I am not very knowledgeable when it comes to Formula 1. It sits in a small group of sports that I vaguely disliked as a child because they often interrupted the cartoons on telly (darts, snooker, and horseracing can also take a bow) but, while F1 has passed me by, I do enjoy other motorsports games, and in particular F1 2020 developer Codemasters’ superb rally series, Dirt. I cut my teeth on Colin McCrae Rally 2.0 and enjoyed much of the rest of the series, even if I don’t have a particular interest in the real-life sport or entirely gel with the more simulation-focused Dirt Rally spin-offs. So despite my basic knowledge of F1, I thought I’d be able to come into Codemasters’ latest driving game and have a good time: but it wasn’t long before I crashed into a finely tuned and high-performance bunch of jargon.
The Dirt games are easy enough to comprehend for an outsider, while F1 2020 was baffling from the start. Perhaps that’s down to the nature of each discipline. Both are tests of speed, but the technology that drives them is very different: Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes is a custom-built dream machine costing many millions in parts and research, while last year’s World Rally Championship winner was driving a Toyota Yaris. But I have a feeling that the differences between the games go deeper than that, and come down to an expectation on the part of the developer that only F1 superfans will be interested in their latest simulation.
At the start of career mode, once you’ve picked a sponsor and a teammate, you’re dropped into a TV interview to introduce your new team. After each question was posed, I had to choose between multiple answers containing terms I didn't understand, only to be hit with a Telltale-style ‘X will remember that’ message based on my choice of response. I said something about my car being light, which I hoped people would agree was probably important.
After leaving this PR nightmare behind, it was time for the first Grand Prix. As I hit the tarmac in Melbourne for the Practice session - having not yet been offered any kind of tutorial - I misjudged my car's speed and clipped one of the front wings. A voice in my ear relayed the damage and said that I’d have to “box this lap,” but neglected to tell me what that meant or how to do it. I figured the issue was pretty minor, and sped off regardless. As I careened down a straight at 100+mph, the voice then began to monologue about the science of tire temperature. I’m sure this is important for an F1 driver to understand but, focused as I was on trying not to crash, I don’t remember a single word.
Familiar with the track, if not the jargon, I moved on to the race itself. This inaugural Grand Prix was a crash course in the rules and science of Formula 1. Having not done very well over the first few laps, I was informed by my team that I was being shown a Blue Flag. A few moments later, I was told that I’d been given a five-second penalty for ignoring that flag, but at no point did the game tell me what that flag meant or what I should do about it (I have since learned it means ‘you’re being lapped, get out of the way’).
Around this time, I was also told that I should probably be using my ‘Overtake’ button more often - I was aware of the principles of energy recovery from GCSE Physics, but no-one had explained to me that the system provided F1 cars with a temporary speed boost. Eventually I received a second lecture, this time about DRS. Given that I was still trying not to crash, I remain ignorant about what DRS stands for and its relevance to my car. Drive Real Speedy?
All of this jargon and these mechanics hit during an introductory race that frankly left my head spinning. Sadly my wheels hadn't kept up, as I proudly finished 21st out of 22 drivers (the guy in last crashed his car on lap three). I looked around to see if I'd somehow missed the tutorial, or if there was a glossary or rulebook within the game that would go over these concepts I'd missed. Finding nothing, I went to Wikipedia to unpack the worst of the word jumbles and try to get some grasp of the ideas that might, well, help me play an F1 game.
In spite of everything, I enjoyed the experience. Codemasters’ attention to detail is deeply impressive, and the studio has done an excellent job of capturing the speed, the danger, and the atmosphere that make F1 one of the world's great competitive spectacles. But its focus is so firmly on the F1 community that it’s very hard to find a way in for a more casual player. If I were a fan of F1, but had never played a video game before, I could benefit from a host of accessibility options to make the experience easier; from driving lines to guide me around corners to rewinds in the event of a destructive collision. But as a fan of driving games with a limited knowledge of this particular discipline, I had nothing to help explain the intricacies of the sport or its more unusual mechanics.
That is clearly by design to some extent, but F1 itself appeals to both the hardcore fans who obsessively follow the whole thing year-round, and a bunch of folk who just like to see fast cars have a race. It's one of the few things about F1 that, for me, F1 2020 doesn't replicate. As a simulation F1 2020 may well be Codemasters at its pack-leading best but, as a driving game, it leaves players like me on the starting grid.