I spent my first five minutes of F1 Race Stars frantically pushing every button on the controller and repeatedly pulling up the control options to scan the button layouts. I didn’t think it was possible, but here is a kart racing game without a drift mechanic! Therein lies the challenge with creating an over-the-top game based on something as technical as Formula 1. Sacrifices need to be made, and unfortunately, F1 Race Stars makes the wrong ones.
Formula 1 is becoming increasingly mainstream, but its official game – the sublime F1 2012, is far from it. It mimics the technicalities and intricacies of the sport pretty much to a tee, leaving a pretty large chunk of the F1 audience – the casual fans, unaddressed. That’s where this Mario Kart-inspired game comes in. To put it simply, this game is nothing like F1, but simply uses the official F1 teams and drivers along with heavily modified versions of some of the official F1 circuits.
The caricature art style of the drivers, their goofy animations, and their tiny cars will sit well with the audience the game is targetting, as will the colourful track design. This is a kart racing game, and one of the pre-requisites for this genre is the power-ups and weapons. Those are very much there, but they’re mostly variations of each other and not a lot of fun to use, especially if you’re used to Mario Kart, or even Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Also, you can only store one weapon or power-up at a time.
Pick-ups and weapons include various kinds of projectiles, balloons that explode confetti across your screen, the safety car to slow down cars ahead of you, stormy weather to make other cars handle poorly, a rocket power-up that acts as a catch-up mechanic, and speed boosts, among others. There are also boost pads laid across tracks as well as obstacles that will slow you down. Additionally, different teams possess special powers. For example, the Ferraris’ are the only cars to be able to shoot homing projectiles backwards. Taking damage from weapons will reduce your car’s speed and this can be remedied by driving though the pit lanes and other repair lanes around the track.
Another pre-requisite in kart games is controls that let you throw caution to the wind, but in the lack of a drift mechanic, that isn’t possible here. F1 cars don’t drift and for some reason, the developers have chosen to stay faithful to that aspect of the sport in this game. They’ve done so at the expense of fun. You’ll often find yourself braking more than you would in more serious arcade racers because that’s the only way you’re going to make it around tight corners. With this one design decision, F1 Race Stars shoots itself in the foot.
Not helping matters is the game’s terrible sense of speed. You can take to the track in three car variants – 1,000 cc, 2,000 cc and 3,000 cc, and even in the most powerful of them, the cars just feel too slow. The signature F1 engine sounds are also missing, and only appear for a couple of seconds when you activate KERS, which is done by repeatedly tapping the brake over designated blue-and-white striped sections on the track. The game doesn’t include every track on the F1 calendar – India is missing, for example. The ones that are included incorporate sections from their real world counterparts, but these are broken up by over-the-top, often gravity-defying segments that are designed to liven things up, as well as country-specific props that are used as obstacles to impede you. The Japan track, for example, will have you drive through an arena of giant sumo wrestlers moving around to block your path.
F1 Race Stars’ career mode is simply a collection of various cups, which in turn are just a series of races, where the overall points tally decides the winner. These championships, however, do a good job of gradually introducing the game’s many event types. There are standard and elimination races; fuel challenges where the object is to win the race by refuelling as few times as possible; and slalom races with colour-coded gates that must be passed through to rack up score combos, amongst others. All of these, of course, include power-ups and weapons as well, ensuring that events are always lively. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to connect to the game’s online servers to check out its multiplayer offerings.
F1 Race Stars is distinctly un-Codemasters in every aspect. The presentation, while cute, doesn’t live up to the developer’s high standards, and the lack of drifting and the poor sense of speed are criminal in a game such as this. More than that, the constant reliance on braking makes the game more inaccessible than the average kart racer, defeating the game’s very purpose. There’s a couple of hours of fun to be had here, but F1 Race Stars is eventually a flawed and forgettable attempt at bringing F1 gaming to the masses.