Review: F1 2020 crosses the finish line in style

Annual sports games are a tough proposition. They must improve and add new features every single year without straying or changing too much from their original formula. Many of them usually rely on enhancing their presentation and nothing else, which leads to many players saying they should be updated yearly through DLC packs instead of full releases. F1 2020 is no different. But what separates this year’s offering from 2019’s? Is it worth your time and hard-earned money? Well, before answering that, we need to address the elephant in the room (or should I say planet?): Covid-19.

The pandemic has affected the world in numerous ways and this is no different for game developers. F1 2020 suffers heavily from it. If we assume development for F1 2020 started the day after F1 2019 was released, about a quarter of all development time happened during the lockdown period. And worse, this happened at crunch time which can be considered the most important and stressful moment for the entire development team, especially working at home.

 

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The scramble at the start of every race is always exciting!

So, are there any bugs? Unfortunately, yes. F1 2019 had a few, but nothing game breaking. Up to the moment of writing this review, quite a few of them were reported: mechanical failures that don’t result in Safety Cars, headless characters, assets not rendering properly  or at all, the game sometimes failing to recognize different tire compounds and black flagging players, not all AI drivers doing Hot Laps at the end of the first and second qualifying sessions, the fastest lap being broken in multiplayer, Podium Pass not working at launch, black screens happening on PC, abhorrent gearbox wear, scripted qualifying times, to name a few listed on Reddit and Codemasters forums.

Those are just some of the bugs many players (and I) have experienced, but they’re pretty random and might not affect everyone the same way. Codemasters also wasn’t helped by the fact that Covid postponed the start of the Formula One season until four days before the game’s release. This meant that there was no way to assess the performance of all cars and drivers and, therefore, they had to use 2019’s data and testing to make a plausible guess. Several teams also changed their car liveries in the weeks leading up to release.

You may ask yourself: “is it acceptable that such a considerable amount of bugs are present in the game, considering the effects of lockdown on a fragmented development team?” I particularly guess so, but I fear F1 2020 is just the first of many games that will be released this year that will greatly suffer from this pandemic. I worry for those that will, especially sports games. It’s quite annoying because if you ignore the bugs, F1 2020 is truly an amazing racing title.

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Be extra careful during yellow flags!

Like most annual releases, many aspects of the game are pretty much the same as last year’s. However, F1 2020’s biggest and most interesting addition is a new game mode called “My Team”. In a nutshell, you’re the eleventh team on the grid. You get to choose a team name, engine supplier, livery, sponsors, team mate and even the race suit. Customization options here are a bit on the weak side, though a full livery editor may (or may not) arrive next year. After that, you’re interviewed by the press and are presented with your team headquarters, where you control your team off the track. You can schedule activities for your staff and driver, make car upgrades, improve your facilities and even hire a better driver if needed. There’s quite a lot to manage and it’s important to spend cash and resource points wisely. Do you hire a better driver or get a better engine? Do you spend resource points on improving durability or chassis? These types of choices will engage you and, along with the variety of each race weekend, driver transfers, changes in team performance, regulation changes, etc. makes “My Team” an experience that will keep you hooked for hours on end.

What about racing? On the single player front, the AI is far more aggressive and much better this year. Sometimes you simply must have to concede your position to avoid an accident, whereas in F1 2019 you could unrealistically defend from many faster opponents. Race starts are way more balanced, the AI pace in wet conditions is a bit wonky but nonetheless improved upon and it sometimes even makes human-like mistakes which end up costing them positions. It all adds a layer of randomness to the racing.

Many tracks have been updated to replicate their real-life counterparts as precisely as possible, including more realistic trackside detail (easily noted on street circuits like Monaco) and the AI no longer makes illogical mistakes at specific corners like turn 1 at Suzuka. ERS has been redesigned and it’s now mostly on automatic mode, except when you need an extra bump in power. In this situation you can use the overtake button (though this quickly drains your ERS). It’s a welcome change compared to previous years where ERS changes happened on every corner and was really annoying.

The option to customize the heads-up display is now available to console players as well and there are new casual assists to ensure that everyone, from novice to hardcore drivers, feels welcome and not overwhelmed by the complexities of Formula One rules and regulations. This, along with the introduction of split-screen enables F1 2020 to market to a larger audience and is a nice feature for some relaxed couch play sessions with friends.

Audio is an absolutely brilliant aspect of the game. Sound in general is great, with a nice selection of menu music, very defined and realistic ambient sounds on each track and an impressive selection of engine sound samples. Fans have heavily criticized the sound of Formula One cars since the 2014 season when the smaller and more efficient 1.6-liter V6 engines were adopted. These sounded nothing like in previous years’ engines, when the raucous V8 and V10 naturally-aspirated engines dominated the sport with their insane shriek. In F1 2020, you can pick your poison: from the vacuum cleaner sounds of this year’s season to the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s classic masterpieces from McLaren, Ferrari, Benetton, and Williams screaming at 18.000 rpm, which are available in some game modes. Players are served with a rich and satisfying aural buffet.

The handling model is very impressive and it’s especially noted during qualifying sessions where the car is at its maximum and you can really feel all of its power, grip, and handling capabilities. The responsiveness is outstanding and you are treated to a very stable 60 frames per second on all platforms, from the aging Xbox One to high-end PCs. This guarantees fast inputs, precision, and confidence, which are required in a motorsport where vehicles are able to reach 60 mph in less than two seconds and take some turns at over 150 miles per hour. 

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The new Team mode is an exciting addition that adds plenty of depth to F1 2020.

Like the real-life Formula One calendar, two new tracks have been introduced: Zandvoort and Hanoi. Zandvoort returns after a 35-year hiatus and is a lot of fun with its varied terrain filled with ups and downs and great high-speed corners, including the now-banked turn 15. Hanoi on the other hand is a nightmare. Designed by the infamous Hermann Tilke, this new entrant to the calendar is an awkward and tiring track to drive on long stints. 

Online hasn’t changed at all as far as I could see from the numerous crash compilations found on YouTube. This means there is still no long-term punishment for driving like a complete moron. It’s not a fun place to be for a truly serious driver because you’ll be put in a lobby with 19 other Raghunathans who will certainly throw themselves into every corner with absolutely no regards to clean racers. Sadly for me, I’m serious enough to want to play the game as intended but not good enough to play competitively. So I avoid online like the plague. At least the AI is good enough for a challenge!

So, is F1 2020 worth picking up right now? Even in its current state, it’s a sound decision. I do believe, however, that after a month or two, the vast majority (if not all) of the bugs will be addressed and once they are, F1 2020 will easily be a must-own for racing fans.

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