There wasn’t much to complain about with F1 2010 – it was regarded by almost everyone who played it as the finest F1 game of all time, and those feelings continue to stand – but the lack of a sophisticated lobby system in multiplayer was definitely a bit of a stinger. It was generally more geared towards its campaign so it was easy to see why the oversight had been made, but in a genre in which a good online system can be the one true key to success, it was a curious miscalculation. This is one area of last year’s game that definitely needed a shrewd overhaul, and F1 2011 appears to have prioritised the optimisation of the online side of things, and the results are most impressive.

Instead of being thrust into a drab menu screen when you fail in an online competition, now you can keep an eye on the remainder of the race from countless different viewpoints; from the perspective of an individual driver, in the form of a mocked-up television broadcast, or from one of the stationary cameras placed around the track. Needless to say if you’re playing with friends you can commentate and continue to engage with them, in the same way that you could in the excellent lobby system featured in this year’s Mortal Kombat reboot. The game also now supports a full line-up of 24 cars; 16 players and 8 AI.

Almost as enticing as this was the revelation that the game will feature split-screen multiplayer for the first time; a dynamic that was apparently “borrowed” from the team who made this year’s superb Dirt 3, in exchange for the usage of F1 2010‘s dynamic weather system. This means that another of this year’s new features – the implantation of a co-op campaign – is no longer restricted to online play. Co-op on a single machine does involve a slight drop in graphical fidelity but it’s difficult to care, as the frame-rate and speed are both totally consistent with the single player experience.

The game also looks much, much prettier than last year’s. Although we were shown comparison screenshots at the beginning of Codemasters’ presentation, the clarity of this version versus last year’s was apparent immediately. Textures are sharper, the (slightly) washed out colour palette has been expanded and a new lighting system has been implemented. Despite being played on an Xbox 360 console, it would’ve been easy to mistake the iteration of F1 2011 that we saw in action with the PC version. Pedants will also be intrigued to see that specific racing teams now have steering wheels of their own design, the paddock has been tweaked and garages are now populated by more than just a ghostly handful of people.

The general control scheme – which has apparently been reworked from the ground up – now feels so much slicker and more realistic. The most noticeable overhaul is with the suspension physics, which have been tweaked to near-perfection; and one of the occasionally irritating things about F1 2010 (that you were very likely to spin your car out if you went into corners too aggressively) now looks to have been resigned to the past. Cockpit cameras have been raised a bit and the perspective now resembles the actual thing; making the option a given for anyone who may have baulked at it last year.

So it’s shaping up very nicely indeed. Although it is definitely the case with some mainstream sports, it isn’t a forgone conclusion that F1 fans are going to be the kind of people who are willing to pick up an F1 game on an annual basis. That said, Codemasters appear to be only too aware of this, and a lot of work has clearly gone into ensuring that this is a comprehensive follow-up replete with a set of very smart innovations and fixes. And if F1 2010‘s online component left you a bit cold, this iteration’s set-up pretty much looks as if it warrants a purchase all on its own.

F1 2011 is currently due for release on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC on Friday September 23rd 2011.

Watch the F1 2011 preview here:

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