For possibly the first time ever, I’ve decided to buy a game the very day it came out (wheeee!), relying on preview videos, hype, a love for Formula 1 and bloody awful reviews like this one. (Not so much ‘review’ as ‘press release rewrite’ there, I’m afraid).

After downloading F1 2011 (twice) through Steam – twice because the game wouldn’t load first time round, due to the user-unfriendly and totally pointless Games Live for Windows not activating a sign-in assistant utility which crashed the game before I even got to the title screen, I’ve managed to play it for a couple of hours.

And here are my first impressions. I shall split them up into bite-sized chunks, with more positives and negatives than a KERS battery.

The good

+ While I’m not usually one for great graphics (gameplay has always been the priority in my book), F1 2011 is a marked step up from Codemasters’ predecessor, removing silly post-processing effects that made the F1 world look like some smog-infested grimsville and reintroducing that rare thing in modern computer games, a lovely blue sky. All the cars look excellent, and the programmers have even taken trouble to implement things like each car being a different wheelbase (or ‘size’ to the layman) and drivers flexing their hands for each gear change, visibly altering fuel mixtures and pressing KERS and DRS buttons (by the way, if you don’t know what these are, I suggest you look them up. This is F1 2011 first impressions, not Wikipedia).

+ AI difficulty has been suitably ramped up. In my first qualifying session as the amusingly-liveried-yet-slightly-hopeless Hispania driver number 2, I pushed the car to the maximum, used the DRS in all the right places (HRT doesn’t have KERS, I didn’t know that), and qualified a magnificent…P19. Out of 24. And I was about 4s off the pace. And this was on the second-hardest difficulty setting, so goodness knows what the toughest one is like. A much better challenge than the inconsistent, occasionally weak, and sometimes CHEATING AI from F1 2010 (I gave up the game in disgust after Alonso went 1.9s quicker than his qualifying laptime on lap 2 of the Brazilian GP with me fruitlessly trying to chase him).

+ DRS and KERS are both wonderfully effective. I used the KERs in a practice race at Singapore while being Mark Webber, and it worked a treat while passing Vettel.

+ Mark Webber’s race victory celebration cut scene was quite satisfying to watch. Probably because I haven’t seen it at all in real life this year.

+ Brakes actually work in this game.

+ You can take kerbs- nay, muller them, without fearing the car will be spat into a pathetic spin, unlike naughty F1 2010.

+ The BBC’s David Croft appears as the chumly pitlane reporter, and while his microphone cunningly conceals his lips (so he can say your name without his mouth looking all wrong as he’s saying it), he’s mildly interesting so far. He also begins by telling you he’s received ‘a lot of tweets about you’, which I found amusing. He does like his Twitter, that @CroftyF1

+ Wet weather racing is a proper challenge now. Even on full wets, my Hispania was slithering around Albert Park trying to set a laptime anywhere near that of my AI rivals. Mind you, it’s a Hispania, it’s supposed to be a bit crud.

+ Timing screens in the pit garage show you what your ultimate laptime could be if you strung your personal best sectors together, as well as showing who is out on track and where.

+ The ‘flashback’ system, as introduced in Race Driver: GRID, returns once more, and remains excellent. No longer should you fear driving 37 laps of Monaco in a 39-lap race, only to crash and retire on lap 38 because your phone rings/ your cat plays a practical joke on you/ you suffer a cardiac arrest. Just rewind and replay that bit properly.


The not-so-good

– In a bizarre backward step from F1 2010, the only race distances you can pick are one lap, three laps, 20%, 50% or 100%. What happened to the good old days of F1 Challenge and Microprose Grand Prix when you could set the distance of however damn well long you wanted a race? Eh? Eh?

– Had a go at Singapore and lapped 1.5s quicker than last year’s pole time on my third ever lap around the track. That’s not me being good, that’s the track being inaccurate for one reason or another.

– I found the cars oversteer quite a lot, even with medium traction control, especially in high-speed corners that would normally be flat-out affairs. This is a little odd and slightly irritating. Again though, that might be my Hispania trying to end my life at every turn.

– ‘Retire to paddock’ in between qualifying and the race immediately ends your race weekend with a DNF. So if you have to be somewhere else at the time (having, say, spent 45 minutes going through Q1, Q2 and Q3), get to that screen and realise you need to be elsewhere, you have to retire or go to the race. Sloppy oafish programming there.

– The AI will stop behind you to have a cup of tea if you’ve had a half-spin and are correcting yourself off the racing line. While they’re quick, they’re very nervous in braking zones and have pretty rubbish first laps, all told. I shouldn’t have got my Hispania, even with a fairly cautious start, to move up seven places. The only time I got overtaken was down the start-finish straight thanks to their DRS and KERS combined.

– I just about ran out of fuel on the final corner in Melbourne and dropped from P11 to P14. Well thanks for telling me, Mr Race Engineer Guy.

– Mr Race Engineer Guy is no longer from the North East of the UK (and highly irritating to boot), but from dullsville. He has no enthusiasm for the sport and gives you information like his mind is elsewhere. Even Simbin’s Race ’07 announcer showed a bit of spirit.

– Some of the replay cameras are more jittery than a paranoid hyperactive hummingbird that’s drunk 34 cans of Red Bull, 18 pints of Coke, 258 cups of coffee and fears they are being targeted by the Mafia. So jittery, in fact, that they look awful.

– At the end of my race, Alonso won from Button, Webber and Hamilton. Some bloke called Vettel finished P7 behind Michael Schumacher. Sorry, have Codemasters been paying attention this season?

The ugly

* The mechanic standing over the left of my HRT car in my pit garage has very scary eyes. The pupils of a killer. He’ll be haunting me in my sleep tonight.