F1 Online: The Game brings PC sports management simulation to the world's premium motorsport. An attempt to broaden out the F1 licence after two successful console games, this browser-based title allows players to control all activities of an F1 team from engineering to staff productivity while also burning some serious rubber.
Built in Unity, the PC and Mac game brings together the statistics-based role-playing of games like Championship Manager with more casual and accessible browser-based racing that has more in common with Micro Machines than driving simulators.
From our first look, the game appears to be instantly accessible and fun to play, yet also underpinned by a deep and addictive team management challenge.
The world of Formula One comes to your browser
F1 Online - developed by the MMO and online team within Codemasters - is essentially split into two halves. F1 Championship features all 12 teams and 24 drivers from the 2011 championship, with plans to upgrade the assets to the 2012 rundown after F1 2012 launches. Whichever team you choose, the goals will be set accordingly. So, picking Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull means going for the Grand Prix wins and beating your rivals, but taking on Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber lowers the targets, such as finishing in the top six.
The other half is the custom game, which enables players to create their own team, and then manage it to glory. Entering the game for the first time involves the player setting up their own motor racing empire, choosing a team name and then moving on to design the look and feel of their car from a series of colour palettes and patterns. The options are pretty good and the interface simple, deliberately so as Codies wants to make the free-to-play F1 Online as accessible as possible.
The game is staggered on skill level across a series of classes - U (1 to 9), C, B, A and S. Anyone starting off in a U car is essentially at the entry level standard, but reaching the A and even S levels unlocks Formula One standard cars. Just shifting between the early class custom cars and F1 championship vehicles instantly shows the difference in pace and handling. Moving up the classes means managing your team to optimum potential, but also getting results out on the track.
Formula One meets Micro Machines
After selecting a team and going through the setup process, players are ready to start racing. Rather than create a competitor for its F1 console games, Codemasters has instead opted for completely different style of gameplay. Similarities to the racing in Micro Machines, a classic Codemasters franchise, are instant. The camera takes an isometric, top down view of all the licenced and custom F1 tracks, rather than in-cockpit or behind the car, and the control system has been totally changed to suit browser play.
The controls revolve around the 'magic arrow' - a line of green chevrons that extends outwards from the car. Pointing the mouse down the track actually steers the car; so wherever you point the cursor, the car drives. The left mouse button acts as the accelerator, and the right the brake. It's hard to imagine how this plays, but it is really effective. The handling is well balanced, so it is still about carefully using braking and acceleration to track the racing line, or hug the apex into corners.
Alongside the standard racing controls, the game also features the DRS and KERS systems for improved overtaking and a speed boost respectively. Brake assists are available for anyone who is struggling, but it is better to go without as the racing is more fast and frantic. The physics mean that crashes do not end your race, while slamming into barriers does not always do damage. It's many miles away from a simulation, but is also hugely enjoyable and a good foil to the nitty gritty of the team management.
Manage your team to victory, and beyond
F1 Online's management system enables players to upgrade all aspects of the car to improve performance, but first they need the right infrastructure in place. The Sim City-style Team HQ must be built to get people working on the upgrades. For example, R&D buildings can be set up to house staff working on technical blueprints, while production can fabricate the new parts and commercial staff gain sponsorship. Resources - cash, staff numbers and time - must be managed across all areas to get the best result. Winning races, earning cash and maximising your team is at the heart of F1 Online, and all this takes place in a persistent world.
The game is free to play but adopts the so called 'freemium' model, in which extra elements are available via in-game micro-transactions using Codemasters points. No payments gain the player an advantage per se - such as a turbo boost - but instead they're used for customisation and convenience. The majority of cash will go on speeding up the build and upgrades. Essentially, this means that you don't have to wait 24 hours for your team to build a new part, as paying gives you it instantly. This will not create a major advantage on the track, just give an option for the less patient players.
Codemasters hasn't opted for a true management sim with F1 Online, when players oversee strategy throughout races with tyre choices and pit stops, but it's a game that brings together fast, quick and engaging racing with a management simulator that is deep and addictive. F1 Online is a completely different beast and bold new direction for F1 video games, and that might just pay off.
F1 Online: The Game is currently in closed beta, but Codemasters expects to launch the open beta within the next few weeks.