‘F1 2021’ review: A newcomer’s perspective

Codemasters’ masterful sim racing series is back with a bang.

All of my interest in sport is predicated on storytelling, and Formula One has it in spades. There’s something seriously captivating about the small pool of strong personalities in any given season, racing their impossible machines. It allows for some remarkable narratives to develop on and off the track and makes each GP a tense endeavour. I’m a newcomer to the sport, but these tenets are already clear to me. And like many new fans, I’ve found myself sinking hours upon hours into F1 YouTube, trying to understand the fascinating history, logistics, friendships and rivalries that drive this remarkable racing division.

This curiosity has led me to Codemasters’ F1 series, which lets players simulate Formula One racing from home with all of its intricacies in tow. Year on year, these games receive critical acclaim but aren’t often discussed outside of the fandom that plays them. This is why I wanted to tackle the latest entry with fresh eyes for those on the fence. Is F1 2021 worth it for newcomers to the sport or those looking for a solid simulation racing game?

F1 2021
F1 2021. Credit: Codemasters

The gameplay in F1 2021 may seem intimidating or even stale from afar, at least for the typical gamer. There’s no supernatural mechanics or rewards for causing pileups, and you’re not peeling through any lush biomes. All you’ve got is your racing line and your trigger discipline, but sometimes, less is more. Perfecting corners, making quick pit stops and mastering the art of the overtake are all rewarding challenges that are easy to engage with but so tricky to master, especially with consistency.

The good news is that F1 2021 has one of the most customisable difficulty systems I’ve seen in any game. You can tweak all of its assists to your liking and fine-tune the AI difficulty to nurture atmospheric races. I started with the Casual setting but quickly started removing the training wheels until I found something that felt challenging but deeply rewarding. Learning to come out of a pit stop with optimal speed or use DRS (Drag Reduction System) to outwit the pack leader gave me great joy. There are so many systems at play, but the majority of these are optional, which means there’s something for every skill level.

F1 2021
F1 2021. Credit: Codemasters

The visual immersion is a massive help too. Cars and drivers are realised in uncanny fashion, with gawp-worthy liveries and clothing details bringing teams to life. This made it easy to enter a flow state as I chased the fastest lap and attempted major manoeuvres to climb the championship standings. My only bugbear with the visuals is that there’s a lack of consistency between circuits. Some have noticeably sharp architecture and dull skyboxes compared to other tracks, which can be stunning under the right conditions. On immersion, the game also provides Jeff, a superb AI-driven engineer companion that talks you through each race. I thought the voice in my head was a nice touch until I realised I could talk back to it.

Beyond telling me to watch my corner-cutting and push to the podium, it was really up to me to ask Jeff questions about the race at large. If I needed an update on my vehicle, my teammate, the weather or the rival driver in front of me, I issued commands into my microphone, and Jeff gave me instant feedback that felt startlingly real. The Multi-Function Display (MFD) system offers so many match-altering commands that it makes you feel like you’re in the trenches of any race. When emotions ran high, and I needed to box and cede to a new strategy, I could feel the frustration in my voice. And it only gets better when you’re several races deep into a season and scrapping for the title. It’s exhilarating stuff!

F1 2021
F1 2021. Credit: Codemasters

Engaging with the game’s career mode My Team, I soon learned just how cerebral F1 2021 is, especially when it comes to the mind games necessary to win just one race. There are so many considerations that go beyond your abilities on the track. The weather, team politics, and how you sow favour with your various engineering departments can seriously impact how you drive. Sometimes upgrades that cost you millions fail, and you have to remove your ego and settle for the benefit of your team. You might end the race annoyed and answer the press only to see the message, “Your powertrain department will remember that”. It’s not exactly Telltale, but not many sports games I’ve played put so much emphasis on the psychological and fiscal elements of the business while also maintaining an exciting moment-to-moment gameplay loop. It’s like a careful mix of Football Manager and FIFA, and it puts the latter’s career mode to shame with its intricacy.

What I liked most about how F1 2021 is structured is that you can play it at your own pace. You can skip and shorten parts of a GP, but completing practice and qualifying and then the big race itself is one hell of a time sink, which is why it can be nice to take breaks between events and build up to a big face-off. There’s no real pressure to play the game for a long time, and each spot of racing is so exciting that you will get a lot out of just 30 minutes of driving or career mode progression, even if you only play F1 2021 every weekend. The game is also a fantastic companion to the real-world sport. If you wish, you can compete in the actual F1 season with real-life updated standings and a two-player career mode that allows you to collaborate or compete with a friend. Online events simulate GPs and offer multiplayer standings if you’ve got the gumption for it, and F1 2021 has an excellent in-built esports scene for the best drivers.

F1 2021
F1 2021. Credit: Codemasters

We’d be foolish not to dwell on Braking Point either, which is the game’s narrative experiment, in the spirit of FIFA’s The Journey. You play as a rookie driver and a veteran who butt heads while trying to make an impact for their team. You’ll become acquainted with their family lives and even get into viral bust-ups. There are all the hallmarks, like fake social media posts and emails from your PA about how they’re placating journalists. It very much indulges the storytelling and rivalries inherent to F1, and in doing so, it creates an excellent on-ramp for new players. It throws you into races where you have to deal with fun situational objectives like a busted gearbox or a safety car reset. However, I found that if you overperform, the linear narrative can’t really adapt. I would have liked to be able to control the tale even more with my own skills.

Regarding the Braking Point narrative, Gaslighting egotist Devon Butler preys on the stupidity of the bland protagonists in a story that often feels cliche. Still, I respected the effort to pull back the curtain even further. Unfortunately, like most sports narrative experiments, it felt sanitised. There’s no cussing or strong team radio reactions like we see in actual F1 races, which I thought was a crying shame, and it dodges a few questions about driver pay and some other intriguing parts of the racing business. This is so that F1 fans of all ages can enjoy it, but I wanted something grittier that acknowledges how absurd and dangerous Formula One is.

When you watch a real GP and the accompanying interviews, you will inevitably hear the emotion and the passion of these drivers, and you don’t get much of that authenticity in Braking Point. Still, I’m sure Codemasters can build from this solid foundation.

Unfortunately, while they didn’t stop me from pressing on with this great game, I did fall prey to a few annoying glitches. This included a corrupted save file, a few endless loading screens and some cutscenes without voice acting. The save file may have just been a review copy bug, but It’s worth noting regardless — it was a real pain to have to redesign and restart my career mode.

F1 2021 is available on July 16 on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S. Deluxe owners can play from July 13. We reviewed the PC version. 

The Verdict

As an F1 newbie, I couldn’t be happier with F1 2021. Getting behind the wheel in a virtual capacity has given me a new appreciation for the sport. It’s taught me so much about its inner workings, both on and off the track. I couldn’t recommend it enough for fans new and old, and it’s well worth a punt even if you’re just looking for a reliable sim racing game. F1 2021 is only let down by a few frustrating glitches (that will hopefully be ironed out) and an ambitious narrative mode that was too cliche for my taste. But ultimately, the gameplay is truly top-notch, and there are enough modes and features that you’ll undoubtedly get your money’s worth.

Pros

  • Accessible, adaptable and challenging racing gameplay
  • The ultimate companion to the F1 season
  • Remarkable fidelity and graphical details

Cons

  • Braking Point feels sanitized
  • A few unfortunate glitches
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