F1 Race Stars is a game that makes clever use of its license. It takes all of the sport's real-world teams and drivers, and slaps them into a colourful karting game. But while the title initially appears tailor made for children, it quickly transpires that there's a lot more to the arcade racer.
It’s clear that Codemasters has put a lot of care and effort into creating F1 Race Stars. Despite their giant heads and cartoon-styled personalities, the majority of the F1 drivers are instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the sport. Furthermore, the attention to detail on the kart models themselves is impressive. It's an obsessive tribute to the license it's based upon.
Of course, presentation alone is not enough to create a decent game, and so the title works hard to capture the essence of F1 racing while retaining the mainstays of the karting genre. For example, depending on their real-world F1 team, each driver has different skills and abilities. Red Bull racers are granted a speed boost if they can stay in the slipstream long enough, while McLaren members can swap their random pick-ups for something a little more appropriate. Despite the minor differences, each vehicle handles in exactly the same way.
Bizarrely, the racing itself feels surprisingly similar to the real thing, despite the game billing itself as a kart racer. There’s no drifting mechanic or method to gain instant speed outside of weapons and boost pads. Just like in the real sport, you’re forced to hug corners, and slipstream your way to victory – which is where F1 Race Stars starts to shed its whimsical appearance. Younger gamers will find it difficult to beat the AI through quality driving, and this issue is compounded further by the fact that there are no difficulty settings to adjust.
As such, the game quickly becomes frustrating, whether you're a fan of Formula 1 or not. Even when you're performing particularly well – taking corners perfectly and slipstreaming past the opposition at every opportunity – you’re never guaranteed victory. Where the real sport relies on skill, F1 Race Stars depends on luck – and lots of it.
As previously alluded, the racer implements various weapons, which are scattered across each of the game's tracks. These offensive objects take the form of various coloured bubbles; red bubbles are shot forward and track your opponents down, while blue bubbles are dropped from behind your kart. The artillery on offer isn't particularly original – it's just in bubble form. And unfortunately, originality is the least of the weapons' worries.
Because of the combative mechanic, luck becomes an all-too-apparent factor when racing. The advantages gained from a decent weapon far outweigh the benefits of learning the layout of the circuit, thus most races tend to devolve into chaotic sprints to the best power-ups. The worst offender is undoubtedly the warp. As its name indicates, the warp propels you (or the AI racers) forward several positions in the span of second. While it doesn't appear particularly problematic at first, it soon becomes obvious that when the warp is used closer to the front of the pack, it’ll actually teleport the lucky individual so far into the lead that they’ll be uncatchable for the rest of the race.
Unfortunately, F1 Race Stars' missteps don’t stop there. As if the weapons themselves weren’t annoying enough – being hit by one actually damages your kart. The more damage you take, the more sparks and smoke start appearing, and the slower your vehicle goes. The only way to repair your car is by driving through pit stops, which usually appear once or twice on a single track. Frustratingly, the repair centres are always adjacent to the speedy part of the circuit, meaning that taking advantage of them will lose you several positions in the race. The theory behind the system is nice, but when coupled with the already devastating weapons, it only adds to the frustration.
It’s not all bad, though. Even with these gameplay problems, F1 Race Stars still shows some real promise from time to time. The handling feels good, as does the speed, and the tracks – while relatively bland and uninspired – are both wide and lengthy, encouraging players to explore different styles of play. There are also a lot of unlockables to collect, from titles and banners, to different visual effects which can be applied to your kart.
Where F1 Race Stars truly shines is in its multiplayer, though. Away from the relatively cheap AI, multiplayer can spawn some genuinely memorable moments – as a kart racer should. The ability to split 12 competitors into teams of 2, 4 and 6 in any game mode is extremely welcome, and it’s a feature that reaches its full potential when playing with friends. It even allows for some surprisingly tactical gameplay. For example, sticking close to a team mate means that you can benefit from each other's slipstream.
Outside of local multiplayer, taking the game online prompts some mixed results. There’s certainly some fun to be had here, but we found it hard to find a full 12 player race. Whether this is down to a lack of players, or more rudimentary connection issues, we're not entirely sure. Nevertheless it’s still a fun, if basic online experience.
F1 Race Stars tries its best to adapt the F1 license into a fun and quirky racer, but it ultimately fails to deliver a charming take on the typically serious sport. As with other titles in the genre, the game really shines as a way to pass the time with your friends, but the frustrating, luck-based gameplay effectively cancels out all of the things that the release does right. Younger fans of Formula 1 will love seeing their favourite drivers rendered as cartoon caricatures, but when it comes to race day, gamers of all ages will be left frustrated by the title's complete disregard for skill.