It's raining so hard that I can barely see the end of my car. In spite of this, I'm doing nearly 200mph down the back straight at Monza. The rain is running vertically up my visor. Behind me, my engine is screaming under the weight of my right index finger. The full wet tyres are hurling water everywhere. I know I need to back off and turn in somewhere soon - through the practice sessions and the qualifying sessions and now the race, I've driven enough laps of the track to have the layout memorised. Through the downpour, I can just make out the flashing red light on the back of the Ferrari ahead of me. I was hoping to catch him and out-brake him into the next bend, but I'm not going to manage it on this lap. It doesn't matter; there's another corner further round the track where I'll get another chance this lap. And if I fail there, I'll just get him on the next.
The radio crackles into life, breaking my concentration. My hope that the interruption is at least warranted at this critical moment is dashed as soon as Jeff starts telling me that my tyres are doing OK. "Thanks Jeff," I think to myself. "I can tell they're OK by the fact that I'm still slowing down when I brake - which, shit, I need to be doing now!"
I lean on the brakes. Hard. Probably harder than I should, given the track surface. The front left locks up for a moment and then loosens up. The front end turns in slightly, causing the back end to flick out. I nudge the left stick, gently, and catch it perfectly more by luck than judgment. With the speed shaved off, I turn the vehicle in to the right. Kissing the apex, I floor it again - and the track opens up before me. More importantly, I can see the Ferrari again. And this time, he's closer.
F1 2018 is an awesome game. I know, I know. F1 2019 is out, and it's better - and that's fine. I have a copy of it, I'll get to it in due course. For the moment though, I'm playing a career season in the 2018 version of the game. It's something I never expected to do and certainly never thought I'd enjoy. And best of all, I'm enjoying it for reasons I entirely didn't expect. I've talked about my inability to get excited about racing games before - and that if I'm going to play them (which I always seem to do) then I tend to lean toward the arcade racers rather than the sims. All well and good... but how have I ended up playing such a sim heavy game, and having so much fun? And why is that fun distinctly not the fun I expected to get from a racing game?
If I'm honest, I think the first point has a lot to do with me learning to accept that I need to use assists in a sim-based racing game. And weirdly enough, that came about as a result of disabling some of them in an arcade racer. Here's how it went down. I've tried F1 games at various points over the years and never really gotten along with them. Out of the box, they arrive with most of the assists off, the damage modelling enabled - and have been a recipe for annoying me. If you have a steering wheel (which I don't), they behave nicely, but playing with a joypad simply doesn't translate well to a driving simulation if that simulation is geared toward punishing realism. So I'd try them, crash at the first corner on several different tracks, then wander back to whatever arcade racer I was playing whilst deciding that "I'm not good enough to play sims" and that "they're too hard for an average gamer like me." In the same vein, I was playing Forza Horizon 4 with my son and absolutely dominating - winning every race by miles. So, I upped the opposition driver AI level, reduced the brake assist and the steering assist, and suddenly found myself having to try to compete. As daft as it sounds, it was at that point that I realised that arcade and sims actually run incredibly similarly - something I can't believe it's taken me this long to realise, but there you go. You can't quite turn an arcade racer into a sim by disabling all the assists, and vice versa you can't quite turn a sim into something closer to an arcade racer by switching them on... but you can change the experience enough to level the playing field for yourself if you're as inept at the games as I am.
Lo and behold, I fire up F1 and immediately turn off the damage, turn on a couple of assists, and suddenly I'm having fun with it - and this leads me on to the second point, which is that the fun I'm having with it isn't the fun I'd expect to have with a racing game. This is happening on two levels, really - one involving the game off the track and, maybe more surprisingly, the other involving the game on it. Off the track, I'm enjoying building up reputation, being interviewed, competing with rivals, and upgrading my car. I'm playing a full season in career mode - so practice sessions, qualifying, then races carried out on a variety of tyre compounds and with various targets to be met along the way. This meta game is surprisingly engaging, especially considering that it's the kind of content that I've historically actively avoided. Where I'm really surprised by what I'm enjoying though is the action on track.
Most racing games are fast and furious, and that's kinda the point. It's get to the corner, then get around it fastest, then get past the guy ahead, and rinse and repeat for the whole race. F1, when it's at its best, is a surprisingly zen experience. It's a game that allows me to drive digital realisations of some insanely fast cars... in a way that's relaxing. I know, it sounds nuts. Allow me to explain.
Your average arcade racing game, as I mentioned above, is about speed and spectacle. They're often mainly about reacting to what's happening in front of you. Games like Forza Horizon 4, for example, set in a massive open world, feature point-to-point races on or off roads rather than tracks. While this leads to some insane emergent fun, I often find it really difficult to "get into the zone" while playing those games. The unpredictable nature of the AI (by design), the fact that no section of the race is repeated, and often the oncoming traffic mean that you're constantly in reactive mode. The arcade nature of the handling and the physics means it's the racing equivalent of a twitch based first-person shooter. To be clear, none of this is bad - I've spent years playing them and often loving them for exactly these reasons. But F1 is, by contrast, the polar opposite to this. An F1 race - especially in career mode - is about mastering each corner. You get plenty of opportunity to learn how to do it; it's not about taking that bend perfectly at that one point in the race when you'll go through it, it's about learning how to nail it every single time. And it's about learning to nail it every single time regardless of competing drivers, weather conditions, tyre wear, or whether your engine sounds like it's about to explode (I chose to race in the Renault in career mode - I seem to be on the ragged edge of wear all the damn time regardless of how many resource points I pour into upgrades).
It's this emphasis on precision and repeating the same action over and over that, for me, has elevated the F1 games into a place that I never thought they'd be - and that's a place where I go to relax. I mentioned my love of what I think of as "zen games" in a piece a couple of months back, and I've come to consider F1 2018 in a similar way to the games I referred to back then. Each new Grand Prix is a chance to learn a new set of bends and straights, a new set of braking points. The feeling of braking and balancing the throttle and then accelerating through a bend that sweeps away from you is just more therapeutic than I ever thought a racing game could possibly be. If you're swinging the sticks hard, to put it simply, you're doing it wrong. It's about looking ahead, it's about planning, it's about details. And those things are combining together to swallow me whole in every session I play.
Speed and relaxation are strange bedfellows - but for me, they fit together perfectly in these games. And now I've developed a taste, I have a feeling I'm actually going to be looking forward to the annual installment.