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FILED UNDER: REVIEWS Formula 1 pushes reset with new cars, and F1 22 responds beautifully

It’s a whole new game, but still very familiar, for the right reasons

Like the drivers in real life, I’ve had to learn all over again how to drive a Formula One car.

Ordinarily, the makers of an iterative sports title like F1 22 would avoid overhauling fundamental gameplay. But all-new F1 cars, with new aerodynamics and new, larger front tires, left Codemasters, a scrupulously authentic racing specialist, no choice. It’s not like the EA Sports studio completely remapped the controls, or changed how the throttle works. But in driving a video game car with a truly distinctive feel, I’ve had to take corners and chicanes that I’ve driven thousands of times as if I’ve never been on the track before.

It’s the best trait of F1 22. New cars are nice to look at — the teams’ chassis have never been more distinct — but without them performing in an understandably different, yet still accessible, way, F1 22 would feel like an expansion more than an all-new game.

So, the competitive reset that the FIA hoped for with its new F1 specifications has carried over to the video game as well. For example, the early time trial leaderboards, at fast tracks like Bahrain and Austria, and technical mainstays like Spain and Great Britain, are across-the-board slower than last year. My best time at Bahrain in F1 2021 would be No. 1 on Xbox in F1 22. And I was startled to realize that at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, where I was nine full seconds behind the No. 1 driver in 2021’s leaderboard, my early best time of 1:19.978 is just 3.5 seconds back from the world No. 1 in this year’s game.

There are articulable reasons for both times. The first is that the new cars’ undercarriages now create a ground effect that, somewhat counterintuitively, makes them more responsive at high speed and less so at slower speeds, comparatively speaking. So it feels like there’s a lower, yet more equitable, performance ceiling at places like Spain; last year, elite players, particularly esports stars, could tiptoe through its twitchy final sector in times that always looked impossible to me. This year, we’re all coping with understeer through that last chicane.

At faster tracks, the new tires combine with the slower turning to create a different traction regime that demands very delicate cornering, especially when putting down the throttle at the turn’s exit. In F1 2021 and the two years preceding, I was able to drive (on a gamepad) without traction control by setting the braking assist to medium. Traction control is an assist that keeps drivers, particularly those not using a wheel and pedals, from spinning out, but at quite a cost to their lap times. But last year’s braking assist, by my understanding, lasted through the entire turn — and the dirty secret was that assisted braking was enough to control my rear-wheel spin, without the slower, brute-force solution of traction control.

All of that is off the table with F1 22’s new cars. There’s no avoiding it; I have to use traction control, as well as braking assist, to even complete a lap at Bahrain, a notoriously “rear-limited” course (meaning, drivers really have to watch how they step on the gas). But the strangely delightful consequence of the new cars’ high-speed performance is that sweeping parabolas, like turn 3 at Spain, are much more manageable, and it’s much easier to take and hold your racing line at full throttle. Again, Codemasters’ game has responded to the intent behind the FIA’s new car design — with closer lap times, more frequent overtaking, and greater parity in the field.

This technical blather is a longhand way of saying that what’s running under the hood of F1 22 is where you’ll find the real replay value, the hundred-hour time sink. Staple modes like the driver career and My Team — which are still engrossing, make no mistake — have seen modest feature additions, and none that really alter their core gameplay loops. Still, Codemasters has responded to its community’s demands with things like paint finishes for custom liveries; new data presentation that makes the career’s practice programs more meaningful (for those who care about tire temperatures, anyway); and new starting points for a created team. Players can now designate their fictitious team as a front-runner, midfield contender, or backmarker before beginning the My Team mode, which affects how much cash they have on hand at the beginning and how robust their factory is.

Again, with the clear-the-decks effect of F1’s new car regulations, it’s at least narratively plausible that an all-new team could come in at the top of the table in its first year. (Alfa Romeo and Haas are reliably reaching Q3 and scoring points in real life, after all.) And for players who like the classic up-from-nothing story of sports video game careers, F1 22 still has plenty of toggles and options to set up a long haul.

F1 22 also has a slew of new presentation options — and the sport’s television exposure is probably the biggest reason F1 22 has new fans curious about the game. Still, the improvements hardly deliver the feeling of the televised F1 broadcasts that have stoked their interest. Alex Jacques is a new Anglophone announcer for those tired of David Croft, and there’s a new race engineer — Marc Priestly, formerly of McLaren F1 — to replace the obnoxious, fictional “Jeff” of F1s past. But both still read the same lines of previous games. There are “broadcast” options where you watch, rather than control, parts of the race like formation laps and pit stops. But the commentary and camerawork you get don’t really justify relinquishing control, even for these interstitial moments.

Ferrari F8 Tributo supercar at Baku in F1 22

Less salient to the overall experience are the new Supercars and lifestyle presentation that F1 22 attempts. Supercars (street-legal but very-high-performance automobiles from current F1 constructors) are a nice pick-up-and-play diversion for a time trial at a favorite track, or in one of the Pirelli Hot Laps minigames. But the novelty wears off quickly, as soon as you realize it’s a completely PvE experience; moreover, there is no standard race, even against a CPU field, using the Supercars.

Codemasters’ intention was to mimic the presence of these machines at a normal race weekend — where F1 drivers show up to the paddock behind the wheel of a Ferrari F8 Tributo, or scare the hell out of a motorsports journalist with a ride-along in the official safety car. But the Supercars, which are much heavier and slower than F1 or Formula Two vehicles, and yet still fun in their own way, practically beg for their own multiplayer race (with, naturally, an F1 car as the safety car). After all, the Aston Martin DB11 is in both Gran Turismo 7 and Forza Horizon 5. If Codemasters is trying to encroach on their turf with the Supercars, the studio’s initial offering is nothing for PlayStation or Xbox to fear.

Otherwise, there is little point to collecting or repainting them. At least the Supercars are only unlocked by playtime, in any mode, and not microtransactions. And the mileage required to unlock them is almost nothing for a dedicated F1 player testing their setups or driving full-length events. After two days with the game, I’d unlocked seven of the eight. Players can station them in one of six bays of a virtual office/playboy hangout, which can also be decorated with items acquired through the seasonal Paddock Pass or through in-game currency (bought with real money). Multiplayer friends can visit and “like” your lifestyle hub, but that’s all it’s there for. It’s a noninteractive space, and it’s not critical to the role-playing or to the narrative of the game’s career modes.

This isn’t to complain that F1 22 lacks depth, or is a reskin of last year’s game. There is plenty of meat on its bones in the new cars, and their handling, such that modest inclusions and changes to long-playing modes can still make it all seem like a fresh experience. The challenge of understanding and setting up an entirely new vehicle — knowing that no one on YouTube or in the forums is really sure they’re doing it right, either — is unique to this sports video game.

The verdict, then, is that F1 22 should appeal to hardcore fans, who expect true-to-life fidelity in the vehicle performance, as well as more casually interested newcomers approaching this video game with a spectator’s curiosity. That blend of depth and accessibility is a hard needle for any sports developer to thread, and it rarely results in a transformative work. F1 22 isn’t one, but it didn’t need to be one — creating new cars, and the organic challenge of learning how to drive them on the limit, was transformation enough.

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