F1 Online [Preview] – Massively multiplayer online racer

22 May 2012  by   John Robertson

Upon loading up F1 Online, the free-to-play browser-based game from many of the same team involved in the console F1 games, I had no real expectations. I knew it involved micro-transactions in some way, so would it be a case of pay-to-win? Would you be able to race or manage, or both? How are the designers getting around the famously rigid F1 licensing terms?
What I got was answers to those questions and, more importantly, I got a look at a free-to-play and browser-based game that I’m actually interested in. Then again, I do enjoy real world Formula 1, so my viewpoint is likely somewhat biased.
Turns out that F1 Online is part management sim, part RPG levelling up system and part hands-on racing game. At present the game is split into two distinct portions, the official F1 area and the custom side. The officially licensed side is limited to quick races; you choose your team, your racer and you enter into races of up to 24 competitors against other online drivers. Presently, there’s no crossover between the official teams and drivers and the custom side (where the bulk of the game resides), although Codemasters promised us that they are constantly looking for ways to facilitate that idea under the terms of the licensing agreement.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the management, levelling up and team building side of the game, let’s look at the racing itself. Thanks to the top-down viewpoint, initial impressions are that it looks like a more complicated edition of the iOS-based DrawRace – with fairly detailed car models zooming around a track with a limited field of view.
However, controlling the car, unlike DrawRace, is performed in real-time; either with the mouse, the keyboard or a combination of both. You move your car around corners by pointing the mouse cursor on the track ahead of it and guiding the car to any position you like, where you point the car will follow. Of course, your speed and cornering angle will determine how accurately the car follows your instructions – so keeping an eye on your speed, position on the track and how close you are to your competitors is key.
With the official F1 cars, and once you’ve improved the spec on your custom car enough, you’ve also got access to KERS and DRS which – from our experience so far – can lead to success or failure depending on when you choose to deploy them. I’m going to be honest, this being a browser-based game, I was worried about how satisfying and in-depth the racing would be, but the team seem to have done a decent job of incorporating enough depth to make it worthwhile without going overboard and forcing players to spend a week learning the system.

If playing the custom game, however, you need to create a team before you can race. You can set a name, choose from a number of liveries and helmet designs and edit your car’s colours. We’re told that there are tens of thousands of different colour/design options, but due to licensing restrictions you’re not able to apply real-life manufacturers to your car.
All cars start off with the same components and therefore, paint job aside, have the same shape and performance. Adding new parts – such as rear/front wings, engines, brakes, suspension systems and air intakes – changes the look and performance of your car, but it looks as though you’re going to have to work fairly hard to unlock the juicy stuff.
New parts are unlocked by researching blueprints and using development points that are earned for performing well in races and meeting team goals (such as winning a set number of races, earning podiums, hiring extra engineering staff). Each type of component has a variety of different options, for example there are many different engines that perform at different specs and provide a significantly different experience on the track. The difference between parts is not always a straight choice between better or worse, you’ll need to match your selection to the type of car you want to produce – do you want to concentrate on top speed or acceleration, braking or cornering?

Once you’ve spent points researching a new component you need to wait until a clock counts down before you can put it into production, which could be a matter of minutes, hours or days. The idea is to keep you coming back for more and to make you feel that, even when you’re not playing, the game and your team is always progressing.
Researching and production is displayed through a series of menus that are layered above your team’s facility, a surprisingly good looking series of warehouses and garages positioned across a system of minor roads. To boost your production capacity, new buildings can be built and the existing one improved. Having only played for a few hours so far, we’ve not got to the stage where that’s an option for us, but the idea of building your whole team (rather than ‘just’ your car) is appealing.
As you improve your car it’ll be tagged with a letter and number that informs you of its relative quality and which competitions you can enter. For example, U class cars are limited to U class leaderboards and events. Ditto goes for S class vehicles, the highest achievable rank. Your car’s rank is as important a tool for measuring your team’s quality as your best lap times on the leaderboards.

At public launch there will not be any way of setting up private championships for you to compete against friends, partly because Codemasters have yet to work out a sound way of preventing cheating in private matches.
We’re assured that that’s one of the features that will be available shortly after release, the complication is that the designers want to figure out a way of rewarding players for spending time in private games without undermining the public levelling up and unlock system. Qualifying laps, car damage, pit stops and weather effects are also being talked about.
With the levelling up, the car design features, the promised public and private arenas, the skill tree-esque component unlocking screens and the focus on stat and upgrading management, F1 Online sounds very much like an MMO. I’m not a huge MMO player, just like I’m not a huge free-to-play or browser game player. Given that, the fact that F1 Online has piqued my interest is a victory in its own right. If it can provide the long-term depth an F1 fan such as myself demands, then Codemasters could potentially have another racing success on their hands.

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