clever tweaks bring a new level of accessibility. If you haven’t bought a Formula One game for a while you should find F1 2021 surprisingly fresh and innovative but for hardcore F1 fans this is simply a must-buy.

F1 2021 review summary

In Short: Codemasters’ best Formula One game so far adds an excellent story mode, along with a raft of new tweaks and options to make it more accessible.

Pros: Great story mode and incredible car feel. More accessible than previous entries and the new two-player career mode works well. Impressive visuals.

Cons: Less talented drivers will still find the online side intimidating.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Price: £59.99
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: Codemasters
Release Date: 16th July 2021
Age Rating: 3

By Steve Boxer

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