Another year, another F1 game from Codemasters: slightly different cars, some new faces on the grid and a new number on the box. Does that worry Greg Pryjmachuk, game designer on F1 2013?
• Developer: Codemasters Birmingham
• Publisher: Codemasters/Namco Bandai
• Previewed on: Xbox 360
• Also Available On: PS3, PC
• Release Date: 4th October (EU), 8th October (US)
“That worries us every year,” he says, cosied up in a cushty Hammersmith office last week for a hands-on with the game. “Especially with things like Career. We have a 9 month development cycle and Career seems to be one bit we’ve just left alone. The only real improvement we see there is when we make global changes [to the whole game]. The AI is more aggressive this year and there are smarter visuals as well: the textures are crisper, there’s better lighting, more animations.”
Better lighting and more ways to wave on the podium are just the tip of the F1 2013 iceberg. This is the year that the rose-tinted, golden-hued glory days of Formula One return with a turbo-charged roar. Included in the expanded Classic Edition version of the game, the F1 Classics add-on brings back Ferraris, Williams and Lotuses from the 80s and 90s as well as circuits like Brands Hatch and the infamous Imola. Legendary drivers including Damon Hill, Mika Hakkinen and Mario Andretti make up the roster of drivers behind the wheel for the biggest shake-up in F1 games for many years.
Bringing the best of the yesteryears back is a task Codemasters has treated with an appropriate amount of care. The team worked on securing licenses from manufacturers, sponsors and the drivers themselves for almost two years, waiting for the right time to bolt the best of F1’s yesteryear onto one of the series’ annual iterations.
“We didn’t want to spend just one year getting just the cars in and then putting them on a time trial bit or something like that,” Pryjmachuk explains. “We wanted to have an actual game mode where you were racing against each other…so we started taking our time, gathering all these different cars and the drivers…and then getting these tracks as well. It’s got a bit of weight to it.”
Mixing cars from across the eras isn’t without its difficulties, both inside the game and outwith it. The cars of the Seventies and Eighties were less restricted in terms of what manufacturers could and couldn’t do to their cars. As a result, the team had to develop each car individually, even creating new bolt-ons for the physics engine for each car so that they felt truly authentic. The DIRT team even lent the team at Codemasters Birmingham the code used to replicate how a turbocharger works so that the older, beefier F1 cars drove like the real thing.
“The problems came when certain drivers didn’t want to be in certain cars,” said Pryjmachuk as I sent the Lotus 100T into yet another crash barrier. “Obviously, they’re personally invested [in them]. We had certain drivers saying they didn’t want to be in a car because another driver had raced in it and they didn’t like that driver anymore!”
“We struggled to get people in the [Williams] FW07B. It’s a championship-winning car but because it’s so old compared to all the other cars  they looked at it and said ‘that’s the slowest car on the track, I don’t want to be in that!’ so we lost a few drivers there as well!”
Despite crossed wires and legal headaches, the F1 Classics portion of the game has been treated with massive amounts of respect. It has its own menu system, showing older F1 cars in rustic pit-lane garages rather than modern wind tunnels. Murray Walker provides a description for each car. The interface is dialled back, chunky text replacing the slick and modernised speedos and laptimers which usually decorate the screen edge. There’s even a sepia filter laid over the whole thing – but if nostalgia’s not your thing, it can be turned off.
The cars themselves are furious, kicking and squealing when the driving aids are dialled down. Turbo lag on some of the beefier cars means that they can be gentle in turns one moment and an oversteering nightmare the next. They don’t so much whine as they do grunt and snort, all fiery exhausts and fat, chunky tyres. When you head for the pits, your crew greets you in polo shirts and casual trousers – a nod to an era when safety simply wasn’t as much of a concern.
Being able to race alongside the greats is a real treat, and F1 2013‘s new Scenario mode allows you to test yourself in story-driven situations against both legends and the 2013 season’s drivers. Some scenarios are rooted in real-life situations, like Jenson Button’s rush from last to first at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix, or Lewis Hamilton’s championship victory at São Paulo. Others have been envisioned with specific stages of a driver’s career in mind but above all else every scenario has been designed for quick bursts of gameplay, for when you can’t do a full race weekend. That said, you can now save a race in the middle and resume it from the main menu later – a heavily requested feature from the community.
Elsewhere, there have been refinements to AI which sees each driver blessed with a personality based on their real-world counterparts. This ties into a canned events system which occasionally triggers an action they might be known for: Lewis Hamilton might go on an overtaking streak; Pastor Maldonado might just crash into somebody. However, these are rare, once-every-few-races kind of situations – “It’s not Wacky Races,” Pryjmachuk notes – which seek to improve each race rather than define them.
Something of a concession to the stagnation which annual sports franchises can face, F1 2013 is the kick up the jacksie the game needed. Cars from both now and then handle brilliantly, the game still looks slick and the presentation is typically top-notch — but now there’s more to do and more cars to do it in than ever. If Codemasters have but one thing to worry about, it’s what they do for F1 2014. One thing’s for sure: it won’t just be a new number on the box.