Even racing fans could be forgiven for failing to notice F1 2019 in the run up to launch.
The problem, ridiculous as it sounds, is that developer Codemasters really are excellent. No-one else has ever quite captured the feeling of hurtling around in a twitchy metal chariot, often just one split-second mistake away from losing control and careening into a barrier.
Which is, to be honest, an accurate portrayal of Formula 1 racing.
Codemasters has been doing this for years. Quietly, excellently, churning out year after year of best-in-class racing games, to the point where it’s hard to find anything new to talk about without sounding gimmicky: after all, they’ve already nailed down the racing. Everything else is just a garnish on a near-perfect meal.
The solution? They’ve added a new type of racing: Formula 2, but also a thick layer of soapy drama to the career mode that makes your losses and victories that much more impactful.
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One thing you can’t hold against F1 2019 is its looks. Once again, it’s absolutely gorgeous
The Formula 2 racing props up the start of career mode, but also makes the game feel more substantial. Answering the question of “how can F1 2019 take inspiration from legendary immersive sim System Shock 2?”, you here select a driving academy and F2 racing team before you ever put wheel to tarmac, and these choices will have repercussions later, impacting which racing teams will give you a contract.
But first, you’ll have to get through the Formula 2 season. Here, you don’t experience the full races, but come in at a key moment and try to finish out the race as best you can. These vignettes are often interesting, and in the first you take control after your turbo breaks, dropped into a pack of speeding cars.
You’ll come across two characters in this mode – arrogant British driver Devon Butler and by-the-numbers German racer Lukas Weber. Your interactions with these two influence scripted sections throughout the season, and when this condensed section is complete, you’re not the only one who graduates to the big leagues. Butler and Weber come too.
Their presence, and the rivalry that it sets up, really makes the game, which means it’s even more disappointing when the soapy layer is washed away seconds after entering the cockpit of a Formula 1 car. Both these scripted segments and F2 racing are gone far too soon, but while F1 2019 Lets you commit to a full season of F2 racing elsewhere, there’s nowhere else that scratches that melodramatic itch, which is a pity.
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F1 2019 emphasises strategy and challenge, which isn’t for everyone
In its place we get a more RPG-style progression, with a skill-tree that will let you boost your F1 ride’s performance, papering the cracks with particular stats, because each one is racing their own particular model, even if they don’t look particularly different from the outside.
For me, I feel like many of my problems with the F1 2019 are my problems with the world of motorsports. Following a perfect racing line and incurring penalties for a bit of jostling or crossing corners… that doesn’t feel like a good time to me. I grew up playing arcade racers like Need for Speed and the glorious Burnout Paradise. But I begrudgingly found myself won over by the feeling of the car through a pad, feeling my tyres sticking to the road on a tight hairpin, or even the dramatic pull of deceleration as I pumped the brakes to avoid a hard collision.
F1 2019 is an altogether different beast to most racing games, so there’s an adjustment period. Races are agonisingly long, and when I started I needed to max out the assists just so I could avoid spinning out into the barriers at every corner.
I’ve played F1 games before, but as someone more used to slinging a souped-up Nissan Skyline around a track, the difference is palpable and there’s a shift in gears necessary to see success in F1 2019 that requires work.
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You’ll find yourself racing on tracks in Bahrain, Singapore and other iconic locations
There’s something about the level of practice, technique and patience that you need for success here that makes every race quite satisfying, if you can tough it out. I don’t see F1 2019 having the long-term pull to keep me around, but it’s not F1 2019, it’s me. I’m quite a lazy driver, and this game requires a devotion to get the best out of it that I simply don’t have.
We haven’t tested the multiplayer extensively, but it’s here where the long-term potential of comes clear. My amateur attempts at racing quickly saw me left in the dust, but I saw some promising ideas here with customisation, as drivers and cars are no longer tied to specific teams, open instead to cosmetics.
F1 2019 is the best release in the series so far, but the iterative design of the franchise combined with Codemasters’ trademark care and attention for racing makes that perhaps unsurprising.
It’s bigger and better than those that have come before, with the addition of Formula 2 and a few additional tweaks making it a game purists will find as an essential upgrade to last year’s F1 2018.
However, despite the game’s brilliance on the track, it’s so dense and impenetrable that it’s hard to recommend to a wider gaming audience. This is pretty much the pinnacle of accessible sim-style racing, but unless F1 already has its hooks in you, it’s a tough sell for regular folk.