It's that time of the year again. You know, when Codemasters serves up an annual dose of FIA-endorsed Formula One experience on your favourite console or PC and rakes in obscene amounts of money in the bargain. Although F1 2012 plays markedly better than Codemasters' first Formula One outing with F1 2010, it only offers minor incremental improvements over F1 2011. Then again, this glacial pace of evolution is usually the norm for such annual franchises. The fans really don't care either, as long as the games keep steadily improving year by year. By that standard, F1 2012 is pretty much par for the course.
What I liked most about the game is how it eschews the needlessly complicated and unwieldy motor-home inspired menu with a no-nonsense GUI that focuses on getting the job done quicker. This way, the action is more accessible without the tedium and repetitiveness of some half-assed attempt at recreating a driver's lifestyle. Despite that, F1 2012 still maintains the drama and tension from a driver's perspective with deeper commentary from the engineers during the race and detailed analysis of your performance after.
This simplicity is evident in the mandatory Young Driver's Test in the proving grounds of the Yas Marina race track in Abu Dhabi. The game gives you a primer in basics such as proper modulation of accelerator and brakes to control over and understeer, to lifesaving tips on cornering that go a long way in improving the chances of complete n00bs. Even those who already know driving fundamentals will benefit from the introduction to the basics of KERS and DRS systems, which has a great impact on lap times when used effectively.
F1 2012 looks pretty good and maintains 60 fps most of the time on the PS3
Moving to the meat of the game, the single player includes a comprehensive Career Mode that leverages the Formula One license well with a full roster of drivers and tracks for the current season. The premise is the same old progression from a smaller team to the larger ones as you win races and gain bigger contracts. Here, you can sample the full shebang of qualifying and race weekends that should satisfy any F1 fan. However, if you lack the patience of commitment to indulge in this time-consuming affair, you can opt for the relatively shorter Season Challenge mode. This is a truncated version of the Career Mode restricted to 10-races with shorter qualifying sessions.
If you want something even more fast and gratifying, the Proving Grounds mode is F1 2012's version of the arcade mode replete with Time Attack and Time Trial modes. Champions Mode is a brand new inclusion that pits you against the biggest names in F1 racing. In the higher difficulties, this mode will bring even the more experienced gamers to their knees. At easier difficulty though, it's a relative walk in the park. This imbalance in challenge is evident through various difficulty levels in the rest of the game modes as well. In effect, there's no middle ground—you either end up dominating the track in the easier difficulties, or you get utterly humiliated when you dial up the AI toughness.
Yes, you can circumvent AI limitations with the multiplayer component, but it's a paid affair. In fact, no one even bothered to include an online pass with the review copy. I didn't have to spend too long with the multiplayer mode to figure out why though. It's virtually unchanged from F1 2011. However, it is an option if you really want to team up with a buddy to take on the championship season, or if you find the appeal in posting competitive scores in the Racenet component offering standardised and curated time trial modes. If you already own a copy of F1 2011 though, this iteration makes little sense for those solely seeking an online experience.
Weather effects look gorgeous and have a bearing on gameplay and race strategy as well
On the bright side, the game looks pretty good even on the PS3. Framerates drop momentarily during the busier sections of the track, but the action is fluid for the most part. The volumetric smoke and other particle effects look gorgeous, but the environmental effects take the cake. Not only are weather effects such as overcast skies and rain conditions faithfully recreated, it profoundly affects gameplay as well. The graphics system is competent enough to simulate changing weather conditions well enough to prompt players to pre-emptively change tyre choices before the onset of rain or shine. Very few games manage to leverage graphics as a major factor in the core gameplay.
Not only does the game look great, but it plays much better than the past games as well. While F1 2010 couldn't strike a balance between the arcade and simulation aspects, this iteration is easier to pick up for beginners. However, at the same time it also offers enough depth to satisfy those seeking a quasi-simulation experience. It's possible to spin out or lock up brakes even with TCS and ABS switched on. However, the severity of the physics model is gentle enough to prevent casual players from spinning out at every corner, while also posing enough of a challenge for the advanced racer.
While the aspects of under and oversteer, weight transfer, traction and cornering techniques are apparent, they are cursory at best and lack the sort of depth sought by true simulation fans. What disappointed me the most was F1 2012's outright refusal to play well with my Logitech Driving Force GT steering wheel. The game doesn't allow me to turn off the 900 degree rotation in order to simulate the 270 degree motion of a real F1 wheel. The steering rate and linearity is off when compared to any decent racing title. The force feedback is vague as well, and doesn't really help in gauging loss of traction and cornering forces.
Its relatively simple physics model and bad wheel support favours the gamepad
Despite spending an inordinately long time tweaking the wheel settings, I couldn't really get it to a point where it gives a significant advantage over the gamepad. On the contrary, F1 2012 is strictly a gamepad-oriented title, so it's best not played with a wheel. This very nearly made me lop off more points from the review score, but then I remembered the fact that this isn't a proper simulation game. In reality, it is a means for your average F1 fan to experience a slice of the grand prix excitement from the comfort of their couch. It delivers on this aspect with a physics engine that's competent enough to enforce F1 driving strategies without intimidating beginners. In effect, this lets it become a fun and accessible experience.
It looks good, while incorporating all the rule sets and idiosyncrasies of the sport that a diehard fan will appreciate. It covers the full 2012 F1 calendar, with a complete roster of drivers and tracks. The game modes are varied and cater to complete F1 nutters with the comprehensive Career Mode, while the Proving Grounds and Champions Mode will keep the more casual ones hooked. It may falter by being lazy with the multiplayer modes, but apart from that, you can't really find any major faults in F1 2012. It's naive to expect a franchise as large and as commercial as this to embrace the full simulation model. At the end of the day, this is a competent annual franchise that may not be profoundly better than the last iteration, but it does a good job of bringing F1 action to a wider audience.