F1 Race Stars
At first blush, the idea of marrying the Formula One license with the cute and colourful kart-racing sub-genre struck me as something of a mad stroke of genius. The very concept of meshing a highly technical, simulation-heavy racer with the accessible, immediate thrill of something like Mario Kart sounded just crazy enough to work, focus or cohesion be damned. Developer Codemasters evidently thought so too (or at the very least, saw the potential to open up its lucrative Formula One license to a wider audience), and the result is F1 Race Stars, a charming kart-racer featuring the caricatured, bobble-headed likenesses of real life Formula One drivers and candy-coloured renditions of actual racing circuits from across the globe, from Monaco to Dubai. It’s a curious and bold notion, to be sure, but in a crowded sub-genre (which has seen a bevy of recent entries, from LittleBigPlanet Karting to Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, F1 Race Stars, novelty will only get a game so far. It’s sad to say then, that for all of its considerable charm and its interesting premise, F1 Race Stars struggles to live up to its potential.
As far as first impressions go, however, F1 Race Stars makes a pretty good one; Codemasters has excelled itself in melding the real with the fantastic, and the cartoon-caricature aesthetic successfully transports some very recognizable real-life drivers and locales into the world of over-the-top kart-racing, and to see Schumacher et al playing with their helmets and taunting one another before a race is cheeky, gratifying fun. Similarly, each of the game’s eleven tracks, from Singapore to Japan to Spain, cleverly take these real-world locations and inject them with a lunatic whimsy, making players dodge errant sumo wrestlers or race atop speeding trains. Everything is bold, colourful and clean, and even better, F1 Race Stars runs at a fast, smooth clip, its technical aptitude and artistic unity combining to provide a sophisticated presentation which does justice to its premise.
Sadly, for all its success in crafting a cohesive visual style which marries two worlds, Codemasters has not quite been able to replicate this achievement in terms of how F1 Race Stars actually plays; the game is stuck somewhere in the netherworld between simulation and whimsy, and never quite coalesces into a wholly satisfying experience. While most kart-racers employ some sort of sliding or drifting mechanic which allows players to take corners at speed, F1 Race Stars skews closer to its simulation roots, requiring players to maintain racing lines and apply the brakes as they turn into a corner, which results in a game which never quite feels as madcap as a kart-racer should; the inventive tracks on offer simply beg to be conquered at speed, so it becomes slightly frustrating and oddly dissonant to be constantly slowing down to avoid veering off-course. It’s unclear whether Codemasters was constrained by the requirements of its licensor, was attempting to craft a ‘unique’ experience, or simply couldn’t decide on a guiding philosophy in terms of how its game plays – but whatever the reason, F1 Race Stars never quite gels. Similarly, its difficult to decipher just who the game is aimed at – the colourful presentation suggests that Codemasters have the younger player in mind, but its hard to imagine even the most-patient child not becoming frustrated by the stop-start nature of the racing in F1 Race Stars.
F1 Race Stars doesn’t do much new when it comes to that essential trope of the sub-genre: weapons and power-ups. All of the usual projectiles (including homing varieties) and speed boosters are present and accounted for in precisely the manner one would expect, with little inspiration or deviation. While Codemasters has injected a few singular ideas of its own, such as a power-up that allows players to deploy rain as a weapon, equipping their own vehicle with wet-weather tyres while leaving others to languish on the sodden track, by and large the races in F1 Race Stars are an all-too-familiar experience, save for the unique frustrations caused by the lack of sliding or drifting, and the need to take stock of vehicle damage. Yes, in yet another slightly misguided concession to its license, F1 Race Stars employs a damage mechanic to reflect a ‘realistic’ Formula One experience; getting hit by other racers’ weapons eventually causes cars to slow down, necessitating a quick trip through the pit stops. The trouble is that it can often be a long haul between stops – get smacked by a projectile as you’re coming out of the pits, and you’ll be grinding your teeth as your car sputters along feebly towards the next pit stop, your competition leaving you in their dust. Compounding the annoyance is the fact that the artificial intelligence just isn’t quite fair, even on the easier difficulty settings, and that it will often con you out of success through some cruel rubber-banding. Such frustrations are emblematic of the entire experience, and overall it seems as if Codemasters has struggled to strike the right balance between arcade accessibility and Formula One authenticity.
By the time I had traipsed through the paltry 11 tracks on offer and blasted my way through each of championships, I struggled to find a reason to keep playing F1 Race Stars. Split-screen and online multiplayer modes (and even the nifty ability to mix it up by taking four local players online against eight others) are solid and quite enjoyable, but the core racing gameplay is beset by too many frustrations and ill-judged design decision for F1 Race Stars to have any of the sort of longevity typical of the best entries in the genre. This is a basic, competent game, but it represents nothing more than a couple of hours of moderate, throw-away enjoyment. F1 Race Stars never truly clicks; its more unique ideas turn out to be irritations rather than inspirations, and the rest of the time it’s just not that interesting. Younger gamers and kart-racing fanatics will find F1 Race Stars abrasive, and Formula One purists will find it unfulfilling. In trying to appeal to everyone, Codemasters is unlikely to please anyone. Middle of the road, indeed.