We first saw F1 Race Stars a couple of months back during the week-long sauna with sweaty fat kids that is Gamescom. Our time with the game then was restricted to eyes-on only and a few hasty questions shouted over the top of the constant din that seems to seep from every pore at a videogame convention. It’s nice then, to have F1 Race Stars in front of us and to play it within the comfort our own consoles, pads and schedules provide.
The preview build we’ve got is a slice from the full game; including five tracks and all of the teams/drivers, but lacking championship and online modes. Whatever the case, it’s enough of a sample that we now feel as though we really understand what Codemasters are aiming for with this one and how it differs from other kart-racers out there and on the horizon.
For starters, the handling model is somewhat different to most. F1 Race Stars feels slighter stiffer than your average Mario Kart or ModNation Racers, meaning the brake is something you actually need to pay attention to and apply when necessary. Being a game loosely based on Formula 1, there’s no drifting, so you can do a little hop and slide to get you out of trouble if you’ve mistimed your turning-in point or been knocked out of position by someone else’s weapon/kart.
The lack of a drift is not that much of an issue on four of the five tracks we’ve played, as they didn’t feature corners that demanded such tactics; most are wide and sweeping, rather than narrow and tight. Monaco is the exception.
It seems that Monaco is, as in real-life, going to be the most technically demanding of the circuits and force you to actually implement a degree of technique when it comes to speed, angle and braking point. As with all of the game’s tracks, F1 Race Star’s Monaco comes with a great deal of artistic license; these are not copies of the real-world tracks. Monaco’s particularly tough section sees you racing around a set of hairpins on the side of mountain, the twelve racers trying desperately to stay within the confines of the narrow track in fear of dropping off the edge and into oblivion.
Those hairpins cannot – repeat: cannot – be taken at full speed, and with no drift you have to brake. It may only sound like a small detail, but it feels almost life-changing for a kart-racer and goes some way to making the game feel as though it still has a relative F1 essence by comparison.
The same degree of artistic license has been taken with the other tracks we’ve played.Brazil’s Interlagos has been turned into a sort of jungle paradise, complete with dense forest, caves and cliffs.Germany’s Hockenheim is equal parts castle, woodland and autobahn, while Italy is set along an aqueduct and USA on the side of a dam. It’s all wacky, outlandish stuff but each track does at least bare some resemblance to their real-life counterparts. The first corner of Brazil is the same sweeping downhill left as it is in the real world and Monaco features the same iconic tunnel and chicane combination.
Races can be run at three different speeds, with AI difficulty increasing the higher up you go. 1,000cc is painfully slow, seemingly designed for those that have never played a videogame before (let alone a racing game). 2,000cc is a decent challenge, while 3,000cc requires a six-pack of Red Bull just to keep up after the first lap.
The x-factor in all of this, of course, is the various weapons you’ve got at your disposal. Some are exactly what you’d expect; namely, missiles that shoot forwards and backwards, some that home in on their target and the standard boost/nitrous. Others are a little more imaginative and play to the F1 theme. A wet-weather attack targets another driver with a rain cloud and makes the track slippery for them, while the safety car attack slows everyone on the track down and gives you a fighting chance to catch up. The neat thing about the safety car is that, no matter where you are in the race, it bunches everyone up and makes for some mad scenes once the race gets underway again. Just make sure to save your weapons for when the safety car leaves the track, don’t use them while it’s still out.
On top of the weapon pick-ups, each team has their own special attack. For example, Ferrari is the only team allowed to fire homing missiles backwards, Red Bull gets a massive slipstream boost and Lotus fires a triple ricochet missile (every other team fires them in singles). It gives each team a slight edge that encourages you to try them all out before settling on a favourite, rather than simply sticking to the more established teams such as McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari.
The fact that there’s still more to talk about demonstrates that F1 Race Stars in more than a simple case of a game trying to cash in on the ever-popular go-karting genre; we haven’t even mentioned the different race types, WipEout-esque damage and repair system, four-player split-screen and on-track shortcuts. This is hardly the kind of game that Codemasters Racing is known for, but as ever, the output from the studio is looking rather good.