Codemasters are the keepers of the Formula 1 recipe. They’ve polished this racing title into a pristine and respectable franchise. Therefore, the karting spinoff F1 Race Stars might look like an abomination at first, with its deformed characters and kiddie presentation. However, there is definitely a coarse challenge known from the sport on the inside and it’s also incredibly entertaining. It should skew a few skeptics, but the mixture of realism with party title sometimes feels needlessly frustrating, which dampens the fun. Still, as surprising titles go, this one has raced its way to pole position. Get set; ready for puns; go!
This racing title takes a tour for the cuddly cuteness, which is unexpected given that it also uses actual likenesses and licenses. Ergo, each driver bears the proper name and the likeness of a super deformed racing star. Additionally, each stable receives its own bonus feature. For instance, Webber and co can use slipstream to their advantage, while Alonso and chum shoot power-ups backwards. The stages, comprised of a handful of races, take this same cute approach but enlarged into a colorful horizon of mountains, grasses and skyscrapers. Each country gets a theme accustomed to its region, cut into different sections, making every lap a sight to behold. Tracks feature boosting strips, loops, wooden bridges and much more. The German track passes Bavarian houses and shoots through castles, while Abu Dhabi features rollercoasters, giant whales and tons of other extravagancies. Within each race there are also different sections with other styles of driving needed. A suspension bridge might require cars to stay within bounds, while driving into a factory assembly line shifts the floor around. All this is without propelling jumps, different routes and so forth. F1 Race Stars is, in perception, as gorgeous in scope as it is varied. There was a lot of thought put into these level designs and most work out for the best.
This horn of plenty is also woven into the additional game elements. An original boosting system allows players to drive over strips that fill a battery as they periodically release gas. The more speed drops are applied within the strips bounds, the more boosted payoff is received at the end. Pit stops repair damage taken from weapons and such, which break a car and make it slower. These stops are strategically placed around the lap, but don’t cripple players with an unwinnable gap due to service breaks. This makes repairs a calculated part of racing.
Weapon ranges are adequate as well. Most powerups are bubbles that come in many forms: some explode, some track, some shoot straight ahead and so on. Specials are more pleasing and can sometimes alter the field completely. For instance, one item drenches the entire track in rain, hindering contestants. Another trick transforms the racer in a rocket and blasts them forward, while another teleports them straight ahead. It can sometimes feel chaotic when everything is flying around, but more times than others these powerups spice up gameplay. When the red dot start blinking on screen, which indicates that a projectile is nearing, the adrenaline starts pumping in anticipation of a solution for this impending doom.
Even race types offer a nice change of pace for anyone in need of something different. Aside from standard races with F1 points distributed to positions, there are also plenty of alternatives. One mode places trophies all over the track, where the goal is to hoard them to a certain limit, without dropping any due to getting hit. Another format racks up points for staying in pole position or an adjacent spot. However, here players can fall in holes made by a first player being out of immediate reach, while others fight amongst each other and ultimately never close this gap. Players can also perform tricks in Exhibition Expo to gain enough points to win. Most of these game modes offer something unique to alter from the standard and in doing so F1 Race Stars adds a ton of entertainment and replay value to an already filled roster of content. Additionally changing parameters for damage, powerups and even special modifiers can switch things up even more, particularly in multiplayer. There are many ways to play this game and most will keep players on the edge of their seat.
However, not all gripping gameplay comes from the same exciting appeal. In fact, the main career mode badly represents the game’s capabilities by inexplicably heightening the difficulty curve of races. This is particularly true for solo play. It forces players to bond together and play in multiplayer, as playing alone leave players going in against the wind. They start at the bottom and stay oppressed, certainly given the game’s reliance on secret areas and shortcuts. It’s great that there are so many different escapes in each race, but since the terribly fierce artificial intelligence (AI) uses them as well, players stay trapped in their underdog position. This takes on extremely frustrating proportions in some cups, which is mind boggling to believe. To win, players must adhere to the seriousness of using slipstreams and applying the sport’s known racing tactics to their fullest and this while they dodge bullets. It seems like Codemasters asks too much of its audience here. In one area, it wants a relaxed party gamer with arcade traits, but on the other it puts the hammer down with mandatory simulation tropes that negate the prior element. It’s a risky mix that is commendable in ways, but the mixture of it just doesn’t balance well and makes the game much harder than it should be.
Still, for those that seek challenge, there is more than just having to fight tooth and nail for a spot in pole position. The kart game comes in three different speeds and switching between these doesn’t just increase the velocity, it makes for a whole different game! The chasm between 1000cc and 3000cc is enormous, so players that want to turn their experience around can try their hand at higher tiers. This game can go from F1 to F-Zero in no time flat, if it’s permitted. Frankly, the highest tier is on a completely ludicrous speed level, but it’s there for those that would want to test their mettle.
Lastly, multiplayer offers its own set of differentials to keep racing interesting and there’s certainly enough to go around here as well. A race can be played in the same game modes as mentioned before, but now with teams of different sizes, though alone is still possible as well. Here, the importance of parameters before a race really make all the difference and should be the prime reason for going online for a few rounds. While the pools usually stay empty, only 1 additional person is really needed, as the rest of the slots luckily get filled with AI opponents. Whatever mode is played, it’s racing together that makes this game worthwhile. It both counters the stumped AI rule and it opens up new possibilities. Playing online in teams brings this to a new level even.
Seriously: Get a friend and just play multiplayer (on- or offline!) all day.
If F1 Race Stars hadn’t crippled itself in solo play with an artificial challenge, it would’ve surprised everyone with award season material. It’s still a fine racing title and filled to the brim with variety and entertainment though, which gets beautifully presented and implemented in tons of exciting elements. It’s not F1 as it once was, but it’s different in a good way.