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F1 2018: Come for the racing, stay for a career

Small additions, yes, but they add up to a big appeal

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Reading them on paper before playing F1 2018, this year’s new additions to the game’s career mode didn’t sound like much to me. There are some dialogue options with mild outcomes for the created driver; adjustments to the car’s development and upgrading; and some extra little details that reflect the changing rules and realities of a Formula One season. By themselves, hardly back-of-the-box bullet points.

But these inclusions do make for a richer career, and the mode is the best reason to drive the best licensed motorsports video game on a console. After three years of penance for a disastrous debut on the current generation that grossly shorted the mode, F1 2018’s career is as immersive as ever in the experience of an F1 season. The mild introduction of some role-playing dialogue isn’t much to look at or listen to by itself, but even those scenes can apply some benefit to how the car is improved, through a research-and-development tree that was such a breakthrough last year and is even better now.

Keeping up with all the changes Formula One racing makes year-to-year is demanding, but F1 2018 manages to stay current.

Above all, the racing action is still as intense and rewarding as ever, particularly for perfectionists who don’t mind a grind. Handling feels sharper even on a DualShock 4; developer Codemasters promised that its chassis and suspension simulation now updates faster. Not only does this improve traction, it even makes banging down uneven straightaways (or lingering too much on curbs) a visual hazard to compensate for. Nonetheless, after reacclimating myself to the game, I was taking off my braking assist and not being so fussy with the downforce setups as I was last year, and accelerating at the apex of 90-degree turns with more confidence than before. Still, this is very much a driving wheel game — as the still-dizzying menu of telemetry and adjustments, accessed on the D-pad with the same thumb steering the car — attests.

F1 2018 remains a demanding game, and not just in the difficulty spike one sees at midrange AI levels, where a car’s limitations (or an opponent’s strengths) can only be overcome by taking greater control of the vehicle’s braking, transmission and systems. It’s also enormously demanding of one’s time in the career mode. The minimum parameters of three practice sessions, one-shot qualifying and a 15-lap race can still come out to 90 minutes per event, if a driver is taking all the practice programs for their research point benefit. Those who want to play more for their driver’s personal and professional development (thanks to new contract negotiations), or the car-building competition, might start to chafe at running the same practices, course after course, for 21 races. I get it.

The French Grand Prix is back for the first time since 2008, which means Circuit Paul Ricard is a new track in F1 2018.

For me, the obligation to really get to know the next track — this year, France’s Circuit Paul Ricard joins the game for the first time — invested me in the result I achieved on it. But yes, the tire, fuel, and energy recovery system management exercises (the car’s ERS is now manually controllable) began to feel rote, and I wasn’t getting much out of another lap around the course either. Skipping a practice got me an uncomfortable query from the reporter, or a scolding from the crew chief. There needs to be a way to simulate some of these tasks for a lower level of points, for those who want to get on with it.

The press interactions were predictable if I’d done well (or poorly) in a particular session, and less so if I’d merely met expectations. On their own, they didn’t add much to F1 2018’s broadcast presentation, long a weakness of the series (pre- and post-race interstitials are still the same batch as always, near as I can tell). Still, I looked forward to them, as they were a chance to heap praise on a particular department in the shop, giving a morale boost that translates to lower costs and less chance of errors in development. (Blaming a department after a bad performance will have the opposite effect.) Other dialogue choices, which could either stir up controversy with my own team (or another) or take a more sportsmanlike route, didn’t seem to amount to much to me.

But with contracts now renegotiated four times during the season, this personality trait did at least give me a starting point for who might be a better fit than my current team (I again started with Haas, a midlevel contender). Ultimately I re-signed with the squad, bargaining up not for money but for perks like 50 percent more resource points awarded per race. Plus, leaving a team means throwing away your car development to that point and starting over — essentially a re-spec of the quasi-RPG layer. Four races in as a rookie, I didn’t see much point in doing that.

The questions posed by F1 2018’s track reporter, and the answers you can give, aren’t very dynamic, but they can deliver benefits to your car’s development.

And as a rookie, most of the initial development choices still have to be in the durability of the car’s components more than in performance boosts. This is because the limited equipment stock has to last the entire season, and performance degrades as it wears down. (Although a new practice gearbox makes running all those laps much less worrisome). Development does proceed faster than in F1 2017 and now becomes less of a rote choice, thanks to team-specific R&D trees, which highlight their reputations and strengths (aerodynamics for Red Bull Racing, for example).

There’s also an element of uncertainty in play (though I had to take it on faith, as I’ve only driven partial season so far). F1 2018 can — as FIA does in real life by issuing rule changes at the end of the season — revert progress in some part of a team’s tech tree. Players are supposed to have the option of spending resource points to protect a certain area, but of course those can be wasted if a player protects something that the new rules don’t come after. It sounds kind of random to me, and I don’t know how durability is affected. But I have not seen it in action, as it would take weeks to do a full season.

Codemasters’ F1 series has been enjoyable for me because it really is my only exposure to the sport, where all of the others I play in video games I’ve followed or watched in some other form. So maybe the exoticism of the international driving superstar’s career or lifestyle holds an allure that’s different for me than for people who are bigger F1 fans. But Codemasters still delivers enough immersion and participation in this fantasy to keep it from feeling repetitive, even if on paper, it sounds like it should be.

F1 2018 was played using a final “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by publisher Codemasters. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.