Much like a driver wrestling with the wheel, finding themselves pulled off course by the weight and momentum of their own vehicle, F1 Race Stars is a title that struggles to find its racing line. This internal conflict stems from its concept: a cutesy kart racer based around the ultra-serious F1 license. Codemasters Racing should certainly not be begrudged their effort to create something new and different with this license, but time and again this game finds itself pulling in two different directions at once.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the game’s handling system. In-keeping with the F1 theme, F1 Race Stars features no drifting whatsoever and instead opts for some of the most dramatic understeer you’re ever likely to encounter in a karting title. This means that, on the higher of the three engine calibers (2000cc/3000cc) that serve as both speed and difficulty settings, you’ll have to drive at a skill level somewhat unusual to this genre.
The inclusion of ‘proper’ driving mechanics and incentives for hitting the racing line are not inherent problems; but housing them in a game whose art style and tone suggests a more casual, kid-focused drive or a post-pub piss-about feels like an odd decision.
The artists, as it happens, have done a magnificent job. All the F1 drivers (plus a few female drivers who, according to a brief Google search, appear to have been invented for the game) are rendered in superb, big-headed caricature form. Their pre and post race antics do get a bit old, but the first few times you see a driver break-dance in triumph on the podium or reel in their helmet with an imaginary fishing pole it should raise a smile. Likewise, the stock phrases each racer utters on the track are quirky at first but will eventually make you glad for the “voices off” menu option.
Each of the eleven tracks included with the PC version (thanks to the current fetishisation of pre-order exclusives, Spain’s Valencia circuit only comes with the Xbox 360 edition) has just the same terrific artistic treatment. You’ll race through familiar (albeit cartoon-ised) sections of current national circuits, but also cruise through areas representative of a given country’s national character. These are painted in pretty broad strokes, so you’ll be coming across mechanised Sumo matches in Japan, stretches of desert in Abu Dhabi and Harrier jump-jets in Great Britain.
Here too though, you get the feeling that the audience who appreciates speeding through Asterix-style roman architecture in Italy may not overlap much with those who are trying to spot the parts Codemasters have lifted from Monza.
While the art direction of the courses is bright, lively and bold, the actual track design tends to rely heavily on wide curves, tight hairpins and Codemasters’ kart-version of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). Several corners per track are marked as blue-and-white striped KERS zones, in which you can gain a maximum boost out of a corner by triple-charging your kart’s in-built battery. In practice, this means releasing and re-holding the accelerator for a set amount of time to charge each battery segment, while at the same time keeping an eye on your positioning.
It’s not as complex as that explanation probably made it sound (once you understand the concept it’s quite straightforward), but F1 Race Stars makes it as tricky as possible by not really bothering to spell out how to do it, barring a somewhat unclear text prompt that pops up during your first race. This lack of tutorial input is present throughout the game, and without the notes provided with this review code I would have had no idea that it was possible to gain a boost when landing from a jump (something that’s pretty damn useful to know).
Taken in context with the emphasis on understeer and capturing the racing line, the KERS system works rather well. It provides a decent test of your ability in return for a boost and (along with the hairpin turns) ensures that your finger won’t remain glued to the accelerator.
Of course, F1 Race Stars couldn’t be a true karting game without a selection of bizarre power-ups and eclectic modes of play. The former are a little on the disappointing side, mostly consisting of various types of ‘bubble’ (heat seeking, unguided or static trap) that will hold a rival driver up for a while. Others fit better with the F1 theme, such as the ability to conjure up some rain (this weather change affects the whole track and is another success for the graphics department), or force the leader to slow up behind a safety car (accompanied by a massively irritating and persistent siren sound).
The game types have a little more spark, offering modes like Elimination (periodically ditching someone from the back of the pack), Slalom (where driving through extended sequences of coloured gates will net you the points for victory) and Trophy Chase (in which you have to grab trophies from the track, while preventing attacks that will cause you to spill a few). It’s also possible to tweak a mode still further, altering the frequency of power-ups, flipping the track into a mirror image of itself, or increasing the fragility of the karts (race damage causes slowdown, until you hit the pits for a quick repair).
In pretty much every game mode, getting an early lead and maintaining it is the key to success. That reads like a statement as insightful as “drive fast to win!”, but the point here is to highlight the exponential advantage in being away from the main pack. Since the vast majority of the common power-ups are best used on your immediate rivals, a lot of races devolve into a kind of midfield squabble, while a lucky race leader gradually builds an unassailable lead. Each track also features a key that opens a shortcut which can shave large amounts of time off your lap. If a player can get hold of this early on, only a huge amount of wet weather and safety cars will be sufficient to drag them back to the pack.
As is often the case in games of this style, single player mode is only of interest for as long as you can stand the AI. In multiplayer karting exploits (and the same is true in this game), rivalries develop between players, and there’s a sense of justice, revenge or cheery malice when taking out a fellow driver. This translates best to living room play in split-screen, but can work online too. The AI, in contrast, feels nothing. Its attacks are the result of cold, rational programming and there’s precious little joy to be earned from getting your own back on a machine.
You will want to experience this hollow feeling, however, because the AI drivers in F1 Race Stars are robotic shitbags. Do you enjoy maintaining a narrow lead on the final race of an event, only to be assailed by a safety car and three homing bubbles on the home stretch and see four or five opponents glide merrily by? Then F1 Race Stars has you covered.
That’s the nature of the game to some extent, but it’s so much more soul destroying when executed by an AI opponent. When your friend dicks you over you can at least push them off the sofa. With the AI, the only way to win is not to play. Well, that or triumph in every single one of the 30 career events.
The PC options offered by the game are, to say the least, bare bones. You’re limited to changing the resolution, and the 5:4 aspect ratio of my monitor insisted on letterboxing the action with fat black bars. It runs at a steady 60fps, but while that’s something of an achievement in terms of the console version, on PC it’s nothing much to shout about.
In fact, if the console versions do run at 60fps, there’s a reasonable case for looking that way (sorry Paul, please don’t fire me).
F1 Race Stars is a game heavily geared towards split-screen and online multiplayer (it’s actually possible to do both, with 2-4 in split screen competing in online matches), so unless you have your PC hooked up to the living room telly or a comfortable desktop setup for several people to huddle around, console could have the edge here. Naturally, it also controls better with a gamepad than keys.
No matter which platform, you’ll need others to race against, and this is where F1 Race Stars may suffer. Too bland in its power-up selection and identikit cars for karting fans, but rather too silly for a lot of the F1 crowd, the game finds itself hamstrung by design choices that try to placate both audiences. If there are enough people out there who want a lovely-looking kart game that eschews drifting for some semi-proper race mechanics, and don’t mind that the drivers and tools are a little lacking in personality, then this could find cult status. At $40 USD though, it’s a pricy gamble.