F1 2021 reviewed: Codemasters adds story, keeps the racing sim feeling fresh


Braking Point —

Get ready for the return of Devon Butler, the most hated man in racing.

Jonathan M. Gitlin

  • As the name suggests, F1 2021 is this year’s official Formula 1 racing sim.

  • A big new addition to F1 2021 is Braking Point, a narrative story where you play the roles of rookie Aiden Jackson and veteran Casper Akkerman.

    Electronic Arts

  • You can choose from five different teams in Braking Point, but regardless of the colors you wear, your team boss is still Brian Doyle.

    Electronic Arts

  • If you just want to race F1 cars as your favorite driver, you can do that, too.

    Electronic Arts

  • 2021 is going to be a championship year for Frankspeed, a new F1 team. Its boss, Frank Franks, is also one of the drivers. (This is from the My Team mode.)

    Electronic Arts

  • But Frankspeed needs a good car, and that means managing the team effectively.

    Electronic Arts

  • You have four departments that develop separate areas of the car. Don’t forget to praise them in interviews—it makes them happier.

    Electronic Arts

  • F1 2021 has tweaked the R&D tree a little.

    Electronic Arts

  • You earn points to spend on upgrades by completing test programs during the free practice sessions at each Grand Prix. But if you’re feeling lazy, you can now have the computer simulate the outcome of those test programs.

    Electronic Arts

  • An example of one of the test programs.

    Electronic Arts

  • A spot of qualifying practice.

    Electronic Arts

  • Frankspeed’s green livery really pops on camera.

    Electronic Arts

  • The racing is close, but you will be given penalties for avoidable contact. Which means no rear-ending other drivers.

  • Talking to the press is part of the job of being an F1 driver.

    Electronic Arts

  • I don’t think Valteri is going to send Frank a Christmas card at the end of this season.

    Electronic Arts

If you’re old enough to have started playing video games by the turn of the century, the words “EA releases a new Formula 1 game” might strike fear into your heart. After all, the gaming behemoth published some pretty bad F1-branded racing games between 2000-2003. But even though this year’s box art has the EA logo on it, F1 2021 still feels solidly like a Codemasters’ game through and through (EA bought the British studio earlier this year).

That’s good news, as Codemasters has been responsible for several extremely good F1 games over the past few years. As ever, the studio’s challenge is to make this year’s installment sufficiently different from last year’s version to get people to open their wallets. For F1 2021, the changes are largely down to a new single-player story mode and a two-player career mode, which are both in addition to the various single-player, multiplayer, and esports modes you might remember from F1 2020.

These new feature-filled modes are interesting experiments from a development team better known for good physics, but in an era of an engaging new documentary series about F1, this is a clever move to capture some of the sport’s new fans. And it’s executed well, too.

<em>F1 2021</em> product image

F1 2021 [PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox]

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Braking Point

The new story mode is called Braking Point. At times, you play as F1 rookie Aiden Jackson, and at other times, you control his teammate Casper Akkerman, an old hand in the paddock who is nearing the end of his time in the sport. Braking Point takes you through the 2020 and then 2021 F1 seasons, with each chapter offering up a different challenge—having to recover from a late-race tire puncture or needing to finish ahead of your teammate, for instance.

Codemasters dipped its toe into this kind of thing with F1 2019 and the inclusion of Formula 2 (the feeder series for F1, again included in this year’s installment), which first introduced the fictional AI opponent everyone loves to hate, Devon Butler. The great news is that Butler is back and as unlikable as ever as he tries to pit Casper and Aiden against each other.

“We knew that what we did in F1 2019 was really popular, really successful,” Lee Mather, franchise game director at Codemasters, said in an interview with Ars Technica. “We were quite nervous about that because, as a team that makes racing games, there’s a big difference when you’re trying suddenly to inject real character into a story or into a person. And I think the fact that we got Devon Butler to be hated as much as he is showed we actually did have the ability to create those characters.”

You may well detect the influence of a popular Netflix documentary in Braking Point. “There’s a few things that are inspired by things that did happen in Drive to Survive,” Mather says. “You’ll see what goes on in the driver room and see what happens at team dinners. You’ll see what goes on with Aiden’s mum phoning him to check how he’s getting on—it’s building the story and the relationships.”

All the other modes you expect

There’s probably a limit to the number of times a player will go through Braking Point, even with the game’s three difficulty presets of casual, standard, and expert. But there should be decent longevity in the game’s other single-player modes.

In My Team mode, you run your own team (like a latter-day Jack Brabham or Dan Gurney). Again, you can run through a shortened or full season, but this time, in addition to doing well in each race, you have to manage the team in between—hiring a second driver, lining up sponsors, keeping the different departments happy, and developing a steady stream of updates for the car.

Like previous Codemasters F1 games, you earn resource points to pay for those upgrades by completing practice sessions on each race weekend. These can feel a little grindy after you’ve done each Grand Prix, and now there’s an option to simulate the tests instead. (F1 2020 allowed you to simulate the races but not practice sessions.) However, some test programs will only have a success rate of 50 or 25 percent when simulated.

As we detailed previously, Codemasters will regularly update driver rankings for the real-world drivers in the game. And if you splurged on the Digital Deluxe Edition, you can hire legends of the sport from days of yore, including Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, and Alain Prost.

Perhaps the most important thing about F1 2021 is that Codemasters has not messed with the actual mechanics of driving the cars, beyond tweaks necessary for the 2021-spec cars. With a good force-feedback wheel, the cars are engaging to drive, and you can feel subtleties in cars from different teams—a McLaren handles differently from an Alpine, a Red Bull, or a Mercedes. If you’re a fan of the sport, you’ll probably enjoy F1 2021.

The Good:

  • Still brilliant physics, and the F1 cars are fun to drive
  • Braking Point gives you an interesting set of challenges wrapped up in a story
  • Even more flexibility with game settings and assists
  • There’s no chance of any of your digital races being canceled because of the pandemic

The Bad:

  • As with last year, the real-world calendar is going to be a bit different from the one in the game because of the pandemic canceling races
  • Sometimes the commentators don’t properly recognize how impressive your racing was

The Ugly:

  • Casper Akkerman’s Dutch accent, since he sounds very Danish to me

Verdict: Buy it if you’re an F1 fan.

Listing image by Electronic Arts

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