As the gaming industry navigates the final turn ahead of a checkered flag on the current console generation, developer Codemasters seeks to continue the upward trend for its beloved sim racing series with F1 2020.
That's no easy feat considering the borderline universal acclaim given to F1 2019—an in-depth love letter to the sport. It was another resounding success (87 on Metacritic) that made strides in feature sets and gameplay.
Codemasters intends to keep flirting with a 90-plus average, thanks to upgrades, a welcome response to feedback, a new My Team mode, and a deep experience with immersive gameplay loops on and off the tracks.
It sounds good on paper, just like pre-race plans—but the execution on track is what matters.
The F1 series has never had a problem standing as one of the best-feeling racers on the market.
Yet F1 2020 seems to make some gradual tweaks that only enhances the immersion. The sense of speed is unparalleled—arguably no racing game on the market has a better sense of it. As the accelerator punches to the floor, the camera begins a light shake and the pitch of the wind increases as scenery off the track starts to blur.
Going fast wouldn't matter much if the controls didn't play nice with a user's input. They do, as usual, with droves of feedback cluing players into the adjustments they need to make. The tandem of vibration, radioed-in advice and learning on the fly makes for a brilliant experience when paired with the sense of speed.
Like others before it, F1 2020 is as deep an experience as the individual player wants it to be.
Those who want an all-out simulation can worry about managing tire loadouts and any number of pre- and mid-race details while kitting out the vehicle. But players who just want to hop in and have fun can do so thanks to an all-new casual mode, which simplifies menus and throws massive assists in behind the scenes to make things easier.
It's that balance that has always made the series so appealing, and the addition of a deeper casual-based option seems bound to draw even more players.
There, they'll find a fun, fast experience with realistic damage, varying classes of vehicles that handle like the real thing and A.I. that rather smartly adheres to the rules of a race. Over time, even the most casual of fans can flex more control while racing thanks to the wealth of information at a player's fingertips.
Perhaps the best example? The d-pad is loaded with options during a race. While it's not the easiest thing to do right off the bat while actually navigating the course, players can use the d-pad and button combos to check things like wear on tires. There's also an option to pose questions to the driver's team, such as the current fastest lap, and they report in via radio.
The F1 series often majors in the minors, and the above is but one example of this year's edition continuing the trend. There's a steep learning curve to go from brand-new player to a simulation-only guru, of course, but more helping hands than ever weaved in equates to more fun while making the transition.
Graphics and Presentation
Last year's entry in the series really seemed to nail down the on-track immersion. Slowing down to take it all in revealed carefully-crafted details. Expansive background work painted the track and its racers as small things in a much bigger environment. Crowd detailing and response times made things feel important, which isn't always something sports games get right.
This year, it feels like more attention went into details off the track in the pursuit of not only immersion, but also a broadcast-style feel to the proceedings.
Pre-race or qualifying presentation is very well done, as the camera zooms out over a track broadcast-style and floats around the surroundings before another cut-zooms in on the driver in a cockpit. On actual race-day broadcasts, the announcer breaks down the action as a graphic outlines key points on the track before a look at the grid layout and info on certain drivers.
Interview sessions are also really good in single-player modes. A crewmate might introduce the player to a journalist and his or her camera operator in a well-done cinematic. When that's done, things pop into a quick interview screen where the player's answers can have a big impact on gameplay.
Likewise, loading into a weekend session goes into a cool first-person mode where the player sits around with the team and logs into a computer to start up practice sessions and the big weekend event itself. It's not the most advanced thing in the world by any means, but it's a nice touch that helps with immersion where other sports games are just content to jump from menu right to the field of play.
These non-racing areas feature notably improved character models that seem more lifelike. Players who pour hundreds of hours into the modes might start to detest the monotony of it all over time, but it's quite a bit more than most sports games do these days.
F1 2020 doesn't just look good either. Directional sound is one of the game's biggest achievements. Pitching the car to the right and running off the asphalt creates a massive drumming feedback to assist. The same directional sound offers good cues to opponents attempting to overtake.
Voiceovers from teammates provide helpful feedback, too (remember to monitor those tire temperatures while flying around the track!). While in a first-person mode in the cockpit, merely listening to teammates over the radio instead of trying to find information on the screen is both immersive and makes things easier. It's a similar story for using the d-pad to unearth a load of specialized information.
None of this is to say voiceovers and pre-race analysis won't get repetitive. But the whole thing, from the scope of the broadcast to the immersion during a race, to the post-race interviews and celebrations (or not), combine for a big-race feel and one of the better true-to-sport representations in games today.
Esports and Features
F1 2020 isn't going to have much of a problem retaining its status as one of the bigger esports titles on the planet.
A year ago, F1 2019 had some individual events earn more than one million views with ease, and the final event (above) was a big spectacle, too.
Infrastructure is a big reason why. Codemasters has put in extensive work to prioritize the competitive community, including rulesets, calendar and standings right into the game's menus. The online systems, including leagues, ranked playlists and online entries to official events—as well as smooth-running servers—make for a strong competitive community.
On the features front, nothing trumps the big headliner that is My Team.
My Team, as expected, is a deep offering for single-player users who don't necessarily want to run through a typical season mode. It tasks the player with creating a driver and forming the 11th team, from finding teammates and sponsors to building facilities.
It's an immersive experience with a beefy bit of gameplay and strategizing happening far off the racetracks, and it works in some of the best non-racing gameplay loops in the series.
Resource points, earned via facilities and practice, go into car upgrades on the R&D screen.
That R&D tree is complex. Upgrades need to be developed, and despite pouring resource points into the tree, there's a percentage chance the upgrade fails. Delivery times and presumably success rates are something the player can improve over time as facilities improve.
The acclaim system is exactly what it sounds like and enables the driver's team to bring in more money (and puts the driver on the radar of other teams). Answers to media questions impact morale of the R&D team, of teammates and the overall acclaim score.
Keep in mind all of this occurs in and around the typical, deep Codemasters pre-race experience and weaves in some of the aforementioned superb broadcast-style presentations.
For those players who want to just kick back in a normal career mode, the 2020 season—which in reality has been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic—is in the game as originally planned and includes two new circuits for the first time: Circuit Zandvoort and Hanoi Street Circuit.
Expected additional modes are all accounted for, including grand prix, championships and time trials. Splitscreen multiplayer is the welcome new addition, which sounds a little odd to say in 2020 yet worth a salute.
Again, the super license plays a role in player reputation by chronicling droves of stats and behavior. A player's skill rating is exactly what it sounds like, while the safety rating is on-track behavior and attendance rating is reliability in leagues—the latter two points are good ways for the community to moderate itself online.
Besides the casual mode that oozes accessibility, another quality-of-life feature worth pointing out is the mid-session save. Again, it might not sound like much, but compared to other sports games, being able to get up and leave, then resume right from where things were paused, just speaks to the thought that went into the latest offering.
F1 2020 leans hard into the player-onboarding process and keeping fans of single-player gaming happy.
And, at this stage, it's all the series needed. The almost overwhelming amount of modes alone makes for a robust package. A vast, smart online experience with smooth esports integration was already in place, too.
Zooming in on immersion, adding a completely new, deep mode and making sure even the newest of players can feel comfortable with an accessible casual mode feel like the right moves.
Codemasters makes its intentions known early in F1 2020 on these fronts and succeeds on all. Call it luxury additions to one of the market's strongest racers after nailing down areas the series already specialized in—now it's on to calling other game's stomping grounds home.