Codemasters have quickly become kings of the road – not in a Roger Miller kind of way, but in so much as every single one of their racers have been brilliant. Whether it’s the rally-based racing of the DiRT series, the awesome track action of GRiD or the speedy and glamorous F1 games, they seem to be able to pretty much nail it. So what would happen if the slightly more “real” racing was replaced by some cartoony karting action, and the expensive F1 toys like DRS and KERS were replaced with homing bubbles and confetti? Well, it turns out it’s not a simple answer.
There’s plenty of charm behind F1 Race Stars. The cars, which are kitted out with the same licensed liveries and drivers as its more realistic cousin, are shrunk down and driven by massive-headed caricatures of the 24 drivers on the grid. Likenesses are mixed, with Mark Webber looking uncannily similar to the real Aussie despite his somewhat more successful teammate looking a little generic and odd. The tracks on offer are pretty cool though, mixing some slightly more crazy elements like corkscrews and water rapids with recognisable sections such as Monza’s opening chicane. Hitting these slightly tighter corners would normally be a piece of cake in a karting game, but Race Stars does things a little differently, and it’s something not everyone is all that fond of.
Handling is definitely quite a shock at first. Every other karting game that has ever existed relies on your keeping your foot to the floor and just going through the motions with the occasional drift round a sharper corner. Where Race Stars does things differently is the much heavier reliance of braking. Yep, braking in a fun, light hearted karting game. What gives? Well, initially it’s a quite jarring experience, and feels entirely out of place in a game of this ilk. But get used to finding the optimal braking zones, picking your lines through the corners and generally not driving like an alcoholic and you’ll start to see the rewards, and when everything clicks into place things start to make a lot more sense. It’s about as far from a traditional handling model as you’ll find in terms of karting titles, but it does give things a more F1-like twist, and shows the Codemasters were keeping the link to the F1 brand quite near the front of their minds while developing this.
This is also half-evident with the power-ups – one collectable item lets you unleash a safety car which dashes to the front of the pack and slows down all of the cars at the front, giving those languishing behind a chance to catch up a bit. The mock KERS system is interesting too, effectively a boost of sorts which charges up on certain areas on the track, ready to be unleashed with a burst of speed as you exit the corners. But that aside, it feels like the developers were doing everything they could do dodge copying other games’ power-ups, with legal-action-avoiding weapons including bubbles that sit on the track and capture whoever is clumsy enough to drive into it, red bubbles which home in on the car ahead, and confetti which covers part of the player’s screen in colourful paper. Fans of similar games will have seen similar weapons before in different guises, and the choice of bubbles seems a bit random when you think this is an F1 game with untypically proper cornering, yet ignores the fact that F1 isn’t really where you find many bubbles knocking around.
There’s also the slight issue that causes grief with every racer that involves weapons – that beautiful moment when your carefully and hard crafted lead suddenly gets buggered up by everyone behind you firing weapons at you at once. This works both ways, obviously, and having a tough couple of laps never really means your race is done and dusted, and the amount of shortcuts and objects on each track means there’s always ways for people to mess up or catch up. This comes to life in the game’s multiplayer options, as you’d expect, and with online and local multiplayer on offer you’ll be able to enjoy the racing with both those in your own lounge as well as elsehwhere, and the local games will give you a chance to get younger gamers involved, something you wouldn’t normally do with an F1 title.
And that seems to be the key idea behind Race Stars – the bright and colourful visuals will appeal to the younger gamer, with the slightly more advanced handling giving a gentle and fun introduction to the world of F1. Sadly, this does make it a bit of an odd concept for your average gamer, and some kids might find the slightly cuter LBP Karting more to their tastes. There’s no doubting that you’ll get some fun racing out of F1 Race Stars, but I’m not sure they’ve really nailed any of the audiences they could’ve aimed for.
Reviewed on PS3