F1 2020 Review

July 6, 2020
Xbox One
Also on: PC, PS4
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With everything that’s been going on in the world there was barely an unaffected sport on the planet. Even the mighty machine that is Formula 1 (F1) had to postpone its season start to this past weekend in Austria after things ground to a halt in Australia back in March. As a substitute, many professional F1 drivers took to virtual races to fill the void. The inaugural “Not the Australian Grand Prix” was run by Veloce eSports and sported a grid that included current professional drivers such as Lando Norris, Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutierrez. They raced alongside YouTube celebrities and the grid even included Real Madrid’s goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Their platform of choice: F1 2019. Whilst there is a considerable number of sim-racing platforms out there, Codemasters’ venerable series has gone from strength to strength since they were awarded the license. With the new F1 season underway it’s fortuitous, if unplanned, that this year’s entry joins the fray so close to the season’s start.

For many fans the return of live racing is fantastic but those same fans, if they are a gamer, also look to the calendar for when the next F1 game is released. Whilst there’s been some ups and downs it has, for the most part, been a series that has excelled year on year. Last year’s outing introduced the feeder Formula 2 (F2) series as well as a campaign mode of sorts that pitted you against the fictional Lukas Weber and Devon Butler. Whilst the F2 component has been expanded to include the ability to race in a full F2 series before you tackle F1 the latter has been removed from the career mode entirely. In its place is an all new My Team mode where you’re not just a new face in the paddock but the owner of a brand new team. This isn’t so common these days but not unprecedented as Australia’s Sir Jack Brabham won the Formula 1 world title driving his own car back in 1966. This mode starts you off by creating a driver, choosing a name, selecting your engine supplier, a main sponsor and, of course, a teammate.

Celebrating one of the greats by blasting around Monaco

You’ll need to keep close tabs on costs as well as income and make sure you select sponsors whose targets are obtainable. As a new team, things are going to be tough so it’s key to keep your aspirations for that first season in check. Boasting in interviews of how unstoppable your car is going to be only to witness its gearbox explode will not do your team any good. As you — hopefully — drive your team forward to success you’ll be awarded acclaim which affects which companies want to sponsor you and how many of the fans want to buy your gear. The better you do, the bigger the sponsors and by extension the more money you make from them as well as merchandising. This in turn aids your car’s development which will hopefully result in improved performances and, you guessed it, more acclaim. It must be said that there’s something very rewarding about turning up in your own set of wheels and having a good race weekend. Doing that feels good anyway, but for it to be a team of your making makes it feel that much more special. 

The research and development tree is back and, with the My Team mode now present, we really do feel like we’re playing a motorsport RPG. This isn’t a bad thing and, in our opinion, fits F1 2020 better as a single-player campaign than expanding on the eye-roll-inducing feud with Devon Butler. As mentioned, it has a historical precedent and feels much more of an organic fit to the series. As a mode, it also has a greater ability to be expanded on including, perhaps, having a feeder team to develop a future teammate but still maintaining the single-player aspect of racing yourself rather than just being a team owner or principal. The issue we had with the TOCA Race Driver style career was that, as soon as you hit F1 itself the rivalry and the behind-the-scenes shenanigans ceased. By the time you’d hit your second year in F1 you’d forgotten all about it, least until Devon punts you off at turn one.

Crazy starts are the norm but the racing’s fun!

Whether you decide to race as your own team or work your way up through F2 up into F1 you’ll also get the chance to race at two new circuits this year. Neither, unfortunately, will feature in the real-life Formula 1 season but virtually you’ll be able to tackle the Netherlands’ Circuit Zandvoort and Vietnam’s Hanoi street circuit. If you’ve played other racing games of the simulation variety Zandvoort will be very familiar. A few corners have been reprofiled but the layout is mostly the same. The Hanoi street circuit, however, is a different kettle of fish. Punctuated by an absolutely massive, almost one mile-long straight, its two technical sections either side of this are tough to get right. Turns thirteen through seventeen is a quick fire section which needs absolute belief in the fact that the car underneath is going to grip. Get it wrong, you’re in a wall, but if you’re too tentative you’ll end up losing seconds a lap to your competition. 

It’s a good thing, then, that the handling model is still as sublime as it was in F1 2019. The cars feel enormously grippy with the sheer amount of downforce teasing you to push more and take more speed through the corners. The drop-off in grip when you push too far is like a cliff and, we imagine, very much true to life judging by some of the practice crashes by the real-life professionals this past weekend. Despite this the cars still feel very much the same up and down the grid. This is likely to keep things fair so that, even if you decide to race as Williams, it’ll be a very controllable and competitive race-car unlike its real-world counterpart. Thankfully we have the historic cars to race to show just how good Codemasters’ handling model really is. This time around, the seven-time world-champion Michael Schumacher is the focus of this year’s release. If you purchase the Schumacher edition of F1 2020 you will get four of his iconic cars in addition to a roster of sixteen classic cars. These range from the Jordan 191 in which he made his debut — substituting for the jailed Bertrand Gachot — the Benetton B194 and B195 in which he won two of his seven world titles and the Ferrari F1-2000 in which he won his first of five for the Scuderia.

The car that started it all for Schumacher, does make me a tad thirsty...

Each of them have their own characteristics and if you take every one of them out for a jaunt you really do get an appreciation of just how far F1 has come, even over just the last thirty-two years. With the exception of William’s rocket-ship that was the FW14B — which was, and still is, the most technologically advanced F1 car — the cars of the late eighties and early nineties were absolute beasts. Driving one of these beauties around somewhere like Monaco is an exercise in patience but the underlying handling model of F1 2020 is delicate enough to allow you to dance these monsters around Formula 1’s most evocative race-track. As you move through the nineties and into the early noughties the cars start to evolve into ones that seem to grip, as Martin Brundle likes to say, as if you’re hugging your favourite granny. Racing these machines of F1’s bygone eras allows you to relive the glory that was the V10 era. Revving north of eighteen-thousand RPM, their instantly recognisable whine is but a memory in today’s 1.6 litre V6 turbo-hybrid engines but gloriously captured here as the audible assault that they were.

It really is a shame that this handling model isn’t allowed to do its thing whilst you’re piloting a modern F1 car. Since upgrading parts and having them fail is part and parcel of F1, only going half-way with this seems a shame. As you work your way through a season you’ll have parts you’ve chosen on the Research & Development tree fail to complete. What would be more realistic is if they were to be fitted to your car in one of the free practice sessions only for your engineer to break the bad news. Haas experienced this last season and they couldn’t understand why things went from great to awful. So much so that drivers were racing different specification cars for a few races until they figured out what was up. Maybe this is stretching things too far but it just doesn’t feel right to be able to hop into one of the back of the pack’s cars in your first F1 season and promptly dump it in the top ten or higher. No matter the difficulty level, these cars shouldn’t be competitive in the single-player career mode. We want to feel the difference and have cars that are a handful and then watch them evolve as we apply upgrades. Multiplayer is a different beast altogether and having all cars level, aside from setup, makes sense but if you’re wanting to create a career mode that’s true to life a Williams shouldn’t be powerful enough to keep a Red Bull on its toes.

Character models are much improved but still a little uncanny, mind

Whilst keeping everything level between cars, as far as performance is concerned, the underlying simulation model is constantly evolving. In years gone by this meant a wheel was a must with only the truly dedicated pad players making the grade. This year, however, sees the introduction of a Casual mode that, if enabled, seeks to aid newcomers to the series navigate their way through and, more importantly, have fun. Available in offline modes only, turning on Casual mode sees all the assists turn on including a steering assist that seeks to aid you through those tricky, technical sections. This doesn’t mean you’ll make every turn but should you take a trip off-track, these surfaces are now easier to drive over so you can get back on track quicker with only a minor slowdown. Venture too far off into the weeds and you’ll automatically be reset to the track with the game taking over briefly to help you get back underway. It’s a neat little addition and it's one of those modes which allows you to start with everything on before slowly but surely weaning yourself off them. Let’s not forget, this is a game first and foremost and having fun no matter your skill level should be attainable thanks to this new addition.

F1 2020 is another fantastic entry into the series and Codemasters should be applauded for consistently improving things year-on-year. The addition of the My Team mode helps keep things fresh and interesting, doubly so with two new tracks to tackle. It also must be noted that this year’s F2 cars will join the fray in a post-launch update as will Williams’ new livery. One also hopes that an update will fix a curious bug we came across whereby restarting practice programmes caused the accelerator to make our driver look up as well as go forward, with brake making him look behind as well as brake. This only affected us when playing with our Thurstmaster TX wheel and not on a pad; it may also not affect other wheel users. Even so it forced us to return to the garage from the menus and negated the use of a rather handy feature. 

With only another year under the current regulations to go before another overhaul in 2022 one wonders just where Codemasters can take the series before then. There’re plenty of additions out there, notably the F3 series which could act as another level to go through in your driver’s question for glory. However, the key question here is, is F1 2020 enough of an upgrade for those who have F1 2019? Thanks to new game modes and the ability to race a full F2 season the quick answer to that is yes, especially if you’re a massive fan of the sport.

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F1 2020 continues Codemasters’ excellent form in delivering a fantastic recreation for Formula 1. The new My Team mode injects new life into the series and is far more welcome than Devon Butler was last year. It's never easy making iterative releases relevant but they sure do seem to have a grand plan in play. One wonders what we'll be treated to next year, but until then there's a bucket load of fun in F1 2020 to keep you entertained.
Pete Taylor

A long time gamer since the days of the mighty ZX Spectrum +2. The bug really bit when I got a Sega Mega Drive 2 and it hasn’t let up since. Huge racing fan but I also enjoy losing myself in a well-told RPG and management sims. It doesn’t have to be good-looking to win my heart, it’s what’s deep down inside that matters.