It seems like only yesterday that Codemasters took the exclusive F1 license from SCEE and began the long and arduous journey that is creating the perfect Formula One title. It's a hard road, pleasing both the incessant hardcore fans of the series and those wanting to be Sebastian Vettel - but only on the weekends.
Last years F1 2010, while being a solid racing title, was plagued by issues with the AI and the frustrating pit bug. It is clear from the outset that Codemasters are seeking to set the record straight - F1 2011 is not so much a new title as it is the perfection of last years title.
Codemasters have the official 2011 FIA Formula One season, with all the tracks, drivers and official rules (including KERS and DRS), as you would expect from any official sports title. F1 2011 lets players embark on a full Formula One career spanning multiple seasons, and even create their own likeness (yep, the NZ flag is in there).
You will get the opportunity to show your mettle by driving for one of the lower ranked teams, and if you perform you will be able to take over the number one driver position - thus being able to determine the R&D direction your team takes and helping your team to become stronger. From here, it's not long until teams such as Red Bull will start taking notice, particularly if you put your car on the podium consistently.
The graphics have, surprisingly, been improved even more on last year's - particularly the reflections and wet weather effects, which are simply stunning. Wet weather in F1 2010 was rather intimidating, but this time it's both beautiful and exhilarating and it really gets the blood pumping when hurtling down a straight at 320 kph with a giant rooster tail behind you - rain drops splattering your vision and distorting your view.
A nice addition is that water pools and runs on the track, and the racing line becomes noticeably dryer throughout a race - so finding water to cool those overheating wet weather tyres can be crucial. A truly dynamic weather model though is certainly not something to be scoffed at.
The tracks are modelled to a level of photo-realism that really makes you feel there - the waterfront at Monaco is spectacular with the hillside overshadowing the seaside town, and if you've watched any of this season's races you will be immediately familiar with the tracks. Nigh-on every chicane and gravel trap is where you would expect. The track-side, too, is alive - with flag marshals and a living pit box; you’ll see all the team's pit crews readying and not just your own.
Handling has taken possibly the biggest revision - last year, the car felt solid on the track - however we struggled with the game's consistency. Finicky AI on tracks like Spain's Catalunya would leave you in their dust while on others it would struggle to keep up.
This time around the car feels more responsive, arguably more twitchy, but we found consistency easier to achieve and the handling model responded well. The updated AI race far more fairly, and better reflect the difficulty setting selected - which will be great for new players wanting to embark on their own F1 career.
If you’ve played F1 2010 the learning curve is not nearly as steep, and though Codemasters have pegged themselves well into the simulation camp, we think they've found a better balance this year.
Codemasters have increased the emphasis placed on tyres and handling changes with their damage and physics model calculating the effect that bumping over the curb will have on your race. Tyres will now wear far more realistically, and your tyres will even pick up marbles - which are effectively bits of worn rubber that collect, as in real life, off the racing line.
A huge wish of the F1 die-hard fan community for years has been the inclusion of a safety car, which we haven't seen properly implemented since the days of Formula One '97. Finally, Codemasters have included one in F1 2011 - along with KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) and DRS (drag reduction system).
The KERS is a sort of speed boost which is a part of this years official F1 season, and which gives drivers a small amount of extra boost from storing braking energy. The DRS is a system which opens the rear wing allowing air to flow through, thus reducing drag and increasing straight line speed.
The DRS really helps differentiate qualifying from racing. In qualifying you can use DRS as much as you like, at risk of flying into a barrier, but in the race it activates when within 1 second of the car ahead and only on certain straights (as in real life).
Both of these modes have been implemented extremely well and do a lot to mix things up.
A big focus for Codemasters this year was on expanding the online multiplayer experience. To date we've found online offerings in F1 titles to be largely tokenistic, tacked on and forgotten. Not so with F1 2011; the online experience is complete with up to 16 human players and 24 cars racing online, and the ability to play through the career mode with a friend.
Matchmaking was smooth, and the inclusion of a penalty system keeps online racers honest. We found the framerate smooth and connections sound - despite the issues New Zealand gamers sometimes have with latency, which reflects Codemasters' decision not to use dedicated servers, based away from our shores.
Codemasters have gone full force with this years F1 2011. It is obvious they are wanting to cement their hold over the FIA license which is up for renewal in 2013, and - after this years outing - we can only hope that the FIA allow Codemasters to hang onto it.
The handling, the multiplayer, the graphics - it's all of a quality we haven't seen for many years in an F1 title.
F1 2011 is the most complete and exhilarating F1 experience on the current consoles, hands down. About the only thing lacking is some more assistance from your race engineer for those who wish to tinker with their car setups but are unsure where to start, but in the interim there are plenty of other ways of learning about car setups.
If you enjoy F1, there really is no excuse not to pick up F1 2011 - it's a wonderful balance between simulation and fun, although the learning curve is still relatively steep which may frighten off some gamers.