I’ve loved online racing games ever since I used to stay up until the early hours playing split-screen Project Gotham Racing 2 on Xbox Live with my wife Jo and a regular group of people, back in the days when the Live community was polite and nice and stuff (“Out there it used to be nowt but fields, etc”). In recent years, with so many games now online, the sense of everyone concentrating on one title has gone. While this means that there are always players available to face on whatever big game you’d care to mention, in my eyes Xbox Live has lost something since it’s become more popular. There really are a load of bozos on the service these days, many of them playing shooters as if it was life and death in a hospital for the terminally racist and socially inept.
But playing online with friends retains its appeal, and on videogame forums some people pour a lot of time into organising tournaments for members to take part in. I’m currently taking part in a Formula 1 championship for the game of the same name on the Xbox 360, and so far it’s proving to be something to really look forward to every Tuesday night.
The F1 online experience is different from standard racing games for three reasons. Firstly, there’s qualifying before the race. This is a fifteen minute session, during which the players pick tyres and check telemetry in the garage, then head out on track to do a warm-up lap and then as many flying laps as they wish before returning to the pits to refuel and try again. Spending so long just to get a grid slot that you could easily lose at the first corner of the race proper is strangely compelling, and makes it feel like you’re part of a proper F1 race weekend.
When the race is on, the second difference becomes apparent: tyre wear and fuel consumption is simulated, which continually changes just how much you can attack the race track. The track continues to evolve in terms of grip throughout the race and there’s quite a bit of strategy involved in managing your tyres; in deciding when to really push and when to drive within yourself. You also have to decide when to pit, which is particularly important when the weather changes.
F1’s dynamic weather system is probably the best thing about the game, and it’s quite a sight to behold to see the dark clouds rolling in, the heavens opening, and the track beginning to pick up first damp patches and then full-on puddles. You then face a difficult decision about what to do next – stay on slick tyres in the hope that the rain passes or the point where different tyres will make you faster will not be reached before you get round again, or dive into the pits early and change to intermediate or wet tyres, knowing that if the track dries out or you’ve come in a lap or two before you should, it can also compromise your race.
This all makes racing online with F1 a different experience to the likes of Forza or Codemasters’ own rival racing franchises. It’s more serious, more tactical, and the glorious handling model makes the act of getting round the track a lot of fun even before you consider the newer things it brings to the table. I’m only a middling competitor in the championship I’m competing in at present, but I really look forward to every race regardless. Playing with the same people every time beats the hell out of racing randoms.