F1 2021 Review (Xbox Series)
Starting from pole position in the opening race of the season, I’ve got high hopes for the ensuing 29 laps around Bahrain’s circuit. Five red lights and away we go!
I get wheelspin off the line and am instantly surrounded by Mercedes; sandwiched through a turn, I clip my nose on Lewis Hamilton’s tire, damaging the front end and sending the defending champion down the field. Max Verstappen takes the opportunity to jump into the lead. Instead of pitting right away, I try to soldier on, losing a couple seconds a lap to Max, but holding the field at bay.
Two laps later, Valterri Bottas finally edges past me and in the commotion, I collide with Daniel Ricciardo. This further damages my car and nets me a 5 second penalty, as well as bringing out a virtual safety car. I finally pit, serve my penalty, change my front wing and come back out a good 20 seconds behind the last place car. Over the next 26 laps, I mowed down the competition to eventually finish in third place.
This exhilarating gameplay is what drew me to the F1 series years ago, and the on-track action is as good as ever in F1 2021, which is Codemasters’ first F1 game since being purchased by Electronic Arts.
All-in-all, the acquisition seems to have helped the game in the presentation department — and surely hasn’t hurt it anywhere.
The big new mode that the team touted this year was the story mode, “Braking Point,” which sees you follow rookie driver Aiden Jackson and his veteran teammate Casper Akkerman through two seasons of Formula 1. The on-track action is generally limited to scenarios — catch up to your teammate in 5 laps; beat a certain driver; nab a podium in the rain — and ultimately serves as a great introduction to driving in the F1 series.
Off the track, the story is interesting enough, and would make a worthy addition to Netflix’s Drive to Survive. As an upstart rookie, Jackson and Akkerman have some early run-ins on the track and can’t quite seem to click. Their ire for each other is egged on by nemesis Devon Butler, who is suitably slimy in the mode.
The mode shifts in an unexpected direction about halfway through, and I was kept guessing about the end of the story throughout. My only knock on the mode is that it pushes forward with its own narrative regardless of what you do as a player. In the first season, I won two races as Jackson and made two more podiums. Those finishes alone would likely net a top 5 finish for the team, yet the narrative played out that we’d cost our team a decent season by squabbling.
Regardless of the lack of player agency, Braking Point is a good addition to the game and should help more casual players learn the ropes before diving into the meat of the game.
My Team Mode and career
F1’s My Team mode makes its return to this year’s game, and the core career experience remains my personal highlight of the game. I love designing my own team — GOAT Racing — and fighting from the bottom to the top.
Career mode is streamlined a bit over earlier editions, while still giving great depth. Throughout your career, you manage everything from PR appearances to car improvements. Past F1 games had massive skill trees that could be difficult to get your head around, but this year’s effort is just easier to manage.
Throughout the experience, you choose how to spend each day. It’s not overly micro-manage-y, but just enough to let you feel like your decisions matter.
I’m not too far in the mode yet, and haven’t seen how the driver’s market changes over the years, but it’s a great start. I signed current F2 driver Guanyu Zhou, and it’s been a neat addition to the mode to have a second driver that you’re partially responsible for.
One knock I have in regards to customization is that it seems like there should be more options. I know that more will unlock throughout the year, but actual customization in the beginning is pretty thin. Driver avatars have stayed largely the same from past seasons, with no options for adjusting faces, hairstyles, etc. And suit and helmet designs begin with just a few choices; the same for car liveries.
On the track
None of the above bells and whistles will matter if the actual gameplay is bad. Thankfully, Codemasters has long-nailed F1 gameplay.
This year’s game will feel exceedingly familiar to past players of the series, but some options are also a bit easier to manage. A real life Formula 1 driver spends his entire lap adjusting the car: There’s shifting up and down, managing the Energy Recovery System (ERS), brake bias, fuel usage and more.
The core sport’s change in fuel regulations carry over to the game — you don’t have the option to use lean or max fuel during the race. This reduces some strategy, but makes laps easier to manage. I also really appreciate the management of the ERS this year, which involves just a button press to use more energy. There’s a lot of strategy here, as you can save up energy for a run at the fastest lap, or use ERS to build up speed for a pass, and more.
Tires feel suitably different between soft, medium and hard, and race strategies adjust accordingly. This season, I’m going with 50% long races, where I’ve raced 25% in the past. With longer races, strategy calls just matter more, and the whole experience is more realistic.
F1 2021 remains one of my favorite on-track racing experiences. It’s extremely customizable, allowing for beginners to feel competent and experts to be challenged. I did have some trouble dialing in what my difficulty should be — my Braking Point experience was too easy; then my first race in My Team was too easy; then everything was too hard and I was way off the pace. After a few full races, I was able to dial in a fair difficulty level. (Except for at Monaco…after five years of trying to race at the classic track, I think it’s time to give up. I just can’t get the hang of Monaco.)
I’ve seen a good variety of engine failures, accidents and penalties during my time with the game. It all helps to make the experience feel more like what the actual races look like.
One of my frustrations — and something that has cost me in F1 races through the years — is in how to match the Delta times during a yellow flag. I can never seem to quite get things right. My first run-in with the issue this year cost me a drive-through penalty, putting me in last place by about 20 seconds. In that case, a later safety car let me pit again for Softs and catch up to the back of the pack, where I made up a few places over the closing laps. Still, a 15th place that could have been a battle for points without what seemed like an unfair penalty.
F1 2021 continues Codemasters’ mastery of Formula 1 racing. It’s a game for F1 and for racing game diehards. The series really hits a sweet spot for me of providing a deep experience with accessibility for more casual gamers. It’s not as approachable as Forza or Project Cars 3, but it’s easier to grasp than, well, Project Cars 2 and iRacing.
If you want to take this really seriously and online, the game offers plenty of online racing opportunities as well. Through the review period, I haven’t had a chance to jump online for a race. I did run practice and qualifying online without any issues, but the servers also weren’t completely populated.
Whether you’re new to the F1 games or a returning player, F1 2021 has an experience for you. It remains one of my favorite racing games, as well as one of my favorite representations of a sports league. Whether I’m fighting for a race win or just a top 15, points-less finish, driving a Formula 1 car is as engaging as ever in F1 2021.
Game reviewed by Seth Roy on an Xbox Series X, with a code provided by the publisher. Score is indicative of the offline experience only.