Even in video games, fads and trends both come and go. Different times bring with them different popular genres. Some, like the first-person shooter, end up sticking; however, others don’t last as long in the limelight. Take the music genre for example, as a plethora of releases have left players bored of hitting coloured buttons along to songs. Then there’s the kart racer, a sub-genre that became incredibly popular years ago, and is now seeing a welcomed second coming of sorts.
Codemasters’ budget-priced F1 Race Stars happens to be the latest genre effort to hit retail store shelves. An interesting take on one of our world’s most popular sports, the game takes some of Formula One’s most prominent racers, including Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and turns them into cartoon caricatures. In turn, those animated and colourfully exaggerated avatars race around creative takes on real-life event locations, including USA, Brazil, Singapore, Britain and Abu Dhabi. As such, there’s no real narrative to be found within, but there’s no need for one. Each driver is racing for the podium, as expected.
Like those that have come before it, Codemasters’ take on the sub-genre is obviously inspired by Mario Kart. However, the good news is that it’s definitely not a clone. This time around, the action-packed racing has been expanded, allowing for twelve racers per event. As a result, there’s more to worry about while on the track, especially since the competition is stiff. In fact, this release is one of the more challenging kart racers out there, which is more of a negative than a positive. That’s because, due to the increase in difficulty, the game’s accessibility has been lessened. It’d be expected if this were a simulation title like F1 2012, but this particular type of game should be geared more towards a casual audience than the hardcore racing crowd. After all, the main goal is to try to get those who wouldn’t normally play the more realistic take on things to pick up a controller and learn about the F1 brand.
Although three different vehicle tiers are available for use, they all feel the same in terms of difficulty, with the only noticeable difference coming in the speed department. Normally, each one would represent a different challenge level, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. As such, it will be tough for some casual players to get into the action, unless they choose to stick to online and local multiplayer races, or decide to work as a team. There’s frustration to be found as a result of this, because the artificial intelligence is ruthless during core races. However, other event types, including the gate-based slalom option and the competitive trophy hunt scenario, are much more accessible.
Achieving success requires deft driving skills, in addition to luck. Being able to move through the pack while staying out of trouble is easier said than done, however, because some of the power-ups given to racers in lower positions are challenging to avoid. That’s the base of this type of game, though, because the better items are always given to those closer to last place. It’s a balancing act that developers need to deal with, in order to keep players in the hunt from start to finish, and Codemasters did a pretty good job with the creation of its weapons and abilities. Granted, some are much better than others, and getting a teleportation item near the end of a race could propel a driver from near the back of the pack to a podium position.
The list of available items is quite large, with the lower-tiered ones being bubbles, as opposed to rockets or shells. Blue bubbles can be laid as traps, yellow ones can ricochet against walls and heat-seeking red ones can find drivers by themselves. There’s also a purple variety, which seems to stun other players, but it’s not as prevalent as the others. Note that those are the items that race leaders tend to get most, while the others can pick-up a speeding bottle rocket, an invincible set of metallic armour and the aforementioned teleportation device. All three aid in the pursuit of first place, though the safety car – which slows others down – could be the most helpful item found within the game, though the traditional speed bursts give it a run for its proverbial money.
It would be easier to stay ahead of others if the game’s cornering controls were better, and drifting was easy to accomplish on sunny tracks like it is on rain-covered sections. While playing within the 1000cc tier, going around steep curves was relatively easy. However, the 3000cc tier’s speed made for much more of a challenge when it came to that department. Braking is a necessity if you hope to stay on a good line, and that takes some time to get used to, because failure to do so will result in some guardrail collisions. Executing a great turn is important, because quite a few of the corners offer KERS pads, which act as a unique type of boost pad, allowing built up energy to propel cars forward. In order to make use of one, the player must drive on it for a short period of time, without veering off.
KERS pads aren’t the only unique gameplay addition that interested parties will find within F1 Race Stars. In fact, Codemasters took inspiration from the featured sport, and decided to include two-player teams, weather and pit stops. Friends can team up and work together against the competition in various modes, which is a neat twist on the sub-genre. However, the other two list items are more prominent, and affect the experience more. Rain can damage vehicles, and racers can use a storm cloud item to hurt their opponents. However, it’s also worth noting that basic item damage can also affect the cars.
Whenever damage occurs, it’s highlighted by visual effects, which feature static and other problematic symptoms. The idea is that the vehicles can only take a certain amount of damage, so repairing via pit stops is sometimes a necessity. Thankfully, the mechanical alleys provide almost instantaneous fixes, meaning that they won’t take you out of the race for long. Sure, you may lose a couple of positions if other racers are close, but that’s simply because of the driving required within the pit areas themselves.
All of the tracks are well designed and interesting, employing region-specific scenery, colour palettes and obstacles. For example, the USA course takes players into a desert region, and then changes to showcase another part of the country’s landscape. Other tracks feature forestry, puddles, bridges and intense ramps. In fact, the most memorable one features a rollercoaster track, which players must drive on top of as a car flies by on an adjoining metallic rail. The developers did a good job of taking different countries and making colourful cartoon course designs based on them, giving F1 Race Stars a standout feature that players will remember going forward.
There’s a hefty amount of gameplay to be found within the career mode and its thirty unique championships, and the helpful thing is that different drivers can be selected throughout, allowing players to test out their bonuses. Each licensed team shares one specific bonus ability, such as improved drafting, the option to switch items and a ghost boost maneuver. Switching at will makes for more of a varied experience, although the differences aren’t major.
On top of the career scenario, which thankfully doesn’t force users to come in first, one will find time trials, plus online and free play options. The time-based challenges don’t need to be described because they’re a familiar part of just about every racing game out there, but it’s important to talk about the other two. First up are the competitive, Internet-enabled competitions, which offer a varied assortment of game types tailored towards solo and group play. Next up is the free play option, which includes a quality assortment of modes from the career scenario, including regular races, exhibition point matches, trophy collecting competitions, slalom challenges and elimination events.
In the end, F1 Race Stars is a quality karting experience that fans of the sport will appreciate, especially since it retails with an affordable forty-dollar price tag. It’s interesting, different and entertaining, not to mention polished, colourful and well made. Frankly, it’s tough to fault the title’s presentation, which is very solid, and the amount of replay value that is offered is another notable plus. As a result, this game will surely appeal to those who are in the mood for a slightly different take on the kart racing sub-genre, though the challenging difficulty that is included within this particular release may turn casual gamers off.
This review is based on a PS3 copy of the game that we were provided with.