What does the term "cross-pollination" mean to you? Unless you're a botanist or an avid gardener, there's a good chance that these words will leave you cold. You may recall some vague memory of a tedious biology lesson, long ago, or perhaps you'll just find yourself thinking about an angry bee. But cross-pollination is something that frequently happens in the realm of video games, too. If a new mechanic works well in one release, you'll usually see it pop up in another - often in a title from a different genre completely. From recharging health to path-finding assists to ranking systems, everyone plunders the DNA of their gaming neighbours.
Take Codemasters' F1 2010, for instance. It's a racing title, yet it features an XP system to mark your progress, and the Prince of Persia-like ability to rewind time. Of course, neither of these features is particularly surprising any more: the time-reverse thing was previously seen in both Forza 3 and Codies' own DiRT 2, and it now seems like every game under the sun now has some form of levelling-up structure. But F1 2010 has a few other surprising quirks up its oil-stained sleeves - like NPCs and dialogue trees, for one thing.
According to the publicity material at last week's reveal event, the mantra for F1 2010 is "Be the driver, live the life." The first bit is fairly self-explanatory - it wouldn't be much of a racing game if you didn't play as a driver - but the latter half is something of a surprise. For all intents and purposes, "live the life" denotes a serious focus on a detailed career mode, one which will be decided by your actions both on and off the track. There are press conferences to attend, interviews to respond to, and a rather pert-looking agent to liaise with. Personally, I'd like to see a Phoenix Wright-style mini-game involving your character, The News of the World, and unfounded allegations about your private sex life, but somehow I doubt I'll get one.
Still, the role-playing aspects of F1's career mode certainly look intriguing. At the start of the game when you're a relative nobody, your part of the paddock will be quiet and uneventful. Then as you start to do better, things will get busier - journalists, sponsorship guys and other interested parties will start to mill around. After a race you may be approached by members of the press who want your reaction to certain events - so if you suffer a bad crash that costs a few places, you may be quizzed for your reaction. Another neat touch is that your treatment is largely based on what people expect of you, so if you do unexpectedly well in a race and manage to beat one of the big names, you'll suddenly be right in the media spotlight.
There are other neat-sounding details too, like the fact that you'll eventually get to choose a personal rival from one of your fellow racers, and that you'll be judged by how you manage to compete against this foe. Other than that, your primary adversary is actually the other driver in your team. Throughout your career you'll be striving to outshine him - because if you don't, he'll get more attention when it comes to engine tweaks and the like. Codemasters says that your car will be constantly changing over the course of a season and beyond, and you'll also have to pay attention to things like the eight engine limit: during races you can dial-up or dial down the performance of your motor, but if you push things to hard you'll wear through the hardware quicker.
It all sounds very technical, and that's before we've even explored the races themselves. If you're the kind of person who obsesses over car performance - and let's face it, if you like F1 you probably are - then there should be plenty here to make you gibber and dribble with excitement. At the top of Codemasters' boast-list is "the most advanced dynamic weather system to ever feature in a racing game." Wet weather is a particularly big deal, since the game carefully re-calculates the grip of your tyres at intervals of 30 virtual centimetres. If you're racing while it's raining cats and dogs, you'll eventually see a "dry line" forming as water on the track as is displaced by the speeding cars. Stick to this path and you'll have an easier time of things, but over-taking will force you to veer back out into the wet. Grip is still a big deal under dry conditions: different tyres have varying levels of traction and resilience, and as a race progresses you'll have to deal with "marbles" - balls of worn-off rubber that start to litter the tracks. Drive over these, and you'll increase the risk of skidding or worse.
I can't say that marbles were a major point of concern for me during my brief test-run at Monza. No, I was too busy trying to make it around corners without speeding into a wall at several hundred miles an hour. I'm happy to admit that I'm not brilliant at racers at the best of times, and for some reason I'm even worse when I'm using a proper steering wheel setup (expect support for all major peripheral brands). Thankfully the AI appeared to be quite toned-down for the pre-alpha build I played; the other drivers were fairly easy going on me - which was quite generous of them, considering that I'm pretty sure I killed Fernando Alonso at one point.
Codemasters is backing away from the whole "arcade vs simulation" argument, but in my admittedly clumsy hands the handling model felt pretty sensitive. The steering certainly seems very precise and responsive, but things get very tricky if you do lose control. On several occasions my lack of skill caused me to overshoot a corner into the gravel, at which point I usually ended up spinning round and round, like a multi-million pound metal dog chasing its tail. Thankfully you can use the replay function to reverse time and un-do your mistakes - although you can only do this a limited number of times per race, depending on the difficulty level. These rewinds won't be a magic get-out clause either, as in the final game there will be some form of XP penalty attached to their use.
F1 2010 won't be out until September, far into the racing calendar. Some might consider that a risk on Codemasters' part, but if the extra development time has allowed them to make a more detailed in-depth game, the gamble could well pay off. If nothing else, the off-track events and media interactions are an expected twist, though it's still too early to tell just how important a role they'll really play in proceedings. It's the racing itself that ultimately matters, but Codemasters has a clear pedigree in the genre, and there's already an impressive level of attention to detail here - both graphically and technically. We'll keep an eye on the game as it shapes up across the year, but if you've been waiting for the definitive F1 experience, you may well be in luck.
F1 2010 will be released in September on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.