There are some combinations in this world that shouldn’t by all logical reasoning work. Why does chilli go so well with chocolate? How can Jaegermeister and Red Bull make such a slamming drink? Perhaps the people at Codemasters Racing know, because they have managed to take the two ends of the racing spectrum, karting and F1, and combine them to create F1 Race Stars.
Never before has the world of Formula 1 looked so vibrant. 14 teams, 28 racers and 11 official F1 tracks have all been transformed into bright caricatures of themselves. Each racer has been shrunk down to a chibi version which, despite all having the same bodies and giant heads, are instantly recognisable. Their cars have undergone the same treatment, looking almost identical to their real life counterparts apart from their oversized wheels and exhaust pipes.
What makes F1 Race Stars really stand out though is its race tracks. Codemasters Racing have taken 11 of the 30 real world tracks featured in this years F1 circuit and exaggerated everything about them. Each track’s layout retains some familiarity but there are over-the-top elements added in based on where the course is located. For instance, at Silverstone Harrier Jump Jets fly past, red telephone boxes line the side of the roads and the race takes a detour through a manufacturing plant as a nod to British achievements.
This blend between real-world familiarity and karting insanity is repeated in F1 Race Stars‘ gameplay, at least in comparison to other kart-racers. The cars’ handling have some basis in reality, yet they can all fire a wide array of weapons. Most of which are fairly standard — the usual mix of basic projectiles, homing missiles (this time in the form of bubbles), dropped items and boosts. A couple of weapons do stand out because of their connection to the real F1 world — the safety car, which causes everyone at the front of the pack to slow down; and the rain clouds which can be used to wet the track, forcing everyone to drive a little bit more cautiously. Little touches like this add a real layer of charm to an already enchanting game.
It’s this charm that is one of the most immediately noticeable aspects of F1 Race Stars. Impressively the game even manages to project this personality onto the F1 drivers themselves, who in the real-world may not be the most charismatic group of people. Hearing Vettel shout joyously on the selection screen or Alonso screaming his own name while overtaking is enough to make anyone crack a smile, at least for the first time. However, after the first hour it becomes extremely annoying, because the racers just do not shut up. Every overtake, every boost, every damn power-up is punctuated by some remark. There is no way to finish a race as Mark Webber, who shouts “Ripper” on a near constant basis, without shouting obscenities at the screen or turning off the voices, which thankfully is easy enough to do in the race options.
Aside from the voices the most notable thing about racing is the absence of drifting — a fundamental game mechanic in most karting games. Instead, there is the KERS system, which can only be found on a select few corners and offers an extra boost of speed to those who can stay in the defined area all the way around the turn.
While this does add a bit of excitement to these corners the lack of a drift makes the other ones seem tame. On all but the highest speed class, of which there are three — 1,000cc, 2,000cc and 3,000cc, cornering is far too easy. Only the very hardest turns require any sort of braking, with even with the worst racing line its rare to stray from the track and with the abundance of straights, a few of the tracks are just downright dull.
When you crank the speed up to 3,000cc things get better though — corners need more caution, a decent racing line needs to be followed and the straights become blazes of speed. It’s at this level that approaching the game as more of an F1 game than a kart-racer becomes necessary and the game becomes more enjoyable.
One surprising feature that also makes the game more fun is car damage. If you get hit by another kart or power-up then your kart will take visible damage and will slow down. Take too many hits and you won’t be able to finish the race. Once you take damage though you can easily fix up your kart without even stopping by driving into one of the many pit-stops. In most games this would be a minor annoyance but since this is a Formula 1 game it actually fits the tone well and enhances the game.
Unfortunately, this is undone by some serious rubber-banding issues. The game tries to keep the race tight by giving better weapons to those who are at the back of the race; a fairly standard tactic across kart-racers. However, the better power-ups in F1 Race Stars are far too overpowered and they will be handed out to those in last place without fail, even if the distance between first and last is only a few metres.
This system of allocating power-ups is cheap, easily abused and immensely frustrating; in tight races the most effective tactic is to lurk in last place until the last pick-up which will inevitably catapult you into a winning position. The worst offender is the warp power-up, which teleports a racer further down the track, bypassing the others. What makes it so frustrating is that it seems to only be used just before the last corner of perfect race, plonking the opposition just before the finish line and negating any driving skill that was used in the race.
Adding to the frustration are the locked shortcuts — alternate routes that can only be accessed after finding a hidden key on the track and taking it to the gate. The downside is that finding the key often requires a time-consuming detour and when you have the key you are unable to use power-ups. It’s a great concept but again suffers from poor implementation.
In what presumably is an attempt at further ‘balance’ the race the key only appears after what appears to be a random amount of time, which means that if you are in the lead and decide to take the hefty detour to find the key you might only be rewarded by seeing it appear just after you have passed where it should have been. It’s infuriating to be punished in such an arbitrary manner for being a good driver.
What makes it even worse is that taking the locked shortcut is essentially an auto-win for any race, only countered by a last second warp power-up. Not only does it offer a shorter route to the finish line but it also isolates you from the other racers, so while they blast each other to pieces you can take a leisurely stroll to the podium.
This mainly only affects the normal race mode though, and thankfully F1 Race Stars offers a variety of others. Including Elimination, the usual last place explodes scenario; Refuel, in which having more fuel slows you down; Slalom, a gate race; Pole Position, where you stay in first to gain points; Sector Snatch, where you dominate sections of the track and Trophy Chase, an item collecting race. Each of these offer a new perspective on the game but none stray too far from the formula. The most fun can be had with Refuel, where you have to run your fuel tank down to its limit in order to go as fast as possible. It a tense and tactical affair where you have to decide whether to refuel now or power ahead and risk running out.
These extra games modes don’t quite make up for the game’s balancing issues though. It’s a shame because the gameplay is decent, if a bit underwhelming, and it tries to do some genuinely interesting things. If you are able to get past the frustration of losing a few races to cheap AI and are a fan of Formula 1 then F1 Race Stars is a great way to celebrate the end of the 2012 F1 season. If, however, you have less patience then you might be better off checking out some of the other kart-racing games, or waiting for the next F1 game.
Verdict – Off Target
Platforms Available – 360, PC, PS3
Platform Reviewed – 360
Review based on a copy supplied by PR. Check out this post for more on our scoring policy.<