Codemasters, the folks behind Formula 1, DiRT and Grid is a veritable grand force when it comes to racing; so much so that they’ve recently refocused to doing little but racing titles. Known for their technical grasp of racing physics, their latest game might be a bit of a surprise in this post Micro-Machines world; a Formula 1 based arcade Kart Racer.
Just about every game that involves karting draw inevitable, and unavoidable comparisons to Mario Kart – and for very good reason; while most similar follow the archetype, very few manage to capture the essences of what makes Mario Kart so damned fun. F1 Race Stars from Codemasters manages to do so – but only fleetingly; its ability to instil the pure thrill of the crazy fantasy speedway diminishing the more it gets played.
As you might expect, F1 Race Stars, with its offbeat, cutesy cartoon aesthetic, draws much of its inspiration from Nintendo’s pioneering series – but tries its best to keep some F1 sensibilities about it, by making some subtle changes to the established formula. You’ll select from a number of Bobbleheaded licenced drivers, including Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher and more, each coming with a “Constructor’s” bonus.
The most glaring difference, one that will be quickly noticed by fans of the karting genre would be the complete lack of drifting; you won’t be skidding in and out of corners with any sort of drifting boost. It makes sense; Formula 1 cars don’t do this – and even though this is a fast-paced arcade racer, it’s still all about braking in to corners and then gunning it on the straights, all with perfectly serviceable handling, and a nice slipstreaming system.
The problem is that with such a fast and frantic arcade racer, with tracks that have winding loops, jumps and even waterslides, it’s often just not particularly fun for very long. Continuing with the F1 features, your karts have a rudimentary, but interesting implementation of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or KERS that allows real F1 drivers to conserve a little of their momentum. In Race stars, you’ll do that by pressing down on and releasing your accelerator, filling up levels KERS battery on designated sections of the track, allowing you to come out of them with a speed boost. But wait! There’s more!
Abandoning established formula once again to keep within the spirit of F1, Race Stars features actual kart damage. Take a knock or two too many and your vehicle starts falling apart, necessitating a trip to the pit lane. all that really does is take you on a longer section of the track, reducing your time, while your vehicle’s repaired automagically – but the idea’s nice.
And there there are the powerups; a staple in Kart games. While it would be tremendously easy, and probably a bit lazy to just copy the sort you’d find in Mario Kart, Codemasters has…well, no, that’s exactly what they’ve done. There’s a red, heat seeking bubble taking place of the turtle shell, a Blue bubble that temporarily traps players, essentially functioning like Mario’s banana peel, a simple boost like the plumber’s mushroom – and even a nonsensical Bottle Rocket that propels the racer forward in much the ay the Bullet Bill would. There are are one or two F1 themed powerups that are different though; namely DRS, which makes you faster and grant temporary invincibility (though even that’s pretty much Mario’s Star power) and the Safety Car, which when called in slows down the race leader, allowing everybody else to catch up. That’s important, because with Race Stars there’s little in the way of Rubber Banding; which is great if you’re a pro kart racer, and just infuriatingly frustrating if you’re not.
Tracks within the the game are loosely on real circuits. When I say “loosely,” I’m actually using that term loosely. Beyond their starting and finishing lines, you’d have to exist on a diet of strong hallucinogenics to see the resemblance. Instead, they’re zany; embellished and transformed with loops and jumps, and stereotypical adornments – like Monster Trucks in the USA, Bavarian buildings in Germany, Geishas in Japan, a jungle theme in Brazil; you get the idea. The tracks, filled as they are with secret routes and shortcuts (including one per level that requires a key) are sometimes so frantic that it’s difficult to tell what’s going on; a frustration doubly compounded by the inexcusable lack of an on-screen minimap. It’s especially frustrating in models like Elimination Nation – where, at intervals, the driver in the last place is eliminated until just the lead remains. Until you know each track inside and out, it’s just not very fun losing every single time.
There are a number of other modes though – and they’re a little more fun, like the nail-biting Refuel Racket, which limits the constantly draining fuel in your kart. You can pick up fuel along the track, but the the more fuel you have in the tank, the slower you’ll go. Beyond that, the other modes are the sort you’d expect really; Slaloms, Pole Position, Time Trials and straight up races – all available in career or single play.
Of course, it’s much more fun playing in multiplayer, and I’m happy to report that Race Stars features 4-player splitscreen, as well as 12 player online. Codemasters “RaceNet” adds a social aspect, to track your rivals, if you go in for that sort of thing.
F1 Race Stars is mildly entertaining in short bursts, made a little more fun the more players you throw in. If you’re looking for a Kart Racer and you game on a 360 or PC, there’s enough to love here – but if you play on other systems, I have a tough time recommending this over LittleBigPlanet Karting or Mario Kart.
It’s Mario Kart, only not nearly as fun – with a dash or two of F1 spirit.
Design and Presentation: 8/10
The cartoon aesthetic is charming at first – but the overplayed, overwrought character animations begin to wear very thin. Still,, it’s track and art design is pretty appealing – and the whole thing runs at a wonderful, constant 60FPS.
Though there’re a ton of modes, there are just 11 tracks to play through them on. split screen and online add a bit of longevity, but there’s not much here.