Review: Formula 1 has a reputation for being the most technical of all motorsports. With F1 RACE STARS, however, Codemasters spurn their traditionally serious style and go all arcade. But is it World Championship material?
F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone once suggested tracks should be surrounded by sprinklers, which would turn on at random intervals, making races more interesting to watch as drivers struggled to cope with the changing conditions. Consensus said it insane, even for Bernie, but F1 Race Stars paints a picture of what Formula 1 would be if you took the idea and turned it up to eleven.
Let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way early: it’s essentially Formula 1 combined with Mario Kart. There are cute graphics, power-ups, the F1 cars have been turned into karts and all 24 current F1 drivers – plus four extra imaginary ones – have been converted into cheerful caricatures of themselves. (Although if Fernando Alonso ever smiles like he does here, then Hell may have frozen over.)
It certainly marks F1 Race Stars out as different from any other Codemasters title, with drivers who look like they could fit into the universe of Team Fortress 2, and brightly coloured environments which wouldn’t look out of place in Kingdom Hearts. The eleven tracks are all based on real world equivalents, and while you’ll recognise iconic sections such as Spa’s Eau Rouge, things mostly take on a zany twist.
Brazil takes you from the street carnivals of Rio to the Amazon jungle; Germany takes you through castles to the autobahn; while Great Britain is based around quaint country towns, orchards and the assembly lines of jet fighters. Each circuit, with its jumps, boosts, obstacles and shortcuts is accompanied by a soundtrack designed to fit the country. While the visuals and music might come across as stereotypical, it fits well with the cartoony, exaggerated world. But how is the racing?
IT’S GO! GO! KART!
Handling is simple, if a little loose. Bizarrely, the option to power-slide around corners seems to be missing, often meaning slowing to a crawl for tight corners, while your eleven AI opponents seem to nip through them at almost top speed with ease. Of course, power-ups ranging from speed boosts, to offensive and defensive missiles, and even the ability to call the safety car to slow everyone down can help even the odds – although occasionally they feel a little cheap when your virtual rivals seem to focus on you so often. Take too much damage and your top speed will suffer, but regular pit lanes allow you to fully repair and keep racing.
The backbone of F1 Race Stars is its Career Mode, thirty mini-Championships incorporating game modes from standard racing, to elimination to slalom runs and more. Each mini-championship takes place across a selection of circuits awarding points for finishing in line with the real sport. Win the Championship and you’ll unlock further events and other bonuses. Achieving this can sometimes be frustrating, as opponents batter you so much you can often be out of contention for winning before the final race, regularly leading to repeatedly replaying the same championship.
Repetition also comes thanks to a limited selection of eleven tracks, all of which you’ll replay multiple times across Career Mode. It’s significantly fewer than that of the FIA Formula One World Championship and sniffs cynically of many being held back for DLC. Indeed, the online menus have separate sections for those who wish to race with DLC in future.
Multiplayer forms a huge part of F1 Race Stars, offering the chance to compete against up to eleven other players online. The online system generally works well, although laggy players can cause frustration, but here the playing field actually feels more even than against the occasionally punishing AI. There’s also a four player split screen mode, allowing you and three friends to play against virtual opponents or even go online and compete individually or as a team.
But take away all the official licensing and F1 Race Stars isn’t anything new; after all, karting games have existed for years. The stripped back gameplay and cute characters do make it much more accessible to younger Formula One fans than any of the official titles. However, the limited track selection makes things repetitive, while the AI seems to unfairly target you. There’s fun to be had here in short bursts, especially online, but strip back the F1 element and it’s a pretty standard kart racer.
F1 Race Stars, from Codemasters, is available now for Xbox 360 (reviewed) PS3 and PC.