F1 Race Stars attempts to blend the official branding of Formula One with big-headed drivers, ballistic bubble-based weapons and corkscrews, twists and jumps the likes of which seem more appropriate in a karting game than one with roots in motorsport’s most lucrative license.
Yet, despite the obvious and considerable talent at Codemasters and an IP that grants access to pretty much everything a Formula One fan might want, ironically Race Stars seems hamstrung and held back, by what one can only assume were pages and pages of red tape – a set of rules and guidelines that ultimately governed how the game would work.
Case in point: the handling, which plays off frustratingly lazy understeer in the bends with otherwise twitchy, immediate, directional, pointed driving elsewhere. Take a corner with any amount of gusto and you’ll be rewarded with a faceplant into the tyres or concrete, instead you’re expected to slow to a crawl on all but the most gradual, sweeping bends, something at odds with the way the game lets you dart about on the straights, and certainly juxtaposed against the distinctively kart-like demeanor that the rest of the game exudes.
Let’s be honest, this isn’t a title aimed at die-hard racing sim fans – it’s aimed at younger, casual gamers wanting a slice of the F1 pie without having to worry about tuning or training with enough familarity (the recognisable visages and on-car liveries) mixed in with undoubtably – racing physics aside – courses that are actually pretty good fun to drive around. But for all the time we’ve spent with the game we never once wanted to drive it like a ‘normal’ racing game – frustrating, given the fact F1 Race Stars steadfastly refuses to budge on that one.
Drifting, too, is out of the window. Yes, this is a Formula One game and with it an assumed expectation from the license holder that the cars will perform as they do out on the tarmac, but when you’re flinging them across cavernous chasms and down water-filled rapids it’s reasonable to assume that realism was hardly at the forefront of the mind of the developers. You can’t help feel that the hairpins present are there to be powerslided around with abandon, not edged forward like a reluctant tortoise, and that the omission of drifting and the reliance on the brakes wasn’t always part of the package.
In short, there’s confusion here, and it takes a considerable amount of time to tune in to the way F1 Race Stars wants you to play. Once you have, it’s a decidely more flowing game – players aiming for the apex, judging braking distances and tackling chicanes like a pro make for a somewhat unique experience given the visuals, the weapons and the overstated characterisation, but is that really what the title should outwardly portray? It’d be wise to mention the playable demo, currently available for both PS3 and Xbox 360 – that gives a solid impression on how the physics are handled.
However, all that aside, F1 Race Stars is actually quite good fun. For starters, four player split screen is supported and actually works really well with the framerate holding up nicely (albeit with slightly watered down visuals for each of the windows and the odd bit of tearing) and the online functionality is up there with genre staples, with twelve players able to compete on the track. Coupled with an extensive array of game options it’s possible to tailor the multiplayer to something approaching your ideal configuration – weapons can be switched off, the number of laps can be changed, and there are loads of game styles away from the standard race such as slalom runs and one where you win by collecting a pre-defined number of trophies left on the course.
In addition, the race host can choose up to three modifiers from a bank of several, which include mirror mode, an option to have constant rain and one that switches the controls of whoever’s in first place, swapping over their steering. These can be stacked, and are a neat supplement that should ensure there’s plenty of variety when playing with mates. There are three speed settings, too – from 1,000 CC to 3,000 CC, although even the top speed is hardly troubling on all but the most complicated, twisting tracks. Going weapons free is probably a good idea, too – the ‘weapons’ are a little vague and woolly – and mostly just bubbles; probably another case of the F1 license holders not wanting to go over the top.
- Full career mode, of sorts, that can be played multiplayer.
- Great visuals.
- Plenty of race customisation.
- Split Screen.
- Frustratingly un-arcade handling.
- No drifting or jumping.
- The courses are too long, and too few in number.
Catch-up keeps the races tight (for better or worse) and the ability to ‘pump’ the triggle for a KERS boost, something that’s never really explained by the game but intuitive enough once you master it, adds a little strategy to the proceedings. There’s a decent variety of courses on offer here – loosely based on real world counterparts but with outrageous additions – but all are probably twice as long as they needed to have been, the better outcome would have been to split them into two and effectively double the amount of courses but keep things more interesting on the track. At 1,000 CC even just three laps is a long, drawn out affair.
The visuals are lovely, though – pastel coloured environmental details balance out the rich liveries of the cars, there’s some great attention to detail and the animation’s humourous enough, especially the pre-race ones when the racers perform their little canned jibes and taunts. It’s a great looking game, and whilst the menus are functional rather than elaborate, there’s a certain consistency across the presentation, which is boosted by rapid loading times and a solid, obvious path through the various options you need to set pre-race.
F1 Race Stars could have been wonderful, with just a couple of tweaks to the handling. However, the stoic adherance to sim-esque cornering has meant that the driving needs to be approached with far more care than it should, something that’s at odds with the presentation, track design and the fact that at any point you could be blasted with a weapon from behind – and they’re not blockable either. It’s still a decent title for the younger ones, but it’s in real danger of missing the one crucial element that all games like this should have: simple, fun handling.