The sport of Formula One is a world of glamour, cutting-edge technology and high-octane drama. When we watch Lewis Hamilton and co do battle wheel-to-wheel at speeds of over 200mph, we only see half the story. We don't see the hours of development, fitness work and media interactions that go into making the modern F1 driver.
And as much as the TV cameras can give us an insight into what happens behind the scenes, only a videogame can put us directly into that fast-paced world and let you live the life of an F1 driver.
Enter F1 2018
Since taking over from Studio Liverpool in 2009, Codemasters have overall had a strong track record (no pun intended) with the F1 license. Last year's F1 2017 was arguably the best F1 game Codemasters had ever made, and a strong contender for best F1 console game of all time. So in lieu of this and the fact that annual sports games can often struggle to innovate year-on-year, can the latest instalment live up to the hype?
Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, definitely.
Let's tackle the basics first. Spoiler alert: F1 2018 is a racing game. And any racing game with rubbish handling is doomed to fail no matter what other features it has. Thankfully, F1 2018 delivers on that front with a driving experience that balances hardcore simulation with pick-up-and-play accessibility. Traditionally this is an area Codemasters have always excelled in, and the current iteration adds refined chassis physics with more detailed suspension and tyre modelling.
The former is especially noticeable when playing on a steering wheel; bouncing over kerbs gives far more feedback through the wheel and is more likely to cause a loss of stability and a very ugly crash. Other additions such as a manually controllable Energy Recovery System serve to simulate real-life aspects of Formula One more than ever. But whether you are a casual player or veteran sim racer, you'll still be able to jump in to F1 2018 and have a good time right off the bat.
The competition is tougher than ever
You'll also have a stern challenge to contend with – the AI opponents are more aggressive than ever. They throw blocks, make bold overtakes, and fight for every inch of road with both the player and other CPU drivers. It makes every battle for position an intense white-knuckle scrap. Not quite Dark Souls on wheels, but certainly a far stiffer test than previous F1 games.
Naturally this does mean an increased chance of things going very wrong and your race ending in a tire barrier, but the ubiquitous Flashback feature means you can pull a Prince of Persia and pretend that spectacular 160mph pile-up never happened.
Complementing the re-tooled gameplay are some genuinely gorgeous visual effects. The graphics themselves are largely unchanged from 2017; instead the devil is in the detail. Shimmering heat haze. Dust kicked up off the road. Mist. Fog. True-to-life depth of field. It all contributes to perhaps the most realistic-looking F1 game we've ever seen - some of the preview screens genuinely looked like stills from TV broadcasts.
This does come at a cost, however. On our review copy, pre and post-race cutscenes would often tank the framerate hard, and one particular podium celebration froze and crashed the game completely. Given we were playing on a regular PS4, it could be an optimisation issue and the PS4 Pro's upgraded hardware can deal with the workload better. And thankfully, the actual races ran smoothly at 60FPS in all weather conditions, so the core gameplay was unaffected.
Now let's tackle the big one; career mode. It's what most Codemasters F1 games are built around - it's no coincidence that F1 2015, the game regarded as the worst of the series, was the one that did away with Career Mode altogether. By contrast, F1 2018 provides the most richly immersive career mode we've yet seen in F1 console gaming. Not since F1 2010 have we seen quite as much interaction with NPCs in settings away from the racetrack – and crucially, it all matters.
Claire the pit reporter is a recurring character who will interview you at various moments each weekend, and what you say to her can have various affects. Each answer will directly influence your character and reputation, earning points towards either Sportsmanship or Showmanship. Are you a solid team player? You're the former. Are you a brash personality who shoots from the hip? You're the latter.
Additionally everything you say will have consequences - expect a frosty reception from your engine department if you go off on a rant about how slow the car is in a straight line.
And when it comes time for contract negotiations, all of this will be taken into account. It can feel very Dragon's Den when you tell a prospective team boss that you're the best thing since sliced bread, only for them to turn around and lowball you with a meagre offer. Throw in a refined upgrade system, and F1 2018's Career Mode is nearing full-blown RPG status at this point.
Short of Yakuza-style minigames involving partying on yachts in Monaco, it's hard to imagine what else they can add to flesh out their world further. We're not far off Mass Effect: F1 Edition, and that is an incredible achievement on Codemasters' part.
Outside of Career Mode, Championships mode offers plenty of varied challenges to just dive into, and the roster of historic cars is beefed up nicely with each new car adding its own gameplay challenges. Powersliding around in James Hunt's championship-winning McLaren re-enacting scenes from the 2013 movie Rush is endlessly fun and contrasts nicely with the more modern cars, like the 2003 Williams and its screaming V10 engine.
As for multiplayer, the addition of a Super License system and ranked lobbies which reward players for clean racing should make it easier to find a fun, competitive experience online away from griefers and Max Verstappen wannabes.
Verdict: play it now
Using last year's game as a jumping-off pad, F1 2018 is a game made with a genuine passion and love for the real sport of Formula One. And it shows in every aspect. For motorsport fans, it's a wonderful recreation of what we see on television every weekend. For sim racers, it's a fun racing experience with plenty of challenge and replayability. And for gamers in general, it's an engaging world to dive into and immerse yourself in.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to negotiate a deal to replace Fernando Alonso. I think I've got a pretty good chance...