Last year’s F1 game was one of the best motorsport games out there, and certainly the best Formula One game. While 2020 is shaping up to be the weirdest year ever in terms of licensed sports titles of all kinds, it hasn’t stopped Codemasters from stepping up its game for F1 2020. In lieu of paying a visit to Codemasters HQ (or somewhere more lavish and motorsport-related, hints F1 Game Director Lee Mather in a digital presentation), we were given access to a preview build of the latest Formula One title on PC instead.
Before going hands-on, the presentation ran through some of the new features of F1 2020, with a few more in-depth details on the new My Team mode and even a big tweak based on a comment from current McLaren star, Lando Norris.
While previous games offered a career mode with many research and development options to upgrade your car package, My Team aims to go the extra mile and allow you to manage your own F1 team. Not only will you drive against the current field of drivers in a car you have designed, including choosing a power unit from the likes of Mercedes or Honda, you will have to manage facilities on top of the usual R&D, like marketing and generating funds to keep the team competitive.
You’ll also have to hire your own team mate, which will be directly affected by sponsorship money and how much you invest in your engine. You’ll start by hiring a driver from the F2 roster, but as you progress you can look at the F1 line-up and see if you can tempt a more experienced driver to join your team.
The standard career mode has added a few new features too, such as a more realistic upgrade system. Power Unit Supplier Upgrades mean that if a parent team (Ferrari or Mercedes, for example) gains an upgrade, others using their power unit will also gain access to that upgrade. There is also a change to the way you negotiate your next contract, as you look for the best deal. More money means that you can spend a little something on buffs for yourself, making it a little more interesting and giving you more of a reason to change teams or improve the contract with your current team.
While My Team and Career weren’t available in the preview build, it did offer access to Grand Prix and Time Trials across several tracks, including Max Verstappen’s home circuit Zandvoort and the Hanoi street circuit, both of which are new to the 2020 calendar. Of course, I had to get straight behind the wheel of Max’s Red Bull for a few laps around Zandvoort.
At first, you could be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much difference between this new game and the 2019 model, as the handling feels much the same. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? That doesn’t mean it was any less fun throwing that Red Bull around in the Netherlands. On the contrary, it felt spectacular.
The biggest changes seem to be more apparent during races, with a more realistic approach to the way each race plays out. While playing on hard difficulty, I really had to fight for every position, using every tool at my disposal to keep within DRS range of the car ahead, or to cover off the inside line to keep a rival from overtaking. No longer can I start from the back and just scythe through the grid, I had to work for every overtake. In short, F1 2020 gave me some of the best races I’ve ever had.
I had an epic race at Zandvoort as Max Verstappen, battling with Charles Leclerc for second place. It went on for half a dozen laps as I slowly reeled him in, finally diving down the inside at Turn 12. After a few tense laps trying to cover off Leclerc’s overtake attempts, I eventually pulled out enough of a gap to relax and cross the finish line in second place.
It’s not always fighting for the top spots, either. One of my favourite races was when I took the wheel of George Russell’s Williams, starting last in Hungary, one of my weakest tracks. After some luck, I found myself up to 12th position just behind Esteban Ocon, but managed to jump ahead of him via a well-timed pit stop. This led to a fight that lasted all the way to the end of the race as my slower car had to fight to safely and cleanly keep Ocon from charging past.
I even tried my hand at driving in F2 as Mick Schumacher (yes, the son of the legendary Michael), which uses a two-race format and resulted in two of the best races I’ve had in any racing game. It also highlights the difference between F1 and F2 cars. It’s not just that F1 cars are much faster, the F2 cars are much twitchier and prone to oversteer. You have to be much more careful applying the throttle out of corners in F2, otherwise you’re liable to spin out or slide into a barrier.
Another difference is that F2 cars don’t have the ERS function. The Energy Recovery System is needed in F1 because of the hybrid engines, allowing harvesting and deployment of energy to give the cars a little extra grunt when necessary. In the previous game, ERS management was a little awkward, especially as you tried to manage fuel modes while making sure you stay on track. It also turns out that this isn’t quite how ERS systems work in F1, as Lando Norris told the Codemasters team at an eSports event. This has resulted in a new, streamlined (and, as it turns out, more authentic) ERS system in F1 2020. You don’t need to play around with the Multi Function Display anymore, simply press the “overtake” button and you’ll deploy as much of that energy as you want. Although using too much will leave you vulnerable later on.
Of course, not everyone wants (or is able) to manage all these systems on-the-fly. Codemasters has always been good at giving players assists for these situations, but a new “Casual” handling mode has been introduced in F1 2020 that essentially aims to allow anyone to play the game. Almost everything is handled by the game in this mode, even down to some gentle steering assistance that keeps you on the racing line. You don’t even have to brake, as I discovered while trying it out, I just let go of the accelerator and let the game do all the work. Obviously, this isn’t for players like me, or for those well above my level, but it’s another layer of accessibility that may allow a whole new audience of F1 fans get involved.
There are one or two issues however, but this is still a preview build. The AI can be way too aggressive, turning into corners with no regard for player vehicles that are on the inside line. They also love to weave dangerously into the path of incoming players, blocking overtakes in the braking zone and often causing crashes. They clearly went to the Max Verstappen school of blocking. Hopefully this will be toned down for the full release.
On the surface, this may seem like a simple, incremental update of F1 2019, but the more realistic and tactical racing pushes the game further forward than you might expect. The handling, although very similar to last year’s model, is seemingly more affected by both weather and damage. Wet weather requires much more patience and precision, and even a lightly damaged front wing will drastically affect things like tyre wear, traction and aerodynamics.
We’ve yet to see exactly how the main My Team and Career modes actually play, but getting to grips with the updated handling model and feeling how well the cars handle on the track, it’s clear that Codemasters hasn’t rested on its laurels. Every car on the F1 grid feels authentically different and F2 racing is just as exciting as it is in real life, which is something I’m particularly happy about. Either way, F1 2020 is shaping up to be another winner.