Formula One is one of the world’s most watched annual sporting events, generating in excess of a billion dollars in revenue and as of 2020, averages up to 87 million viewers per Grand Prix. Despite this, motorsport is just one of those sports that seems to evade the consciousness of the masses. Most sports fans know the name Michael Schumacher and understand the prestige associated with the red Ferrari and prancing horse logo that dominated F1 during the early 2000s, whereas others’ exposure to F1 may be from a flick of the channel or eye roll that endures the motorsport while waiting for Sports Tonight’s Play of The Day after the AFL and NRL results. Probably showing my age with that one.
The question for F1 is do Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes dominance transcend the sport like Schumacher and Ferrari did? You don’t have to follow golf, tennis or basketball to know who Tiger Woods, Roger Federer or Michael Jordan and the Bulls are, can F1 enjoy that same level of casual familiarity? Despite its massive popularity, in 2019 F1 teamed up with Netflix for the documentary-style series Drive to Survive, in an attempt to help bridge that gap and introduce newcomers to the wonderful world of F1. The series was a behind-the-scenes look that shared the drama of contract negotiations, relationships between drivers, team principles, teammates, incidents on and off track and more. Why is any of this important? Two reasons. The first reason is one of the big inclusions to F1 2021, which is a Drive to Survive-like story mode titled Braking Point. The second is that just like the Drive to Survive series, F1 2021 doesn’t assume an intimate knowledge of the sport, easing newcomers in with an approach that prioritises accessibility.
Lights, camera, action
Braking Point follows the trend of sporting games venturing into the narrative-driven scene. FIFA had ‘The Journey’, Madden had ‘The Longshot’ and the NBA 2K series has had Spike Lee write and direct ‘Livin’ Da Dream’ in 2016 and Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson star in last year’s ‘When the Lights are Brightest’. F1 did dabble in 2019 with a similar experience, but nothing as fleshed out as the new Braking Point mode. In Braking Point you are Aiden Jackson, a 19-year-old British driver making the transition from Formula 2 to Formula 1. The opening chapter will see you thrust into a scenario mid-race needing a result to secure the F2 Championship, as the hype and expectation surrounding your prodigious talent reaches fever pitch.
From there, your journey into F1 begins. That journey spans two seasons across 16 in-game chapters and depending on how engaged or thorough you are reading emails, social media threads from fans and answering calls (Stop Mum! I’ll do my laundry when I’m back home for the British GP), takes roughly five to six hours to complete. One of the key points is the return of 2019 antagonist Devon Butler, but thankfully you don’t really need to catch up on any of his 2019 antics to get the most out of the story or quickly understand how much of a wanker he is. I just can’t take a snobby, smug British man named after a cheap deli luncheon meat seriously, and I may have hurled a few sauce-related expletives as I passed him on the track. The other man I may have thrown some expletives at was my 39-year-old gruff and stubborn Dutch teammate, Casper Akkerman. Much of the tension in Braking Point stems from the friction between the young and confident up-and-comer Aiden, and the insecure veteran Casper, who demands respect but can see the writing on the wall when it comes to his place in the team and sport slipping. It’s a tale as old as time and not really ground breaking by any means at all, but it was enough of a hook that kept me engaged. Interestingly, they do some really cool things by offering differing perspectives from Aiden and Casper’s family life and career aspirations that help make the story less black and white, highlighting both drivers’ points of view. This made me empathise with the pressure of the situations for all characters involved.
The thing I loved most about Braking Point was how it was delivered. Each chapter revolved around one Grand Prix weekend and sometimes jumped forward weeks in advance instead of just back-to-back, breaking up the monotony. Sometimes you are thrust into a scenario mid-race with six laps to go coming 12th with your objective to catch up to your teammate, beat your rival or just finish in the points. Meeting some of these goals even ended the race immediately and triggered a mid-race cut scene that impacted the overall story. Other times it’s start and finish an entire race with an objective. These mid-race cut scenes were fantastic and looked and played out infinitely better than the ones post or pre-race between drivers or press.
Red Bull gives you (front and rear) wings!
I found the mid-race scenario the most fun and if I had one criticism it is that there weren’t enough. Another great option would be to have scenario modes like this available outside of Braking Point. Picking up a race midway through with a damaged wing trying to hold on inside the top ten while your rivals catch up eating seconds into your lap times is an anxiety-inducing thrill, and I wanted more of this sort of thing. These scenarios, as well as being fun, are also great at introducing you to the effects of damage to certain parts of the car and different driving conditions like torrential rain.
In my opening spiel about Drive to Survive I also mentioned accessibility, which is pretty important given I am a relatively new F1 fan (thanks to the series in fact). Normally I wouldn’t purchase a game like this due to the fear of it being over simulated and too complex to pick up and play when it comes to understanding the inner workings and strategy of pit stops, tyre management, R&D and other intimidating factors in the My Team and career modes. One look at last year’s obscure skill trees and menus and it’s easy to understand why I bounced out early in my career mode, feeling a touch of buyer’s remorse. Thankfully this year has had a massive focus and overhaul on customisation and accessibility, and it’s one of the game’s major strengths. Now in My Team and career you can auto-generate practice runs to speed up weekends without losing R&D resources, or let the AI handle R&D or Facility building if it gets too overwhelming and you just want to qualify and race. I found the new menus were easy enough this time around and I manually managed them, focusing on specific problem areas my car needed the upgrades on (especially the way I thrashed and mistreated it). I also loved the fact I could customise the number of races from 20, 16 or 10 each season and from three to five laps or up to 25, 50 or 100% of full races. I shortened my seasons to 10 and alternated which races I chose for the second year, effectively getting two seasons out of one, in the hopes of going quite deep into my career this time around.
The other factors that helped me enjoy my experience this year were the way the assists and difficulties could be customised. I decided I needed a more arcade-like approach and tailored my experience by getting low to medium help with my braking assist and automatic gears (although I have progressed to manually down gearing into corners in an effort to learn manual) but chose to manually manage my race starts, DRS and ERS (overtake button). The AI can also be adjusted on a slider from 1–100, and I slowly adjusted it higher until I found a sweet spot of being competitive enough without blowing everyone away. The assists and menus get so granular and detailed for the experienced racers looking to fully customise and increase their challenge. I’m no Driving Miss Daisy but I certainly won’t be hitting any Baby Driver or Drive levels of skill and control anytime soon.
Get in line boys
The other big addition to this year’s game was the two-player career mode. Players can either drive for the same team or compete for points and contract offers from rival teams. I have only briefly explored the mode but it doesn’t differ too much from the single player career outside of having another friend to play or compete with. This time I couldn’t rely on flashbacks to save my session from overzealous cornering or reckless overtake attempts gone wrong. I would have to guilt my teammate into wrapping up the session quickly or watch on helplessly replaying my mistake of barrelling into a wall. Knowing there was no second chances in qualifying or races in two player increased the stakes and intensity of the races which was great. The only downside I found was that only one player could handle the R&D side of things, but that shouldn’t ever really be an issue when communicating with a teammate anyway. While the AI level is set and locked by the first player at the start of the season, each player can customise their own assists as they see fit, not locking one player to another’s settings which was nice.
Thanks to its detailed level of customisation and accessibility with its driving assists and difficulty, F1 2021 is an awesome all-around inclusive package that is perfect for seasoned veterans and newfound fans of the series. Presentation-wise it looks, feels and sounds stunning and authentic. The haptic feedback on the PS5 DualSense was particularly impressive and noticeably more immersive jumping from the PS4 version to the PS5, feeling every vibration from the surfaces and track limit curbs on corners and around the apex. The microphone inclusion on the controller also meant I didn’t need a headset and that I could just scream orders to the team radio and it would deliver back the details I requested (or tell me I was inaudible thanks to my lack of multitasking). Braking Point is a great entry point and is a fun, engaging story that should provide a good platform for future games to build and expand on. If you have played an F1 game in the past and been turned off, 2021 is definitely worth another shot.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- EA Sports
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / PC
- July 16, 2021