Following hot on the heels of the return of real-world F1 last weekend, comes the annual digital interpretation of the motorsport by Codemasters. After being postponed due to COVID-19, this year's competitive season is now up and running, but during the enforced lockdown, the sport and its video game counterpart became more entwined than ever before, with a series of online races starring pro drivers and sporting celebs taking place across a number of weekends, all played on last year's iteration of the game, F1 2019 - a fitting distraction for fans stuck at home and in need of some high octane entertainment.
Now the season has started for real with Valtteri Bottas topping the first socially-distanced podium in Austria, and just behind him, hugging his tail through every corner comes F1 2020, a well-rounded and extremely engaging racing sim that offers a genuinely impressive range of ways to engage with F1 both past and present.
Last year saw the addition of a more complete career mode, with drivers able to start all the way down in F2 (another new addition) and work their way up to the top of the Drivers' Championship. All that returns, more or less, along with a bunch of classic cars (there's a Schumacher edition so, as you can probably imagine, there are a few classic Ferraris to choose from alongside a range of eye-catching Benettons and McLarens), two new tracks to bring the total up to 22, and an extensive new My Team mode that lets you build your own team and compete with the titans of the sport both on and off the track.
First, however, let's talk about the nuts and bolts of the gameplay itself. F1 is an annual franchise and that means incremental upgrades rather than major overhauls, and in that sense, there's not a huge distance between this year's game and last year's 9/10 entry. What I like the most about F1 is the range of experiences that are available to the player, which has only been enhanced by the addition of the My Team mode and an accessible new 'casual' control scheme. If you want to play the most realistic simulation possible, where every twitch of the stick/wheel has implications on the track, and where milliseconds really do count, then you can have that. Similarly, if you're a casual racing fan looking to tear around the world's premier racing spots without too much care and still compete with the major players, you can do that too.
The My Team mode lets you immerse yourself in the business of winning races to a greater degree, however, even if you want to oversee all aspects of the business you can still have a fairly light experience on the track where mistakes are not punished too harshly. It really is up to you, and the range of braking/steering assists and gameplay features that you can tweak and adjust is truly impressive. Even if you streamline the racing part of the experience, you can still go deep in other aspects of the business; this new mode lets you recruit a co-driver to race alongside you, and you have to negotiate contracts with sponsors, work with your team to improve your ride, and talk to the press, giving them soundbites that impact the morale of your team.
Some of the media interviews started to feel a bit repetitious as I moved into the second half of the season, and at times it felt like I was going through the motions a little, but the rest of the My Team mode was engaging and detailed. You can edit your car, driver, and badge, hire a co-driver, build up rivalries with the likes of Lewis Hamilton (my nemesis in so many races), and generally hone every detail of your operation as you look to find advantages that you can take onto the track. There's research to be commissioned, upgrades to implement, tyres to sort, and emails to read.
A big part of your planning relates to pre-race preparations. Over three practice sessions and then qualifying, you can prepare for the full race by learning the track and carrying out a number of tests, such as driving through gates or optimising your tyres and fuel. I spent a bit of time on practice laps, usually completing two or three of the tasks in the first session/s, before simulating the rest, however, a more dedicated player could spend every possible second out on the track, managing every tiny detail before taking part in a full-length race that requires careful tyre and fuel management with multiple pitstops and proper penalties for aggressive or inconsistent driving. I find myself saying it again, but I was really impressed with how you can tweak things to get the race day experience you want.
The My Team and Career modes let you dive into a more fulsome and rounded racing experience, but there are also more limited championship series, classic races with some truly iconic nostalgia-inducing cars, exhibition events, and, another new addition for 2020, split-screen (on that note, I can't really offer much info in terms of technical performance - I played on a good PC that was able to run the game on the highest settings at 60+ FPS and split-screen performed fine at around 45 fps, however, I can't comment on the performance of the game on console, solo or otherwise). Two new tracks have been added to the rotation in-line with the official season (Hanoi Circuit and Circuit Zandvoort) and, generally speaking, the quality of the tracks is very good.
In fact, the presentation is good across the board and Codemasters should be credited for creating a slick racing experience that will hold appeal to all fans of the sport, regardless of how committed they are to authenticity and no matter their skill level. All the usual extras are included with multiplayer modes, time trials, weekly events, last year's F2 season, and a range of customisation options, ensuring a varied range of ways to play within the boundaries of what is a relatively confined sport. The ten-year career was already a deep and involving mode, and My Team is even more detailed and a great addition that further rounds out the package. If you're after a racing game to sink into with a range of customisation options, a big and detailed campaign, and a number of additional trimmings, F1 2020 has something for everyone, regardless of whether you're last year's champion or this year's rookie.