Developer: Codemasters / Publisher: Codemasters / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Everyone [Comic Mischief]
It’s a good time to be in the market for a fun kart racer. Mario Kart’s 3DS debut is arguably the best in the series, and it’s now got some solid competition from Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed and LittleBigPlanet Karting. And now this: a bizarre mismatch of a cutesy racer from a world-class developer known for racing simulations.
You’ve got one of the world’s most technical sport molded into gaming’s simplest of genres. F1 goes kart racing. And, believe it or not, it actually works.
The first thing to note is that F1 Race Stars doesn’t completely throw out the F1 rulebook. Despite its playful visuals, mental tracks and weapons, it remains stubbornly faithful to one fact: Formula 1 cars don’t hop and drift. And so you have the only kart racer I can think of that doesn’t have a power slide mechanic.
Instead, and here’s another shocker, you will actually have to pump the brakes going into the tighter corners, and take a somewhat decent racing line with as much speed as possible to get around the harder of the three Mario Kart-style speed settings.
Using the brakes in a kart game is strange, but the omission of power sliding serves to simplify the game greatly, leaving the player with only three inputs to worry about: accelerate, brake and weapon fire. That’s great for kids and families, but the lack of a more complex skill to master dumbs down the experience for more expert gamers.
In place of power sliding is KERS, one of many neat nods to the real sport. Tracks contain special sections of tarmac covered in blue paint that you’ll drive over, during which time you can charge a KERS boost by releasing and reapplying the accelerator. Three levels of boost are possible as you exit the turn. It’s a far simpler mechanic than your traditional power slide; less involving for pro racers, but again is perfect for the less experienced.
Thankfully the game ignores the fact that F1 cars don’t shoot rockets. The weapons range from the familiar to the more inventive. The regular selection of non-homing and homing missiles, and mine-like drop weapons are intact. Sadly these are represented as balloons of varying colors, which isn’t particularly exciting. But other items take more influence from the sport, like the Safety Car (sort of Mario Kart‘s Lightning Bolt) which summons a safety car to appear on the of the track and hold up all the cars ahead of you, or the Thunder Storm, which triggers pouring rain, reducing visibility and making the cars corner poorly. These latter items are neat nods to the obstacles of the real life sport and cause some laughs in multiplayer.
In keeping with F1 influences, you also have to make regular pit stops. Your car takes damage from other cars and weapons, and as parts fall off, your wheels can get all wonky. There are a couple of pit lanes contained on every course, and simply driving though them repairs your car to new without having to stop.
This can make for some intense racing as the leading car is heavily damaged and attempts to limp to the finish line before a faster car behind catches up, but can also be frustrating when the CPU batters into you on the final lap and you’re left trailing at the back with no hope of catching up.
The tracks themselves are blissfully ignorant to any concept of realism. Each circuit may be set in real-world venues on the F1 calendar, including Singapore, England, US and Belgium, and fans of the sport will recognize the odd iconic corner here and there too, but these subtle references are wedged into otherwise insane courses set in pure wonderland. You’ll race those cartoony F1 cars through caves, up giant ramps that swoop and loop high into the sky, through jungles and even down a rushing stream of water. Others have giant shoots of water, dinosaurs and other wacky obstacles. They’re roller coaster rides; one of them literally incorporates and roller coaster.
These courses are long and thrilling adventures, with bags of charm. The color pallets are bright and varied from one section of a track to another, and dynamic music morphs to suit the area of track you’re on as you drive, for example, through a town and then into a jungle.
Each course is packed with a mix of simple and more cleverly hidden shortcuts, and even contain a hidden key which, when found, allows you to use a more significant shortcut that’s inaccessible to other racers, which is a great idea.
Unfortunately there are only 11 tracks, and that’s pretty weak by the genre’s standards. Mario Kart, by comparison, typically has 16 new and 16 retro tracks in each game.
Codemasters partially makes up for the lack of tracks with a decent variety of gameplay scenarios in the game’s main career, including slalom races, Elimination, in which the player in last position is eliminated when the timer cycles to zero, and Pole Position events that have you battling to hold onto the lead for points. One event has you scrambling to grab fuel to avoid running dry and stall to a halt as you race. This helps add a little variety to the selection of mini tournaments served up by the game’s main career mode, but after a few hours the small number of courses still start to feel repetitive.
Career aside, a Single-Event mode lets you set up just that, with custom rule sets, weapons and damage options. A similar option exists for online private matches, or you can jump into a random online game via match making, but the game lacks any deeper online options.
It’s also sadly void of any form of arena-based battle mode, so you’re pretty much confined to those 11 courses and race-like conditions.
F1 Race Stars is simple, charming, looks great (particularly thanks to a silky smooth frame rate) and has some clever nods to the real life sport without getting technical. Its simplicity makes it better suited to families or more inexperienced players, and it could be great fun in local multiplayer.
But despite its charm, the dull balloon weapons, the omission of a battle mode and the distinct lack of courses means it comes up far short of the leading games in the genre.
+ Charming visuals
+ Interesting course design
- Only 11 tracks, and no battle mode
7 / 10