It takes great talent to drive a Formula One car. The vehicles are set up to go as quickly as possible within the given (and complicated) FIA regulations, and this season's new turbocharged cars are horribly twitchy and snappy, particularly if you don’t know what you’re doing. In the hands of a normal driver, they'd spit you off into a wall at the first corner. This is what happens very early on in F1 2014.
Then again, that is the point. Sure, there are myriad of driving assists to help keep you on the track, but the real appeal of F1 is in keeping your car planted without any help at all. Assists for braking, steering, traction control, and so forth do play their parts as you learn the braking points of a track and get to grips with the twitchy handling of this season's cars, but as time goes on, you find yourself lowering the artificial assistance to the minimum, and racking up some respectable lap times.
Smooth movements, correct braking points, and the right amount of steering lock are key to finding your way around corners with any degree of success. The learning curve is steep, and the game doesn't do a great job of teaching you the finer points of driving an F1 car, which you need in order to turn off any of the assists. That you need to be as alert as you do to get the cars around a track is a testament to the quality of the simulation on offer, though. As with real F1, make one mistake and your race is ruined, presuming you prefer not to make use of the replay system. Excellent tyre physics let you feel every twist and turn in a track, while a surprisingly accurate degradation model means you've got to keep an eye on tyre performance during the longer races, lest you lose grip and spin off the track. The same goes for fuel management, which requires a keen eye and good pit stop management. Ultimately, if you look after your car, it'll look after you. Abuse it, and you'll find you have no wing, no grip and barely enough go to make it to the pits.
While the updates to F1 2014's simulation mean that the cars handle differently but accurately for this season (or as best as a person that's not actually driven an F1 car can tell), there are some underlying issues with that game that this year's update fails to resolve. For instance, modulating the throttle is still frustratingly difficult on the Xbox 360 controller, and I often accidentally wheelspan away from the line, or simply gave the car too much juice over an apex. The brakes are easier to modulate on the pad; the steering less so, but it's manageable.
The best way to play F1 2014 is with a wheel and pedal. A quick spin on the PC version with the proper kit (in this case, the excellent and fully supported Thrustmaster T500 RS) not only made the racing more manageable, but far more immersive as well. The focus of F1 is on precision, but that's not to say there aren't some exciting moments to be found outside of a well-executed gear change. I often found myself chasing a car, repeatedly telling myself "I’ll take him on the next corner," or hoping to a deity that I could outbrake him to get ahead, only to be pipped to the post in a furious pedal-to-the-metal finish on the home straight.
F1 2014 is beautiful. Each car is shiny in all the right places and covered in all the right sponsors, making those fast-lap replays look fantastic. It all looks even better in the rain, when the track becomes covered in a watery sheen and a fine spray rooster-tails its way from the back of competitors’ cars, blocking your view in close quarters racing. Aesthetically, it’s hard to fault F1 2014 in all but two areas: the wing mirrors and the drivers. The former are blocky, indistinct, and not all that useful in a race, while the latter look rather sickly. Perhaps the drivers are suffering from the grueling hours of a full F1 season, or maybe the Xbox 360 and PS3's ages are beginning to show, but considering the cars look so good, the ugly drivers do take you out of the moment.
F1 2014 falters further when it comes to its selection of modes and extras. In comparison to F1 2013, aside from the tweaked handling, all you get are a few new car models and a couple of new tracks. F1 2014 actually removes some of last year's content with the loss of the awesome classic mode. That was a major selling point of the old game, so not having it here is a significant step backwards. Still, what is in F1 2014 is decent, if not at all that different to last year.
Rivals, Career and Scenario make up the meat of the game: in Rivals you enter a back-of-the-grid team as a rookie and fight your way up the rankings to beat a chosen rival in a best-of-three battle. Your chosen rival is supposed to be someone in a higher-tier team than you so you can steal their drive, but they're often so much faster that what should be a nice challenge turns into a frustrating experience. Swap a rival out for a fresher, slower driver and he'll miraculously speed up as well. Moving the goalposts in such a way makes for a frustrating experience.
Career mode takes you all the way through a race weekend from practice to qualifying, and then on to the big race itself. Again, the AI drivers are hard work, but keep plugging away and eventually you can shave seconds off your lap times to steal a podium spot. Handily, you can choose how long your season is, so you don't have to commit to too much if you don't want to. Scenario is by far the most interesting mode to play in. You're given specific tasks to complete, such as having to complete a wet race on less than appropriate slick tyres, for which you're awarded a medal based on your performance.
Despite F1 2014's good points, it's hard to get away from the fact that it's little more than an inconsistent update of a great game. The cars are good fun once you get the hang of the new handling model, the visuals are surprisingly sharp (for the cars at least), and there's more than enough punishing difficultly on offer for those after a real racing challenge. Ultimately, though, how big an F1 fan you are is going to dictate the value proposition here: if you're fair-weather and already own the feature-packed F1 2013, just how badly do you want to drive the new cars?