There’s a moment early in Braking Point, the new story mode of F1 2021, where protagonist and rookie Aiden Jackson speaks to the press after colliding with his teammate Casper Akkerman entering the Turn 11 left-hand sweeper at the Australian Grand Prix. Aiden and Casper are essentially squeezed into each other by Devon Butler’s diving up the inside; Devon is the unequivocal heel of Braking Point, and has made it his mission to drive a wedge between the two teammates — whether on track or in the paddock, in the smarmiest way possible.
As Aiden prepares to take a journalist’s questions, he’s preoccupied upon noticing who else but Devon, also speaking with the press pool not too far away. And Aiden hears every word Devon says, as his rival runs his mouth unprompted not about his own performance, but about how Aiden isn’t ready for Formula 1, and that Casper must be wondering what their team was thinking by signing the rookie.
The reporter asks Devon if he has any “advice” for Aiden. It’s all very clichéd, the way these three characters’ worlds revolve around each other, the irrational level of emotional investment they have in each other. They’re in their own little hyperpersonal bubble, like the entire rest of the grid doesn’t exist. It’s less F1, more WWE.
More accurately, it’s the dream scenario that Drive To Survive’s producers probably go to bed wishing for every night. You’ve got the past-his-prime vet bickering with the young hotshot, their rivalry fed by the slick-haired prick racing for a competitor, pulling the strings.
I’m not going to begrudge developer Codemasters too much for writing an extremely predictable sports narrative with basic characters. I’m certain the studio is very limited as to how F1 management will allow it to portray the series. That becomes immediately clear once you notice the lack of other F1 personalities who appear in cutscenes (save for two admittedly amusing cameos at the end) and the fact that Jackson and Akkerman don’t report to any actual team principal, but a “team liaison” who carries himself like a stand-in for Zak Brown, if Zak Brown were British.
I don’t even mind that Braking Point is particularly short— I got through the whole thing in about six hours. To me, the real meat and potatoes of the F1 video game franchise has always been the extensive career and My Team modes, and the wealth of online multiplayer, esports and league play options. Those are all still here, and as reliable as ever. Braking Point is a fun little escape from all that.
The problem with F1 2021 is that the fun little escape evidently occupied most of the team’s attention over the course of this development cycle, and Braking Point lacks any compelling draw — whether we’re talking in terms of challenge, gameplay or narrative — to show for it. Functionally, the mode throws you into scenarios, sometimes mid-race and other times from start to finish, and the events themselves are broken up with a combination of in-engine and computer-generated cutscenes to advance the plot.
It’s these scenarios that are most disappointing. They’re fairly ordinary and unfold predictably: orders like “catch up to your teammate,” “pass Devon” or “finish in the points.” There’s very little element of surprise to what transpires on the track, and the real game-changing moments — like collisions, orders based on team politics relayed over radio and untimely punctures — all happen in cutscenes. It would’ve been more immersive to hit players with those dramatic circumstances as they’re driving the car, though I suspect that would’ve introduced programming and narrative logic roadblocks as well.
Ultimately, the objective you’re presented with is the one you’re intended to and will achieve in every instance. As I was playing Braking Point, I was reminded of a very old and not particularly great racing game from 2003 called R:Racing Evolution. It too had a narrative component, albeit a way dumber one. But I’ll never forget one race in the game’s campaign where you, the player, are ordered to throw a race on the final lap. A satisfying explanation for why is never given, but that moment — driving along, trying to bring home the best result and suddenly being told you have to purposefully lose to satisfy some sharp-dressed, shades-wearing financier tenting his fingers between sips of whiskey — is a tremendously powerful one. Nothing as unexpected ever happens in Braking Point, and that strikes me as a missed opportunity.
It also makes F1 2021 the first entry in this otherwise very consistent annualized series that’s left me wanting more. Because the bulk of the development effort went into Braking Point, the rest of the game has been largely unchanged. (Or, if we’re talking about the roster of classic cars, removed.)
There are a few other changes. My Team’s R&D tree structure has been reorganized graphically so as to be a bit less overwhelming, and you now have the ability to embark on a season career with a friend online, multiplayer-style. The latter is a neat addition I imagine would have been very nice to have while being isolated at home last summer.
Otherwise, this is F1 as you’ve known it, potentially looking nicer and loading in the blink of an eye if you’re lucky enough to be playing it on new hardware. I tested the PlayStation 5 version, and it does indeed look and run nicely. The frame rate never wavers from a locked 60 fps. There’s an astonishing level of detail particularly at great distances, where you can see every tree draped over the hillsides overlooking the Red Bull Ring, every umbrella in the stands when it begins to rain. The lone performance issues I encountered were rampant screen tearing and judder during Braking Point’s in-engine cutscenes and “Meet The Press” interviews, though those could hopefully be addressed easily enough in a post-release update. Replays are pretty choppy too.
(Speaking of which, shout out to Will Buxton, who appears in a number of narrative scenes and delivers performances easily on par with those voicing the fictional characters here. Dude’s got a future in voice acting if he ever decides to hang up the motorsport journo thing.)
Finally, I’ll commend how F1 2021 approaches the DualSense controller’s adaptive triggers, modulating the resistance of the accelerator and brake “pedals” based on wheelspin and general vehicle behavior. I think there’s more fine-tuning to be done in this regard, as sometimes I wasn’t quite sure why the triggers were stiffening up or slackening, but it’s nevertheless a decent first attempt at employing one of the PS5 pad’s more innovative features.
F1 2021 feels like a rebuilding year. Rebuilding toward what, I’m not entirely sure yet. This is the franchise’s first release under the EA Sports label, however its development was well underway by the time Codies was acquired by the publisher. Perhaps next year we’ll see a version of Madden and FIFA’s Ultimate Team to cash in on the F1 crowd. Mostly though, I only hope that if this series attempts a racing story again, or continues the one started in Braking Point, it comes at players and fans with a little more imagination.