Given the staid, serious nature of Formula One racing, it seems like a somewhat leftfield decision to apply the license to the wacky cartoonish world of kart racing, but that’s exactly what Codemasters have done with F1 Race Stars. F1 superstars like Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso have been rendered into cute super-deformed characters battling for pole position across a range of tracks inspired by this year’s F1 season locations.
F1 and kart racing were never going to be an easy fit, and though definite effort has been made to incorporate as much F1 terminology into the game as possible it works better in some places than others. The first thing that is immediately obvious is cornering - it seems even a cartoon F1 car is as unable to power slide and drift as its real counterpart, meaning braking into corners is a commonplace concern, unusual for a kart racer. To replace this the developers have cleverly adapted the KERS concept (Kinetic Energy Recovery System - don’t worry, I had to look it up too) as a replacement. Corners are patterned with glowing blue surfaces; braking while on these powers a battery at the rear of the kart which when fully charged provides a mega-boost exiting the corner. It’s a good idea that works well. In other areas though adherence to the F1 way is perhaps not as appropriate. The tracks are perhaps overly long, and the fragility of your vehicle means a trip to the pit lane at least five times a race, which can get annoying fast.
Clearly there are more than a few nods here to the daddy of kart racing, Super Mario Kart, and indeed a lot of the power-ups work in the same way, but appear as rather generic bubbles (the red shell becomes the red seeker bubble, while the banana skin becomes the blue trap bubble).
In addition, each of the fourteen teams has a unique ability that their drivers can use; for example, Ferrari drivers Alonso and Massa can fire red bubbles backwards, while Red Bull racers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber get a free boost if they can stay in their opponent’s slipstreams long enough. There is some slight evidence of rubber-banding here; the most powerful power-ups, like the safety car which slows down the race leaders to a crawl for a few seconds, and the bottle rocket which rapidly propels you up the ranks using the power of fizz, only seem to be available for the stragglers in last place. Keeping play competitive but fair is always going to be an issue in these sort of games, and the developers have done a decent job of it here.
The look and feel of the game can’t be faulted, the menus are clear to navigate, the drivers are chirpy and easily recognisable and the tracks look a treat and are packed with variety. In Germany, oompah brass band music parps in the background as you drive through a Bavarian castle, followed by a detour onto the Autobahn, while Abu Dhabi offers sand dunes and giant hotels aplenty, and the British track celebrates both our rolling countryside and our industrial heritage with a trip through a factory assembly line. Each track also features a hidden key which allows access to a secret shortcut only available to the key holder, lending the tracks an extra element of strategy.
The animated antics of the drivers are amusing, particularly the very jovial yet sportsmanlike podium scene where they take turns posing for the media and fans. No post-race feuds here!
There are three difficulty modes, but even on the easiest some rounds can be surprisingly taxing. The AI can occasionally be cheap but it pulls no punches and if you suffer a mishap early on you may as well restart the track, as it’s highly unlikely you’ll catch up.
The single player career mode on offer is lengthy but samey; there are only eleven tracks on offer (twelve if you get the version exclusively offered by Game stores), and while there are a substantial number of racing modes available, some of them have been seemingly tacked on to make up for the lack of courses. As well as standard racing there are Elimination events where the driver in last place is regularly zapped into oblivion; Refuel Racket, where your supply must be regularly topped up with collectable canisters, and Pole Position, where the winner is determined by who leads the pack for the longest time. There are other modes like Slalom, Sector Snatch and Trophy Chase, but they feel largely inferior to the regular racing mode.
The lack of a proper tutorial is a slight oversight. During the initial cup tournament, occasional helpful messages flash up to aid you, but a complete guide to the various power-ups and their uses is nowhere to be found in-game.
As you might expect, multiplayer is where the title’s merits really shine, and up to four-player split-screen is offered in addition to online play. Considerable customisation is on offer; you can turn off weapons, set the number of laps, and choose from any of the aforementioned game styles. Players can be grouped into teams, and if you have a willing pal the entire career mode can be tackled as a team also. Connecting to Codemasters’ Racenet community offers full stat-tracking and worldwide leaderboards, if you’re interested in how you match up to everyone else. One fun element is when the current reigning champ of your local multiplayer sesh is crowned King of the Screen, complete with an ornate and regal border around their quadrant which becomes more illustrious with each win.
This genre has suffered many pale imitations and nasty knock-offs over the years, so I’m glad to report that F1 Race Stars is not one of them. Genuine work has gone into making it well-designed and fun to play, with only a distinct lack of tracks and a few ill-fitting mechanics holding it back from being properly outstanding, though it’s possible new tracks will be released as DLC down the line. One wonders if this couldn’t have been scaled back to an XBLA/PSN release, but it’s priced effectively for a disc game. Codemasters have a long history at crafting racing games, but this is their first foray into kart-based shenanigans and they’ve got it right, for the most part. It will face fierce competition from LittleBigPlanet Karting and the new Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, but if you’re an F1 fan looking for something light and casual, or have any junior F1 fans in the family, you’ll have a blast with this.