As I flit about F1 Race Stars’ preview build menu, looking for something to really get my teeth into away from two-lap single races, simplified handling, weapons that lack real bite and a smattering of tracks, there’s a slight, albeit momentarily crushing feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, this game isn’t actually aimed at me. It’s not – it doesn’t pretend to be for a second – and for the first time since I really started writing about videogames I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s another generation of gamer being catered for, and that some games are going to have to pass me by.
This, of course, isn’t the fault of Codemasters. By targeting the younger gamer they’ve managed to wrestle something out of the license that simply wouldn’t connect the same way with – let’s say – seasoned pros of a certain age. The big heads with the angular likenesses stuck atop of stunted bodies squeezed into proportionally impossible cars will sit well with kids, and likewise the rich colour palette sets it apart from ‘realistic’ racers and their dull grey tarmac. Even the silly pre-race gestures don’t even annoy me like they did when I first started playing.
The game is frequently gorgeous, sporting some really impressive visuals which (mostly) run at 60fps.
The problem I’ve got (and it’s one that won’t magically dissipate in the hands of a ten year old, I’m sure) is the way the cars feel on the road. Dramatic under-steering isn’t such a huge issue in itself, but when coupled with the absence of drifting (presumably a by-product of stringent license holders not wanting to dilute the trademark cornering and some attempt at a semblance of realism) it means that braking heavily – something rare in a racer of this ilk – is commonplace. In fact, despite the big heads, gloriously alive track visuals and buoyant, bouncing music F1 Race Stars still expects you to drive.
It’s a paradox never really explained, either. In the game’s fastest class (3,000 CC) the cars zip along at a lovely rate but require an amount of attention that’s difficult to commit when you’ve got a pack of other vehicles happy to bump you around, not to mention shoot any number of weapons your way. And with a damage model (of sorts) on-board it’s critical that you don’t end up in the tyre traps as much as you might be able to do in other similar titles. Sure, the pit lane is a clever feature (you just need to drive through one to repair yourself) but I’d swap that in a heartbeat for the ability to drift, or corner more tightly.
The weapons are presumably hamstrung by both the license and that persistent, nagging nod to realism, too. Instead of missiles and massive boxing gloves F1 Race Stars sports a series of coloured bubbles: the red one works like a rocket but looks like a red bubble, the yellow one you drop behind you, and so on – it’s not a massive issue but they do take some time to get used to and colour blind gamers are going to be in for some serious guesswork. There’s also zero warning about when you’ll get hit by a weapon, something that LittleBigPlanet Karting gets right.
What does work? There’s a clever mechanic in the form of how Race Stars interprets KERS, in which your driving ability through a corner (or at least corners marked with a blue pattern) increases your post-turn turbo boost, and the tracks themselves are impressively inventive and generally superb fun to drive through, if not generally too long. The USA track blends Indy racing with a dusty offroad section and a daring 90 degree bank, for example, whilst the Brazilian outing boasts a real party vibe. They’re based loosely on real life counterparts, but with substantial changes where appropriate; case in point: the Monaco track has a ridiculously daft jump and a surprise left turn diversion, but still incorporates the Fairmont Hairpin.
The Monaco course pays homage enough to cause familiarity before going off on some crazy tangents, including a massive jump.
The biggest shock, though, and the thing that’ll really ensure that the kids get behind this game? Split screen. Whilst the single player game chops along at a lovely 60fps and often looks spectacular, the multiplayer manages to stay surprisingly true on a technical level, even as you introduce three and four local players into the mix. Playing with a full complement of sofa-based gamers is a delight, and brings back the best of Mario Kart and levels the playing field considerably. Free from some dramatic rubber-banding and the sense that the computer AI always has the upper hand when it comes to weapon selection, offline split screen is a most welcome addition.
F1 Race Stars manages to just about straddle the void between being another crazy all-out Kart racer and that license, which must have been tricky to pull off. Something tells me the developers would have loved to pull the game all the way over and really let loose, but within the constrains of what must be miles of red tape, Codemasters have managed to build something that younger F1 fans will no doubt love. There’s not quite enough here to hold the attention of adult gamers looking for weeks of substance, but that’s exactly the point – kids will appreciate that this is a game clearly for them, but also one that doesn’t patronise them.
And that was probably the point all along.