Formula One is a high-class sport, with brands like Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz headlining globetrotting grand prix and stars like Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen often reigning supreme. Codemasters’ F1 games have translated that appeal and are as high-class as sports games get. While other sports games sometimes feel like annual roster updates, the F1 series is not only one of the tightest, most fun racing games on the market, but it always feels like a top-tier sports game, putting in the same amount of effort to each game as each driver does to each race. F1 2021 adds a bunch of new content, and while it doesn’t all reinvent the wheel, this year’s entry is yet another reason why this franchise is among the best and most consistent in the business.
Codemasters have clearly put in a lot of work to make the driving and racing in F1 2021 as smooth and satisfying as ever, both with realistic reactions to your movements and the environment and a huge amount of detail available to those who want to fine tune every last piece of their car. The look and feel of driving is almost identical to last year’s game, but there are a lot of small touches that improve the experience ever so slightly. Car damage has been expanded to more specific sections of the car, and the car reacts more specifically to damage types, so you’ll be more aware of when you have a problem with a front tire versus a rear wing. Car physics also feel more realistic overall and reactive to environmental changes, with a lot of fine-tuning needed to perfect your racing strategies. Almost every part of the car is detailed and able to be changed, and you’ll need to do so based on your race type, both pre- and mid-race. If you try to drive a car built for a dry, sunny day in the pouring rain, you’ll be punished for it.
"F1 2021 adds a bunch of new content, and while it doesn’t all reinvent the wheel, this year’s entry is yet another reason why this franchise is among the best and most consistent in the business."
Of course, your level of engagement with the details of your car is up to you, and Codemasters lets you choose how deep you want to get. There are now three race styles – Casual, Standard, and Expert – that work almost like difficulty levels in how much or how little support they give you in car balancing and setup. Newcomers can ride with Casual mode and keep their mind on the races themselves, while the fine-tuning wizards can use Expert and customize their car to their heart’s desire. This game might be high-class, but it’s certainly not gatekeeping, giving people of all interest levels a way in. Silky smooth driving rounds out the package, too, with a clear but manageable learning curve. You might start as I did, a little rusty making turns too wide or colliding with other drivers, but sooner or later you’re making perfect turns and smooth overtakes. You can argue it’s a little too easy, as I started to hit the podium almost every race, but that’s what the higher race styles are for. The only inconsistency comes in the penalty system, which seems to be still unclear on what constitutes enough contact for a penalty, even if the contact stems from another driver. Regardless, driving is as satisfying as ever and make every race, even the absurdly long ones, feel fresh and consistently engaging in every single turn.
F1 2021’s biggest addition outside of pure gameplay is the brand-new story campaign, titled Braking Point. Unlike the more personalized Career or MyTeam modes, Braking Point is a truly linear story, more similar to Madden’s Longshot or FIFA’s The Journey, which is fitting given EA’s acquisition of Codemasters earlier this year. It has you take control of a named and voiced character named Aiden Jackson, a newcomer to Formula One who signs with a team of your choice. The plot runs through tensions between Aiden and his teammate Casper Akkerman, as well as interjections from outside parties like their manager, families, and a rival driver. In between cinematics for each of the 16 chapters, you take the reins for key races during the team’s run over the course of two years in Formula One, though often with more specific goals like catching up to someone by a certain lap or attaining the fastest lap of the race. There are also segments in between races and cinematics where you can read your email and receive calls from various characters, but these are mostly insubstantial and mainly serve as short breaks.
Overall, Braking Point is a little inconsistent and formulaic as stories go. It clearly draws fairly heavily from the ideas behind F1’s Drive to Survive series in how it structures its drama, and in a lot of ways it feels like a first go at a story like this. Its 16 chapters are all effectively structured the same, and its strict linearity, while understandable for a story of this ilk, is a little jarring when it doesn’t react to your actual race performance and only acknowledges that you completed the objective. Its characters and writing, too, are a little underwhelming. You start to see more depth in the story’s latter half, but there’s a bit to be desired in the way the story progresses, especially given a couple abrupt changes in character personalities along the way. Even so, for as much as I rolled my eyes in the first few chapters for how contrived some of its plot points are, I ended up feeling a connection with the characters when the 5-6 hour story reached its conclusion. It’s not something I’d go back to more than once, but I’m all for the idea of the F1 series continuing with linear campaigns like this annually if this is where they jump off from.
The longer-term game modes, MyTeam and Career, are mostly similar to last year’s editions. The big change is that you can now play Career with two players, either online or locally, playing as teammates or rivals. Otherwise, Career follows much of the same paths as it has in the past, bringing you from startup to standout in F1 over the course of multiple years. MyTeam, the mode allowing you to create a new 11th F1 team has had some minor improvements from its introduction last year but is mostly the same experience. R&D upgrades have been streamlined from the branching path to an easier-to-follow UI, and there are now some more choices you have to make in the middle of certain mid-week activities that give an added boost to a specified stat. Race weekends, too, are more easily sped up with a quick practice system that gives you some benefits without forcing you to complete the entire practice session. Outside of these modes, too, the regular splitscreen and season modes are back as normal, though you can now create a season to match current real-life F1 standings and take control from there.
"As much as I rolled my eyes in the first few chapters for how contrived some of its plot points are, I ended up feeling a connection with the characters when the 5-6 hour story reached its conclusion. It’s not something I’d go back to more than once, but I’m all for the idea of the F1 series continuing with linear campaigns like this annually if this is where they jump off from."
As the first true series release on new consoles, F1 2021 is as beautiful as it’s ever been. Cars are minutely detailed, racetracks are gorgeous, especially as they react to the dynamic light and weather, and character models are as crisp as they’ve ever been despite some uneven lip syncing. Load times, too, have been a problem in the past but are almost nonexistent on the Xbox Series X. The new consoles have boosted every game, but it seems like this is really taking advantage of the new hardware, as I encountered very few bugs or frame drops whatsoever.
So much of the groundwork has been laid by past F1 games that every addition is just another cherry on top, and F1 2021 doesn’t stop the trend of adding great new content and updates to the franchise annually. Driving the cars is as satisfying as ever, especially once you’ve conquered the learning curve, and the amount of detail you can choose to care or not care about is a car-lover’s dream. The new content, too, especially Braking Point, is great both on its own and as another piece of the foundation for future games. If you’ve been a fan of the F1 games in the past, you’ll definitely find familiarity here, but its new additions make it much more than just a roster update.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Best driving gameplay yet; Good second half of the story campaign; Consistently good MyTeam and Career.
Inconsistent writing in Braking Point; Wonky lip syncing; Unclear penalty system.