While the real 2023 Formula 1 championship already feels like a foregone conclusion, the special thing about video games is that they allow us to live in a fantasy world where parity extends beyond fighting for the third step on the podium. F1 23 features some big behind the scenes changes for more realistic handling and racing, and brings back a story mode for those wanting a lighter Drive to Survive-style tale.
The focal point for our game time so far has been the returning Braking Point story mode. Aiden Jackson returns, now a driver for newcomer team Konnersport Butler Global Racing Team, partnered with arch-nemesis Devon Butler in a cruel twist of fate. There’s the same style of racing snippets, dropping you into a scenario and challenging you to, for example, recover after colliding with your teammate, charge through the field on softer tyres. It’s Hollywood F1 action, but it’s fun nonetheless.
I really like the narrative framing throughout all of this, as it does an excellent job of capturing elements of the real world of Formula 1. You’ve got Andrio Konner as the owner and team principle, clearly taking inspiration from the longstanding Sauber F1 team – currently Alfa Romeo Racing and soon to be Audi – but the team is financially backed by Davidoff Butler, father to eternal F1 game butthead Devon Butler, bringing to mind the Stroll family dynamic within Aston Martin. The story races through a fractious 2022 season, but also weaves in the rising star of F2 prodigy Callie Mayer, the first woman driver in F2 and an absolutely dominant force in this season. Throughout there’s more depth to the dialogue options you have, based on performance and previous choices, and I’m enjoying how this takes a step forward over the offering in F1 21.
But Braking Point will be just a momentary diversion for many players, with the real meat and potatoes being another trip through the career mode and getting stuck in with online racing. We’ll be needing more time before passing judgement on these aspects, but can give some first impressions of the game’s revised handling and game options.
F1 22 was a step into the unknown for Codemasters, with nobody really knowing what this new era of car would handle like before the game was coming to the end of its development cycle, and teams also naturally secretive and reserved about what they did know. For F1 23, Codemasters has built in feedback from real teams, trying to get closer to the real cars.
The fundamentals will be the same for the lay-racer, the kind of player that leans heavily on the assists that the F1 series provides, but where stripping away assists for ABS and traction control before were a significant hurdle, in F1 23 they feel manageable to overcome. One of the first things I felt is that it’s far easier to get a good race start – the optimal RPM is much lower than before, the throttle needed to avoid wheel spin more forgiving because of this, and so on. In general, so long as you aren’t absolutely hammering the brakes and turning without lifting off a touch, and so long as you aren’t excessively eager on the throttle out of corners, you’ll be able to race with minimal assists. You will still need to be wary at low speeds, where kerbs can really unsettle the car, but this is a more accessible take on F1.
When people usually talk about red flags, it’s about glaring character flaws that wards you away from a really awful date or relationship, but in F1 23’s case, red flags are a good thing. It’s just one of a number of new touches that aims to make F1 23 that little bit closer to the real sport, which has shifted its race management style over the last few years to rely on completely stopping a race around significant accidents. That brings its own kind of troublesome controversy, though the standing restarts offer new strategic and action-packed opportunities (and jeopardy).
There’s also the reintroduction of 35% race lengths, which really helps to straddle the divide between 20% and 50% race distances. The former is typically be too short for meaningful strategy to evolve, while the latter a bit long for doing a full race weekend in the evening around other adult life duties. 35% is a good blend between the two.
Finally, for now, a word on one of the new circuits on the calendar this season, with F1 returning to Las Vegas for the first time since running around in a parking lot in the early ’80s. This time around they’ll be racing through the actual streets of Vegas, and right down the Las Vegas Strip with all the gaudy hotels, casinos and other venues lining the track.
It’s a strange one, with three long straights each with a sweeping curve or some sort, and each coming up to what will be a very heavy braking zone. Credit where it’s due, there’s been some good efforts to avoid this becoming the Right Angle Grand Prix, though I’m yet to really learn the medium speed turns with their tightening apexes, and am always caught out by the chicane at MSG Sphere. It’s easy to get sucked into focussing purely on the track and losing yourself in a familiar look and feel to Singapore or Saudi Arabia, but shift your gaze to the top half of the screen, and the Las Vegas skyline clearly sets it in its place.
F1 23 gives a good first impression as we get stuck into the story mode and take in the sights and race car sounds of the Las Vegas Strip, but the real test will be how it holds up in online racing, how progression through F1 World comes together, and if those first feelings with the handling stay true through the many more hours of racing to come.