F1 2021, like the real motorsport it’s based on, has a lot of moving parts. This is developer Codemasters’ first F1 since its acquisition by Electronic Arts. As such, it bears a few now-classic EA Sports hallmarks.
EA Sports titles need to serve several masters, and therefore so does F1 2021. The first thing it needs to do is please die-hard racing simmers with a detailed, accurate racing simulation. The second thing it needs to do is make a very complex, intimidating and sometimes inscrutable sport inviting to new players and onboard them quickly.
It succeeds on both fronts.
Codemasters had experimented with a cinematic single-player campaign in F1 2019 and found a great deal of success in it. Production difficulties and work-from-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic saw the mode shelved in F1 2020. It has returned in F1 2021 with a campaign called Braking Point. The Braking Point campaign follows a young driver named Aiden Jackson through his final races in Formula 2 and his maiden season in Formula 1. You get to pick the team that Jackson joins from a roster of five midfield and back-of-grid teams — Alfa Romeo, Alpha Tauri, Aston Martin, Haas, and Williams.
Jackson is almost unbearably naive. He is so wet-behind-the-ears and has such a total lack of killer instinct that it’s a wonder that you wonder how he made it to F1 in the first place. Jackson is very much a stand-in for real-world drivers like George Russell, promoted from F2 into a team trying to reshape its future and badly needs a win. His teammate is Casper Akkerman. Akkerman is very much based on drivers like Kimi Raikonnen. He’s an elder statesman of the sport, older than almost any other driver on the grid, and notorious for his brusque manner.
Akkerman detects the team positioning Jackson as its new #1 driver and sees it as another nail in the coffin of his career. It’s getting harder and harder to compete against so many younger, faster drivers. The fire of competition still burns within him, but he can’t reconcile it with his ever-diminishing returns, and that frustration curdles him. It turns him into a bitter old prick.
When Jackson and Akkerman’s season begins with an on-track altercation at the Melbourne Grand Prix, it creates a rift. Egged on by returning villain Devon Butler, that rift begins to widen, until it threatens to tear the team apart.
Please hire a screenwriter for next year
It’s a serviceable story, if unbelievable at times. Neither of the leads is terribly interesting, which doesn’t help matters. Worse, their central conflict is resolved in an instant. After all the build-up, the story ends abruptly and with the sound of an unexpected fart. Devon Butler remains a charming villain but he isn’t given the room to become a true menace. The drama feels undercooked, which is hard to believe considering how absurdly dramatic any given season of Formula 1 racing is. The off-track bickering and sniping that goes on between teams have made for great drama in Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive, but isn’t capitalised on here at all. I hope that Codemasters will have access to greater resources to create a more interesting campaign next year.
What is most interesting about the Braking Point campaign is that it is very much set in an alternate version of 2020. The real 2020 season was cancelled before the race got underway in Melbourne as covid cases began to spread in the paddock. It didn’t return, in seriously diluted form, until July. In this alternate timeline, the pandemic never happened and the season progressed as normal. It is a strange window into a year we all wish we could have had.
Making a return this year is the classic Career mode, which sees players work their way up the F1 ladder over multiple seasons. Players can fill the role of the driver if they just want to hit the track, or they can play as an owner-driver. Owner-drivers must not only compete on track but be involved in the day-to-day decision making involved in running an F1 team. It’s up to you to decide where the team spends its time and resources. You solve interdepartmental problems. You upgrade the car, and you take final responsibility for the results.
This mode can also be entered into as a Co-Op campaign, where two players make up the drivers for their team. This mode forgoes the greater management intricacies of the standard Career mode — you both have one job and it’s Drive The Cars. Campaign progress is tied to the player that created the campaign, so player two won’t be able to continue on their own without starting over.
Beyond this, the much-adored online ranked and unranked racing returns, along with esports and league racing. This is where to head if you want to race with people who take things a little more seriously. A word of warning: online is NOT for the faint of heart, and open lobbies are still utter pandemonium.
Boss, the new aero package is ready
The thing most F1 fans want to know heading into any new edition of the game is how the simulation has changed this year? The answer is: it has, and in some pretty startling ways. The first you’ll notice is how drastically the way the game models downforce has changed. For the uninitiated, downforce is a function of aerodynamics, the way air flows around the car in motion. It creates a vertical force that pushes down on the tyres and bodywork, helping F1 cars stick to the ground and find better grip at high speed.
The way F1 2021 models this is so different that, if you spent a lot of time playing F1 2020, you’ll need to completely readjust the way you drive. In F1 2020, riding the curbs became a great way for newer players to learn where their apexes were and gain little extra traction through the turns. No more. Stick a wheel on the curbs in F1 2021, and you’re spinning out like Mazepin.
Yeah the boys
The other significant improvement is to driver AI. Drivers now feel much more lifelike and reactive to the race unfolding around them. In previous games, they seemed almost oblivious to the race in progress. They’d plough into each other at pace or ignore the player entirely. Now, the drivers all seem very aware of what’s happening around them. If I send my car up the inside of Lando Norris into Turn 1 at Bahrain, Lando will react to that. Depending on the line he’s taken, he’ll either try to put the squeeze on me or back out of the turn and let me by.
On the straights and DRS (drag reduction system) zones, drivers will move to defend any overtakes by juking to the left or right. If you leave a gap open, they will likely make a play for it. These changes make each race feel so much more alive and dynamic. It feels like there’s a person in the cockpit next to you, not just a computer carving a perfect racing line around the track.
It’s not all beer and skittles, however. Some issues do persist from previous games. For instance, its ability to enforce strict corner cutting rules is improved, but still more hit-and-miss than most would like. Additionally, there are some problems with penalty applications. At the most benign, I’ve seen drivers cause damage to my bodywork and not be penalised. At worst, I’ve had AI drivers overtake me under yellow flag conditions, refuse to give the position back, and not even cop a penalty for it.
What do I win?
F1 fans always want to know about the content included in the package. Players collect unlockables through a battle pass style XP system. This Podium Pass system will only award you cosmetics, and they come in two flavours. Cosmetics for your driver include racing suit, helmet, gloves, boots, victory lines, avatar poses, podium emotes. Car cosmetics include skins, paint jobs, and decals. If you’d like some especially premium gear, you can upgrade it to the VIP Pass, which pays out legendary gear at certain levels.
You can also buy cosmetics from the in-game store with real money, and these items are on a daily and weekly rotation. They’re all optional and none of them gives you an advantage in any race. You may equip a red vehicle skin if you wish, but it will not make you go faster.
Get your passports out
It may come as a surprise that F1 2021 only deals in hybrid era cars. 2021 hybrid era cars, at that. There are no classic cars here at all. There are legendary drivers like Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna available in the Deluxe Edition. You can recruit these drivers as your partner in Career mode but, again, they can only drive modern cars.
Tracks match those contracted for the current F1 season, though there are a few missing right now. Imola, Portimao, and Jeddah will all be added as free, post-launch DLC. Despite the Turkish flag appearing on the set-up screen, Istanbul is not in the lineup at all this year. Codemasters had hit its internal production cutoff before Turkey was added to the calendar. Cancelled tracks like Canada, Australia, and China remain in the game.
Visually, each of the tracks is a joy to behold. Raytraced lighting on the PC, PS5 and Xbox Series X really help sell the sense of place. Austria on a sunny day. Quintessentially British cloud over Silverstone. Melbourne in the summer. It’s lovely work all around. This extends to the cars as well, with models that are as intricately detailed as ever.
F1 2021 represents a major leap forward for an annual series always looking to reinvent itself. The leap to next-gen hardware allows it to push the edges of its simulation further than ever before. A few issues, many holdovers from previous games, may irritate the hardest core fans. Everyone else will be trying to come to grips with the new driving model. We watch with interest to see how Codemasters will integrate the next-generation 2022 cars in next year’s edition (or this year? As a treat? Let me have this, Codies).
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Driving sim unlike any other; Real-world circuits; Real-world cars
Lowlights: Some fiddly issues regarding rules enforcement
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Review conducted on PlayStation 5 using a Deluxe Edition retail code provided by the publisher.