It’s difficult to review a kart racing game without comparing it to the mammoth title that is Mario Kart. The hit racer from Nintendo has been released on all of the company’s consoles, excluding the recently released Wii U of course, and has sold no less than 90 million units across seven games. It’s a space dominated by the Italian plumber and his frienemies, so it’s difficult for others to break into that space. That’s not going to stop Codemasters giving it a go though with their F1 adaptation, F1 Race Stars; a quirky highly stylised attempt at an expanding the popular motorsport market into new and previously untapped markets.
Fully licensed, it manages to delightfully represent the sports biggest names such as: Vettel, Hamilton and Webber, whilst also introducing a few extra characters to make up the numbers in a 24 strong lineup – though it’s a shame there are so few female characters available. Their attitudes are fantastically over-the-top and slapstick at times, in-keeping with the friendly persona oozing from every corner allowing for a fun yet competitive angle to a sport all too often extremely serious.
A selection of tracks have been recreated with an artistic flair as you wouldn’t usually see hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of engineering excellence perform a loop-the-loop or be propelled hundreds of meters into the air. It’s these aspects that are required for a kart racer; features that are a tad sillier, that wouldn’t fit into the simulation racer. Whilst the tracks are well designed they are far too long for the quick-fire nature of kart racers, plus it’s disappointing that there’s only eleven tracks available – a number that dips below its competitors.
There’s also the standard selection of weapons to pick up and use. Homing missiles that encapsulate your enemy in an immobilising bubble; balloons to lay in your wake which, when hit, obstruct the victims view; a safety car that refuses to let anyone past thus slowing all those ahead so you can catch up; whilst boosts, speed missiles and even warp drives grant added speed jumps. Their variety is somewhat lacking though, not to mention being terribly unimaginative by relying on the tried and tested weapons from other kart racers.
A damage mechanic makes an appearance that will want you to try to limit the number of hits you take as well. It can be difficult to tell as to when you’ve taken too much damage that you require a detour into the pit lane where you’ll be patched up – with inexperienced Race Star players finding it particularly confusing. Small and unclear on-screen notifications around your car attempt to alert you when you’re in need of repair, as well as the noticeable slow-down of your vehicle, but more often than not it was worthwhile pitting at almost any opportunity just to avoid the potential negative side effects of being harmed.
One of the best implemented mechanics is the clever use of KERS (Kinetic energy recovery system). Around pre-determined corners on the tracks are clearly defined sections that will grant a significant boost, if you rev your engine thrice – thus charging your battery. If you leave the track during the KERS sections though you will lose what boost you have built up, although the near immobilisation that exiting the track causes ensures that doing so is a grave mistake.
Without any sort of drift mechanic, Race Stars feels strangely sim-like for a kart racer. Thankfully the handling is responsive, but it all feels a little boring and slow for something that is supposed to get the blood pumping with excitement. The presentation lacks any real design or polish, whilst the barebones “career mode” offers little more than championship after championship. Although the tracks and weapons would be found in something akin to Wacky Races, the racing itself is far more reminiscent of Formula One. Following the race line will see you gain a noticeable advantage, and manage to get far enough out in front where weapons can hardly to you harm and you be next to uncatachable.
Split-screen is enjoyable enough, despite the games flaws, but it just fails to compete against the other kart racers out there already. It doesn’t help that the expected online portion is rather lackluster as well. It’s a touch on the barren side with regards to opponents and although there are a wealth of options to alter the lack of mode types is a hindrance given the game’s issues.
F1 Race Stars was a valiant attempt at entering a market that, until this year, was vastly under competed. The portrayal of the Formula One stars into the cartoon-esque world is well executed and enjoyable for fans of the motorsport, but too many misgivings restrict it from ever really impressing. For everything it manages to achieve with charm and accessibility, it ruins with its unpredictability and unbalanced nature. If you’ve got a few friends round then Race Stars has some value and there’s without doubt enjoyment to be found, just don’t expect anything long lasting.