Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC

F1 2018 for the PS4 takes you into the intense, international world of Formula One racing. While some racing games require rigorous training and level grinding to reach Formula One status, F1 2018 puts it front and center. Press start and hop in.

No Formula for Hand Holding

You should know that F1 2018 is not interested in easing you into this game. While the driving assist options are terrific and make driving much easier, the game doesn’t provide any sort of driving school mode that teaches you the basics of F1 racing.

The game assumes a moderate to high level of experience in sim racing games, and hides the tutorial videos behind several menus. I only found them by accident by pausing during a practice session pit stop and, oh look, a video on the ERS system! It’s a weird place to put them, but if the devs are assuming a high level of Formula One cultural and technical competency, then it’s usually better to tuck them somewhere out of the way.

For racing noobs: do yourself a favor and set your transmission to manual. F1 2018 defaults to beginner mode, with automatic transmission. While driving manual may be initially baffling in this era of automatic cars, you will become better at racing as a whole when you learn how to engine brake. You’re going SO fast and the turns are SO sharp, I’m not even sure if this game is playable in automatic.

For folks who have played other racing sims: F1 cars are rocketships with wheels. I never played a racing sim where a car, by default, had eight gears. These cars are fun to drive, but a real challenge if you’re coming from racing sims that primarily use street cars. Don’t make my mistake, which was jumping right into career mode and screwing up your first race. Spend some time doing time trials, get a feel for the cars, and then start your career.

Madden on Wheels - Career Mode

F1 2018 puts the sim in sim racing. This game isn’t just about driving fast; it’s about simulating the entire experience of being an F1 driver. The main mode is Career, which takes you race by race through full F1 seasons, including role-playing press interviews - more on those later. (There are also options to build your own grand prix, race time trials, and undertake special event races, but the meat and potatoes of the game is Career).

In this mode, you manage your entire race team, your supply of parts, and your own reputation as a driver. It’s an impressive array of stuff to handle. It’s sort of like Madden in its granularity and attention to detail. Though I have to say, I’d rather worry about the durability of my transmission than the price of concessions at my stadium arena.

Every driver in the game belongs to a real-life racing team like Ferrari Scuderia and McLaren. (F1 fans can look forward to racing against this year’s actual drivers, like Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton). Each team has different expectations from you, including race placement and attitude, which is measured on an axis of showmanship versus sportsmanship.

Over the course of a season, you can research upgrades on your car’s durability, chassis, aerodynamics, and powertrain. A different team works on each, and depending on how you conduct yourself in interviews, their morale can rise or fall. Each aspect of R&D has a complicated web of upgrades to rival any action game. You earn points for R&D by engaging in practice sessions, which are 30+ lap races on the upcoming track. You get three sessions per race event, and they can take a damn long time. These practice sessions are skippable, but you lose out on valuable R&D points.

This system rewards people who are deeply committed to this game, and punishes those who want a more casual racing experience. That being said, if you’re trying to do well, you’re probably going to run this track a bunch of times in time trial anyway; the way that F1 2018 is structured, at least you get something for it.

On the plus side, if you complete practice sessions, you can complete race challenges that teach you how to handle the track, conserve fuel, use your ERS, and preserve your precious tires. These aren’t tutorials per se - they don’t make much sense when you first see them - but they teach you a great deal about F1 racing. Think of them as 300 level classes.

However, it seems odd to me that after all of your practice runs, you can actually simulate the result of the final race rather than drive it yourself. The actual race is pulse pounding in a way that the practice rounds are not - you’re weaving in and out of the pack, trying to pass, trying to stop others from passing, managing your fuel consumption, your ERS… I can’t imagine wanting to just run that in AI based on my practice sessions.

Talking Smack

F1 2018 has added a series of post-race interviews that allow you to explain your performance, good or bad. If you placed well, you can laud your team, boosting their morale. If you placed poorly, you can shift blame onto them to avoid taking some yourself, but they’ll take a morale hit. Higher morale teams work faster and provide upgrades more quickly. This system falls a bit too hard into the Renegade/Paragon dichotomy that we’re all sick of, but seeing it in a racing game is still interesting.

As a lover of all things story-game and Telltale, I am the king of dialogue wheels. This is a simplistic part of the game, crudely animated and poorly voiced, but I must admit to enjoying it. You get grilled by the world’s most awkward Irish(?) woman, and you can throw your coworkers under the bus. What’s not to like?

Car Damage and Flashback

F1 2018 activates car damage by default. While you can turn car damage off, leaving it on changes the experience of the game drastically. In Gran Turismo Sport, when playing against AI, I bulled through other cars with reckless abandon. The number of damns I gave about the condition of my car numbered exactly zero. Car damage was off by default and I liked it that way.

I never realized that there was this wonderful element of excitement and risk when you leave car damage on. The potential for damage transforms passing into a high speed, high risk dance. If you tap your opponent, you run the risk of damaging your car’s delicate and vital components, thus increasing your lap time. And repairs will cost you valuable pit time that you cannot spare. Damage really changes how you play the game. For me, Gran Turismo Sport is a mosh pit, while F1 2018 is a ballet.

Well there’s your problem right there.

However, to soften the blow, F1 2018 has a Flashback system. If you damage your car so badly that your wheels fly off (and while learning the game, I did, a lot), the screen goes gray and then switches to an instant replay camera that plays back the ten or fifteen seconds before everything went to hell. You can hop back into the action at any point (do it at a straightaway, for your own sanity) and keep driving, as if nothing happened. This concession to playability is a nice touch and I really appreciated it.

Say what?

By default, you only hear your British race engineer’s dulcet tones through your PS4 controller’s speaker. Even with a small Sony soundbar and subwoofer playing engine noises, this guy becomes indecipherable. He sounds like the British version of adults on the Peanuts cartoon.

Unlike a lot of other games that shout at you while you’re racing (Looking at you, The Crew 2…) this guy actually has useful things for you to hear (like how many laps you have left in your gas tank and when you should make a pit stop), so switch his audio output to your main speakers so you can hear him.

Other than this minor niggle, F1 2018’s in-race sound goes the zero music route that I’m familiar with from Project Cars 2. Your only soundtrack is the whine of your engine, as you wait for the right time to shift gears. I wasn’t a Formula 1 fan before this, so I can’t testify to the realism of the engine sounds, but I will say that I found the sound to be highly informative and helpful in playing the game.

Once I have a feel for my car and the track, I don’t need to look at the HUD to know when to shift up and down - the engine noise informs me, and that’s what you want in a racing sim. Though when you slow down and pull through a curve surrounded by racing fans, you can hear cheers from the stands. It’s a nice little touch.

Control

F1 2018 feels great on a pad or a racing wheel, but I have to say, a racing wheel feels much better. The force feedback is good, if not quite as nuanced as Gran Turismo Sport. Also, if your wheel has a wide turning angle, the game will actually use the force feedback engine to lock the wheel to match the turning radius of the car you’re driving. If you’re really looking to get the full sim experience, get yourself a racing wheel with force feedback.

Conclusion

I went from enjoying the polish of the game to hating it because it was hard to be ecstatic once I figured out how to win races. Suddenly, I cared about Formula One racing, and started googling the names of real life drivers and searching for actual race footage. That’s Bahrain in 2018, and it’s your second career race!

It’s not often that a game opens you up to a whole new sport, but if you give F1 2018 some time, it will do that. Fans of sim racing should give this one a look, even if they’re more into street cars and exotics. Why wait to unlock the most amazing cars in the world when you can start behind the wheel?

Note: This article was played during pre-release, so I wasn’t able to test the multiplayer.