Codemasters’ newest interpretation of Formula One as a gaming experience hits the shelves this week. While Badger has had several months to mull over the basics of the new gameplay – we were lucky enough to get a hands on opportunity as far back as July – it’s when it’s released into the hands of general public that we get to see the finished article.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc6jWpA-03k

First impressions of the moment the game starts up are familiar. A lot of the menus and displays from last year’s F1 2010 have made the transition across. However, rather than merely being the same game with a new lick of paint, everything feels more refined from the outset. Whether it be the little tweaks like purple flashes for fastest sector times, coloured icons for different tyres, or simply animations for getting into the car, it feel so much better on every level.

What new for 2011?

The main differences from F1 2010 are the three things that have defined this year’s racing in real life; KERS, DRS and Pirelli tyres.

Let’s start with the KERS button; it’s represented by a large red battery on the bottom right of the screen. Press the button, and you get a slight rev in the engine and a boost for a few seconds. It all sounds pretty simple, but just like its real life counterpart, use it up and you’re a sitting duck. Even worse, start a career as one of the slower teams at the back of the grid and you might not have it at all. It’s good for when you’re wheel to wheel, just don’t do what this Badger ended up doing and completely forgotting it was there to use!

Moving on to the DRS system, it’s a novelty that had divided fans from the off. Codemasters have done a great job of incorporating it into a strong tool in the game. When trying for a hot lap, tap the button and the DRS letters light up on the HUD and the car feel changes automatically – it’s more skittish on the road and is a handful to control. The beauty of the system is that it’s one press, then it shuts when you apply the brakes. It even comes with slight “clunk” when it opens. In races, it can only be used when the indicator turns green.

Photo: Codemasters

Lastly, the Pirelli tyres; just like real life, they really can make, or break, your race. Spend too long on them and the grip drops off at a alarming rate. The difference between compounds is also impressively recreated; bolt on a pair of super softs and you notice the grip straight away but, stay on them too long, and it’s gone in an instant. Perfect for that one hot qualifying lap, yet put on some hard tyres and you’ll have less grip but the drop-off doesn’t happen until late in the tyre’s life. It’s exactly what the last game missed; smart tyre management. It can also pay off starting on the prime at the beginning of a race then switching to the options. Codemasters have thought all of these scenarios through and the result speaks to that.

All three of these elements, added to the improved suspension and handling, mean experienced F1 2010 players won’t be able to pick it up and master F12011 straight away.

Photo: Codemasters

Many people will be asking about the inclusion of the Safety Car, something about which many fans pestered Codemasters for the past 12 months. Badger can confirm it’s in the game – but only when racing at 20% distance or above – but we haven’t done anything to elicit its appearance…yet.

The last new feature we like are the loading screens. While waiting for a session load up we’re told how we’ve got on in the game so far – wins, podiums, points, minutes on the track, etc. We imagine, when playing the split-screen multiplayer with friends (another new feature we like), it would quickly turn into a game of on-screen Top Trumps.

How does it handle?

In this year’s game the curbs are now your friends instead of your hated enemy. Remember the frustration of spinning at Portier at Monaco? Or the final chicane at Catalunya? That fear and/or hate is completely gone now.

That said, it’s not completely plain sailing in terms of lapping quickly. It’s all about getting the heat into the tyres quickly, remembering when to use KERS – either on one main straight, or throughout the lap – and pressing the DRS button. It’s pretty much how we’d imagine sitting in an F1 car; drive fast, press lots of buttons and don’t fall off the track.

How did we do on it?

Ok, we think!

Taking the position of Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber – mainly to have an excuse in case we caused a crash – we started by practicing in the soaking wet at Melbourne. Many slight accidents followed.

You have to be more, shall we say, careful with the throttle. Too much and the rear end spins out, too little and what’s the point? We managed a respectable 16th fastest time.

Qualifying was a different story in the dry. Knowing the track a bit better, we nabbed 12th on the grid, ahead of our team-mate. The man on the radio said he was impressed. That would do for us.

Race day. Thanks to a fast start we were up to 10th at the first corner, but a spin at the end of the first lap dropped us down the field to 16th, Luckily, we were on the prime tyre so we could pick people off when they pitted. Running as high as 5th, just behind Michael Schumacher, we got the call to come in (thankfully), and finished just outside the top 10. With no real incidents, we brought the car home in 11th place. Job done!

Should you buy it?

In a word, yes!

There haven’t been many games that reproduce the F1 experience quite like F1 2011. It’s challenging and rewarding in equal measure while, if you do get it wrong, there’s the motivation to go out there and nail a perfect lap. The detail is fantastic and Codemasters have spent just as long at mastering that as they have with the feel of the cars.

It’s brilliant. Go get it!