Let me get this out of the way early for casual racing fans; F1 2011 is not an easy game. Unlike the arcade-styled handling of last year’s release, F1 2011 is very unforgiving. You can get the hang of things in some of the easier modes, but once you disengage the traction control, you'll wish you had attended a professional racing school.
The biggest difference between F1 2010 and this year’s release is the handling. You can’t just slam the pedal to the metal and whip around tracks anymore. Cars react much differently even down to the way they ride in straight-aways. Hit the gas coming out of a turn too soon or fail to brake in time as you enter a turn and you can expect the rear end to slide out from under you and spin out or worse crash into a wall. Once you master the new the handling, there’s nothing more satisfying than taking a tight turn and holding your car on the edge of grip through the corner.
The biggest challenge for racers is the braking. You will inevitably end up trying to push your car through turns much farther than you should and hit the brakes at the wrong time. It’s not impossible to master the braking system, but it’s touchy to say the least.
Before you even come close to timing things right, you’ll go through quite a few carbon-fiber nose cones and broken wings. These wrecks create frustrating situations, but also add to the overall realism. When you have the damage simulation turned on, you’ll experience some impressive graphics detailing the structural issues you’ve created for you vehicle and even result in the pace car coming out at times for the track to get cleared of broken car pieces. It’s pretty neat when it’s not your car that’s in pieces.
Realism is key here and any racing fan will tell you that tires play a big part in the realism of any title. Tires are very important in F1 2011 because they have great influence over the handling of your vehicles. They even gain grip as they warm up just like tires in real life. Leave them on too long and you can expect to feel like you’re racing on butter because they’ll let you slip into a wall in a heartbeat.
The game’s HUD is a nice clean interface that resembles what you might actually see in the cockpit of a F1 racer. Everything you’d expect to be displayed on your car’s wheel in a digital readout is present to keep you apprised of your vehicles condition. This includes everything from speed to tire temperature with additional options like race information and your position. This is key when you’re in a hurry to exit the pits and you’re trying to figure out where you’ll re-enter the pack.
The game’s AI provides some great competition. Don’t just expect to block a rival racer because the AI is trained to dive, draft and slingshot at all the right moments. The harder the difficulty, the better the AI will race. It sounds obvious, but the increase in CPU racer’s abilities is impressive. The computer-controlled racers also focus on one another just like you’d expect in a real race rather than it feeling like they’re all out to get you. If you’re in the middle of the pack, you can often sit back for a moment and let two or three CPU cars take each other out before making your move.
The controls and mechanics aren’t perfect by any means of course. Blocking is far too easy to accomplish by simply weaving all over the track. The AI is definitely improved and has a knack for finding the right hole, but if you drive erratically enough on the easier modes, you can prevent the CPU cars from passing. Your crew chief will come on and talk to you in these instances and also give you advice through the race on positions and even your car’s fuel and tire situation. It’s pretty cool when you get advice over the radio on what to do next, but like other aspects it can be flawed. The advice isn’t always spot on, but accurate for the most part.
Beyond the actual racing, F1 2011 is highly polished with great cut-scenes based on the outcome of races or the track you’re about to take on. The driver’s room has been redone so that you get updates through email from your team and other important information like weather conditions for upcoming races and guides for the tracks the races will be held at. It adds to the overall racing experience and works pretty well.
The visuals in F1 2011 are great for the most part, but there are some unexplainable hiccups. Clearly the same engine used for last year’s racer is present with little improvement over 2010. Somehow the character models of your pit crew actually seem to look worse than they did last year. The cars and tracks however all look polished and slick, but there is some clipping when things heat up and there’s a lot of action on the screen. One of the worst things is pop-ups of signage that is rendered far too early in some cases. None of these issues ruin the experience, but they are a little annoying.
Overall, F1 2011 is a nice step forward in the series and an improvement over last year’s release despite some minor faults. Fans of Formula One racing don’t have a lot of console options, so it goes without saying that F1 2011 is your best option if you enjoy this type of racing. The little extras like the driver’s room are nice touches that make a good racing title a great one. If you grew up playing the Need for Speed series, this might be one you should rent before buying. If however Formula One is your thing, then you might as well dive head first into this game and enjoy the most realistic F1 experience available on consoles.