F1 2011 builds on the success of Codemasters' first F1 title by developing its most impressive features and fixing many of its flaws. The car handling and visual details are significantly better, and the new Co-op Championship mode presents an exciting new way for friends to experience the intense racing together. The complex driving physics and rules could become frustrating for motor-racing novices, but Formula One fans will enjoy this incredibly faithful depiction of the sport.
The visual improvements over last year's game are striking from your very first lap. The desaturated lighting has been replaced with a realistic colour palette which better conveys the famous Grand Prix atmosphere, from the fans in the grandstands to the scarlet Ferrari and gleaming chrome McLaren. More attention has been given to the cars, too. Each team now has its own steering wheel design, complete with bespoke animations for gear changes and other steering wheel functions. Circuit marshals can be seen waving flags, and the LED caution lights dotted around each circuit work realistically. Bodywork reflects far more of the environment than in F1 2010, and damage to tyres can now be seen in the texture of the rubber on each wheel. Such is the attention to detail in the car models that you can even see the front wing flexing and bending as the cars bounce over bumps, just as during slow-motion footage from a real race.
Unfortunately, on PlayStation 3 these visual improvements have come at a cost. Unlike the versions of F1 2011 on other platforms, the PS3 suffers from a frame rate which varies a lot from circuit to circuit. Circuits with less track side detail perform significantly better than others. Though the slowdown doesn’t affect the gameplay too much, the varying visual standard between each track is irritating. Also, objects in the distance sometimes appear to be slightly blurred and the aliasing of various models, including the cars, is nowhere near as crisp as in either the Xbox 360 or PC versions. Even the pit garage menu system appears blurry at some circuits.
The graphics may be a disappointment on PlayStation 3, but the audio now more accurately mimics the real deal. Engine notes are now much more aggressive, as are the gear-change sound effects and the sound of the car hitting the rev limiter. You can even listen to the noise of the tyres on the road to predict the wheels locking up under heavy braking. The enhanced sound gives experienced players much more feedback with which to understand their car's behavior. Additional improvements have been made to the race engineer character who feeds advice to you over the car radio. In F1 2010, the advice was often irrelevant to your race, but in 2011 you are fed information specific to the cars closest to you on the track and given much clearer advice about how to best look after your fragile F1 car.
The fragility of the car is the most important change to the game this year and does a fantastic job of capturing the care needed to drive a racing car. You must find a careful balance between pushing hard and prolonging the life of your tyres. In real F1, the more damage you do to your rubber, the more often you must pit; the same is true in F1 2011. You must also control your fuel use so that you can safely make it to the finish of each race. If you use the "fast" fuel setting for too long, you will drain the fuel tank more quickly, forcing you to drive slowly later in the race to improve your fuel economy and make it to the finish. A new feature on the heads-up display tells you exactly how much fuel you have left by comparing the number of laps left in the tank with the number left to race. All of this attention to detail will be loved by F1 fans but may frustrate those less familiar with the sport. The race engineer does give advice about when to push and when to drive conservatively, but much of his advice assumes you have a high level of F1 knowledge, using terminology which can be confusing if you're not familiar with the real sport. However, fans will appreciate how similar the radio chatter is to real life.
Car handling in F1 2011 leans heavily towards simulation. You can choose from a variety of assists, such as traction control, braking help, and a dynamic racing line, but the series still doesn't have any tutorials to help novices feel comfortable with the incredible acceleration, braking, and cornering speed of an F1 car. However, the alterations to the vehicle physics make this one of the most authentic racing simulations around. The remodeled suspension system gives the car a more believable sense of weight so that you can now feel its mass moving during corners, allowing you to predict slides and correct them appropriately. Sudden spins caused by bumps and kerbs, a major problem in the last game, are a thing of the past. The different tyres are simulated impressively as well. Soft rubber creates great grip but wears out quickly and can be damaged easily, whereas harder rubber offers less grip but is much more durable. The new physics make driving with a standard gamepad a much larger challenge than before; a force feedback steering wheel creates a greater connection between you and the car. A wheel also makes the game much easier to master by allowing much more subtle steering inputs. These aren't always possible when driving F1 2011's twitchy cars with an analogue stick.
The twitchy handling is especially evident in wet weather, which is now far harder to cope with than in F1 2010. Should it begin to rain while you are using a car setup designed for dry conditions, the car will understeer horribly going into corners and oversteer aggressively on the exits, often even if you switch to the correct intermediate or extreme wet tire. If you have the correct wet car setup, you still need to be very careful, as a relatively minor mistake could cause a spin. Along with the tough handling in these situations, the visual effects for water spray are even more frightening in this year's game. Driving closely behind another car in heavy rain is akin to driving with your eyes shut. It demands extreme bravery and really captures the crazy conditions seen regularly in the real sport this season.
Should you lose control of your car, you will quickly become familiar with F1 2011's detailed damage system. With a big enough impact you can knock off your front wing or lose a wheel, but the game also helps you understand that F1 cars are sensitive even to minor incidents. If you lose your entire front wing, you will notice a massive loss of grip, but you can also lose smaller pieces of your car through minor contact. You lose less aerodynamic grip from these incidents, but they still have a subtle negative impact on handling. Puncturing a tire is a much less random occurrence this year as well. If you run off the racing line you will find that your tyres pick up small amounts of dirt and debris; do this too often and a tire might deflate.
It is almost a shame that AI cars make very few mistakes in F1 2011, as it means you rarely get to see one of the game's most welcome new features: the safety car. In Formula One, following a major accident which leaves debris or even a stationary car blocking part of the track, the safety car is released from the pit lane to drive in front of the F1 cars for up to two laps while the track is cleared. In the game, you do not have full control behind the safety car. There's a speed limit, but you can weave from side to side to keep heat in the tyres and brakes. Once the track is clear, the safety car pulls back into the pits, and you can resume racing. It might sound like a dull prospect in a video game, but it has become an important part of modern Formula One and is believably implemented in the game. You can turn it off if you would rather not use this feature, but serious F1 fans will really enjoy the need to quickly consider changes to their race strategy since the slow speed behind the safety car removes any gaps between cars that were built up during the race.
All this detail may prove too complex for casual F1 fans, but if you just want to play short races with fewer of the strategic factors in play, then F1 2011 allows for that. Career mode now lets you choose three-lap races as well as the previous minimum distance of 20 percent of a real Grand Prix. Setting up the car is also relatively simple. You can pick from preset car setups based on the weather conditions, or if you have more mechanical knowledge you can alter almost every aspect of the car to fine-tune a custom setup. You can also choose short or long race weekends. Long includes the real format of three practice sessions and three qualifying sessions, whereas short reduces practice and qualifying to one session each. Players looking for medium distance races will be disappointed to find the 30 percent race distance has been removed from the game this year; the choice now jumps from 20 percent (about 15 minutes per race) to 50 percent (45 minutes per race).
The career mode is very similar to that of last year's game. You must start with a low-ranking team and meet qualifying and race objectives to improve your reputation and attract interest from the front-runners. Along the way you can also opt to complete research-and-development objectives by beating a set lap time in practice sessions. Doing so awards you with upgrades to your car's performance. In addition to competing, you answer questions from the press between race sessions. How you answer each question from the three options available affects your relationship with your team and interest from others. The effects of your responses are made clearer in this year's game through press clippings shown at the end of each weekend, so you can see how your comments are being reported in the media. Career mode and indeed all of the other race types have been made more rewarding by new cutscenes depicting your driver celebrating in the parc ferme if you place in the top three. It's nice to see your efforts celebrated, though it's strange that Codemasters decided to implement this style of cutscene instead of the more iconic podium celebrations.
Though Career mode has changed very little, the wheel-to-wheel racing is now much better. AI cars aggressively defend their position on most difficulties, intelligently moving to the inside line to protect the obvious overtaking route. As in last year's game, they can sometimes move to defend too early, giving you the chance to overtake them on the outside, but this happens a lot less in F1 2011. The AI drivers are also much more consistent across all of the circuits in this year's game. You no longer find that they are too fast at some tracks or too slow at others, and they certainly don't struggle in fast corners like they did in F1 2010.
Just as in real F1, you have two new overtaking tools at your disposal in F1 2011: KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) and DRS (drag reduction system). KERS offers you a power boost at the touch of a button. You can use only a certain amount each lap, but if timed correctly, it can help you keep up with a faster car or defend your position from someone coming up behind. It's also a terrific aid in qualifying, as finding the best places to use it on each track can shave valuable tenths of a second off your time. Pressing the DRS button opens a flap in the rear wing to reduce aerodynamic drag and increase top speed. This can be used only when you're less than a second behind the car ahead and only at certain points on each circuit. Combined with KERS, it can make overtaking much easier on the harder difficulties. Pit stops have also been improved. The AI mechanics now cope far better when the pit lane is busy and release you back into the race with great efficiency, instead of holding you stationary for a ludicrous amount of time after changing the tyres.
In addition to Career mode and the single-race Grand Prix mode, F1 2011 includes a new scenario-based time attack game called Proving Grounds. Here, you are given a specific car, weather condition, and circuit, and you must set the fastest lap time possible, without being able to alter the car setup or tire choice. This creates a fascinating level playing field on the game's leaderboards, but if you prefer to set up the car yourself, you can still choose to play the more traditional Time Trial mode.
Competitive multiplayer in F1 2011 can be split-screen or online. The split-screen mode offers only single races, but it can include a full grid of AI cars and all of the various parameters from the single-player game. The frame rate is solid as well, allowing for exciting gameplay that doesn't suffer from slowdown. Online, up to 16 players can take part in three-lap races, qualifying sessions, or tougher multiplayer games which include qualifying followed by a longer-distance race with pit stops. Unlike last year's F1 game, the 2011 game fills the remaining spaces on the grid with AI cars so you always have 24 cars competing. In the long races in particular, this makes for satisfying competition and lots of strategic options.
The big addition to multiplayer is the brand-new Co-op Championship, which lets two players drive for the same team during a single championship season against AI cars. This fantastic new mode has you working together to bring success to the team in the Constructors' Championship, all the while knowing that only one of you has the chance to bring home the Drivers' title for the team. Do you help each other out with your car setups and upgrades in order to benefit the team, or do you hold vital information to yourself to cement your position as team leader? These ongoing personal battles, versus striving for team success, create a fascinating situation which brings fresh excitement to online multiplayer in the racing genre. In order to be a successful team you must find a delicate balance between achieving the best team result at each race, while still out-performing your team-mate in the run to the Drivers' Championship.
F1 2011 is a great sequel which captures the fragility of an F1 car for the first time and features significant improvements over its predecessor, despite the graphical problems which are present in this PlayStation 3 version. Its extremely steep learning curve will frustrate many novice racers but will delight serious F1 fans. You may need a force feedback steering wheel to master its handling at the most difficult level, but F1 2011 is a tremendously faithful re-creation of the sport, offering rewarding and strategic racing that simulation fans are sure to be playing for a long time to come.