Codemasters' third Formula One game sees the series finally find its feet. A broader range of game modes gives you much more to do, while great care has been taken to ease newcomers into the game. Though F1 2012 doesn't capture the magic that surrounds the sport, the on-circuit action is the best and most exciting of the series. You'll be holding your breath as you sweep around the majestic corners of world-renowned circuits, cursing as opponents swerve past you, and punching the air as you reach the chequered flag for months to come.
Right from the off, F1 2012 does a great job of getting newcomers straight into the action. You begin your career in F1 at the young drivers test in Abu Dhabi. This short tutorial introduces you to the fundamentals of the sport and the underlying mechanics of each race. Tasks include brief challenges around accelerating and cornering, and short videos explaining when to use the car's KERS boost button and drag reduction system, which are crucial to any F1 race. You need to complete the tutorial to play Career mode, but it's smart enough and short enough not to irritate seasoned racers, while also acting as a crucial stepping stone for newcomers--something that was sorely lacking from previous games in the series.
Once you complete the test and the game opens up, there are a range of modes for you to play through that are much more varied than in previous Formula One games. The first of those is Season Challenge, which lets you enjoy the excitement of an F1 season without the longer time investment of Career mode. You compete against various rivals over 10 Grand Prix weekends; if you place above your rival in the best of three races, you're immediately offered a contract by his team. Race weekends in Season Challenge are short affairs consisting of five-lap races, preceded by another addition to the series: one-shot qualification. Here you have a single opportunity to set a lap time, accompanied by the ghost cars of your closest rivals.
The 2012 Formula One season is the first to feature six previous world champions, and F1 2012 has celebrated this with a new mode. Champions mode pits you against Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, and Michael Schumacher in unique race scenarios, culminating in a seven-car race at the soon-to-be-unveiled Circuit of the Americas. These scenarios include fending off an aggressive Hamilton in the Brazilian rain, and attempting to catch up to and overtake a struggling Raikkonen with a fresh set of tyres. Though short, each scenario is well presented and challenging. However, if you prefer working against the clock, you can dive into the returning Time Trial mode or race ghost cars.
The broader range of game modes is a welcome addition, but they've come at a cost: Grand Prix mode has been stripped out. This disappointing cut means you can no longer step into the shoes of your favourite F1 racer, so full seasons can only be played with your custom character in Career mode. That leaves Quick Race as the only place where you can still play as one of this season's 24 drivers.
Speaking of Career mode, it returns in largely the same form as in previous years. You begin as part of a low-level team and move up the F1 ladder by meeting different sets of objectives. As you improve your standing during the season, competing teams offer you contracts that give you access to better cars, and loftier goals. Race weekends consist of a single practise session, three stages of qualification, and a race. However, if you're not in the mood for a full weekend, you can choose to omit practise or reduce qualification to a single stage or one-shot, which is a nice addition.
Purists may be irked by the lack of second and third practise sessions this time around, but their omission helps keep long weekends engaging. Optional research and development tests occur at a number of practise sessions during the season. These are longer and more challenging than in last year's game, but successful completion is rewarded with improvements to your car's setup. With Champions mode fulfilling your short-race needs, gone are the three-lap races of F1 2011; the minimum allowed in Career mode this year is 25 percent of the full distance.
Other, subtle changes to Career mode make it more focused than it was last year. Gone are the parc ferme interviews and first-person navigation, instead replaced by glossy menus that show important information up front. Unfortunately, the interface still lacks the personality of its Dirt siblings, and the familiar in-game emails and paper clippings do little to add to the authenticity. As a result, the career feels less like a globetrotting pageant of speed and more like a series of loosely connected race weekends. But while F1 2012's presentation fails to replicate the spectacle that surrounds the sport, thankfully the same cannot be said of the on-track action.
Racing in F1 2012 is thrilling regardless of where you are on the track. Fighting for position is better than ever, and improved AI ensures that close encounters with other drivers are rarely as problematic as in previous games. In fact, getting caught in a pack of cars is a delight, and the satisfaction of finding gaps to sneak through as cars weave around the track in front of you keeps you throughly engaged with the action.
Managing your fuel and tyres is crucial to a successful race strategy, and F1 2012 does a great job of communicating this to you during the race. Setting the fuel to a rich mix may help you gain that extra speed for an overtake, but you may not have enough gas to cross the chequered flag. Knowing when you should push to overtake and when you should defend your position is key. If you go full throttle or brake too hard into corners, your tyres' rubber wears away faster, forcing you to lose grip with the track. Though tyre wear isn't as unforgiving as what we've seen in this year's real-life season, it's still important to keep an eye on their performance. Timing your pit stops is key, and your engineer suggests pit times based on tyre wear, fuel, the condition of your front wing, and weather. However, if you think you know something he doesn't, you're free to pit whenever you please. Thankfully, pitting is now automatic once you enter the lane, though you have to be careful not to cross the pit lane exit line as you reenter the track.
A new dynamic weather system allows for different weather on different areas of the track, so it's important that you listen to your engineer to ensure you don't get caught out wearing the wrong rubbers at the wrong time. An improved suspension system helps to alleviate the often wild cornering of F1 2011 too, making throwing yourself around corners a pleasure--finding the limit of your car's ability and reacting to it once you've pushed it too far is all part of the challenge.
Improved visuals and new lighting effects augment the authenticity of the driving experience. Shadows are more defined, the amount of water on the track is easily readable, and your car's bodywork shimmers in the sunlight like never before. Plus, a new offset camera view and more variety in replay angles add to the authenticity. While the graphics have seen only a slight improvement over last year's major graphics overhaul, the audio has had a more substantial upgrade. Wind roars past on the straights, the sound of groaning engines bounces around Monaco's structures, and the howl of rivals can be heard as they push their KERS boost button and packs of hard-braking cars shriek across the landscape. The improved audio is not just for show, either; the sounds of nearby shunts and your car bottoming out allow you to react to race situations faster, and more successfully.
If taking in all the action is having a negative effect on your racing, a broad range of driving assists are at your disposal. ABS, braking assists, and a dynamic racing line help ease your vehicle around the track, while flashback replays are available for those unrecoverable mistakes. Rules and flags are more forgiving this year too. Illegal overtakes now offer a short window for you to hand the place back, and automatic slowdown on runoff areas means you're less likely to cut corners this time around. Buried in the race selection screens are detailed hot-lap tips for each circuit, courtesy of former driver and Sky Sports analyst Anthony Davidson. They're well worth watching, once you find them.
Whether or not you get the most out of F1 2012's multiplayer depends on whom you're playing with. As in previous games, quick online races with random players are chaotic affairs with racing incidents galore. However, if you're fortunate enough to have a friend to play with, it can be an incredibly fun experience. Split-screen races can be played as duels, or against a full grid of competing cars. If you fancy something more long-term, the fantastic co-op championship allows you to play with a friend, in either split-screen or online.
F1 2012 finally delivers on the promise of the first two Formula One games. Season Challenge and Champions mode allow you to play in short bursts, while Career mode has enough depth to keep you busy for some time. More importantly, the tools are now in place to allow newcomers to get to grips with what can be a rather complex sport. And though the presentation could do with some refining, F1 2012 pulls through where it matters: on the track. Races are satisfying from start to finish, and battling with rivals and the limits of your car is a constant challenge. This year's Formula One season has been one of the most exciting in recent memory, and F1 2012 captures that competitive spirit in a way the series never has before. There's no question this is the series' most realistic representation of the sport yet, one that will please fans and newcomers alike.'