Formula 1 racing suffers the same fate as FIFA does when it comes to popularity in North America. While the rest of the world goes crazy for authentic F1 races, we're less enthusiastic about it to the point where very few names get recognition. That hasn't stopped the association from trying to build up the sport, as evidenced by the recent F1 races in Austin, Texas. It also explains why F1 Race Stars is getting released here. While dedicated fans will no doubt turn to F1 2012 for their fix, F1 Race Stars is meant to introduce everyone else to the sport and its nuances via … kart racing.
As a standard kart racer, F1 Race Stars nails down some of the genre fundamentals. The characters may be mostly based on real-life F1 racers, but they're presented in caricature form with some exaggerated features and actions that make them humorous instead of serious. The tracks may take place in real locations of F1 events, but the layout is greatly exaggerated. Tracks branch into multiple pathways, take near-impossible corners, and defy gravity while giving you lots of hazards to avoid and sights to see. There's even a power-up system that behaves like the weapons you see in similar racers. In short, kart racing veterans should be instantly familiar with some of the mechanics.
Like other kart racers, there are differences to be found, though some are pretty drastic. None of the racers, for example, have any stats beyond their specialized weaponry, so there isn't much of an advantage when trying to choose between real guys like Lewis Webber and Mark Hamilton. While shortcuts are present, they need to be unlocked by obtaining a key on the track, making the discovery of the item and shortcut a conscious endeavor rather than something you stumble upon. Karts take damage that slows down the machine, so the use of pit stops becomes necessary if you want to maintain a lead. Then there's the lack of drifting, which may puzzle kart veterans. Instead, there's an emphasis on braking and the use of the KERS system on specific corners. When encountering one of these corners, releasing the gas and applying it again will charge up a battery, and once you leave the special corner, that battery energy is converted into a speed boost that's activated immediately.
Those last few changes help transform the game from just another kart racer into something akin to a game that bridges standard kart racing with F1 sensibility. Holding on to the accelerator the whole time guarantees anything but a first-place finish, as F1 cars aren't meant for drifting. You'll be using the brakes more often than in other similar racers, forcing you to learn proper cornering — a skill you can take with you into the publisher's more sim-oriented games. Considering some of the turns offered in the tracks as well as the various hazards one has to navigate, it feels more daunting than other kart racers. That alone changes the vibe of the game to the point where those who are into more technically inclined games will get more enjoyment from the title than those who just want straightforward racing.
Unfortunately, that transformation process renders some of the kart racing fundamentals into something that's either detrimental to the experience or just bland. The tracks may be well designed, but they also feel like they run on for far too long. One lap in a track is the equivalent to a whole race in similar games, so you can imagine how long a two- or three-lap race is in this title. That track length also makes the damage system slightly unbearable due to its sensitivity. It only takes a hit or two from a weapon before your car begins to fall apart, and with the pit stop being so very far away, any hits almost always guarantee missing first place, even on the easiest setting. Speaking of weapons, most feel unimaginative not because of what they do but because of how they look. Most of the weapons you encounter are either balloons or bubbles of different colors, and while their effects hurt, it feels like the team went for the most basic and inoffensive look as opposed to getting more imaginative. There are some exceptions, namely the safety car that forces everyone else to slow down or the rain clouds that only slow down one player, but those hints of creativity are so few and far between that one has to wonder if the team had been hampered by the license.
F1 Race Stars features a few modes of offline gameplay for the solo player. Both Play and Time Trial should be self-explanatory. In either mode, you can select any racer, including your own Avatar, and any of the game's 11 tracks. Time Trials only let you go on one track at a time while Play lets you set up a whole series of tracks if you desire. Career mode is where the heart of the game lies, letting you take on up to 30 different championship series. Most are straightforward races, though a few have some modifiers — Elimination races, Pole Position (where points are gained by being in first place or near it through most of the race) and Slalom — that are occasionally thrown in as you try to earn each banner, cup and horn.
It's through this mode that you discover how good the races can be due to the track layout. As mentioned earlier, the tracks take a bunch of aspects made popular in other kart racers and make them their own. Each track features plenty of alternate paths and lots of interactive objects to avoid. Weapon spots and turbo boost pads are plentiful, as are the special KERS pads. There are a good amount of jump pads leading to some wacky sights, like underwater bases disguised with open shark heads and track pieces that loop and corkscrew in the air. There's even the ability to ride a completely vertical wall for a while. The imaginative design keeps even the slowest races engaging because there's always something new to look forward to through your first few laps.
The problem is that you only have 11 tracks. With 30 events and lots of those events using multiple tracks, you'll quickly go through every track more than once before you even get through one-fifth of the campaign. The game tries to artificially increase the selection by mirroring tracks, but the familiarity is a bit disappointing, as is the fact that the game doesn't pause when your controller runs out of juice. Considering how automatically pausing a game once it detects a loss of controller power is almost a technical requirement, it becomes frustrating to see this title not follow that rule, causing you to lose or want to forfeit when it happens.
Like all kart racing games, F1 Race Stars improves once you put it into multiplayer. Offline, the game is a standard four-player, split-screen affair with all of the options from Play available at your disposal. Races can done either solo or in a team style, where members can share power-ups and try to disrupt the other players so they can take as many podium spots as possible. Online play offers the same options but for up to 12 people instead of four. The good news is that online play is pretty flexible; it lets you take your split-screen friends online to join in the race. Also, races can start without having all 12 slots filled up, as AI races will fill up those missing slots, ensuring that each race always has opponents, which is good considering the low numbers in the current online community. All of this is accomplished without a hint of lag, providing an experience that feels indistinguishable from offline play.
Graphically, the game fits the kart racing model perfectly. The racers animate rather well and have lots of funny animations. Everything, from the pre-race salutes to the toying with helmets and the podium dances, will elicit a chuckle the first time you see them. The tracks are very colorful and feature lots of things to view. From the neon lights in some areas to the appearances of some unlikely landmarks, each track has at least one thing that makes it stand out in a good way. Particle effects and car damage are rendered well, and the car animations when it's being fixed up are always nice to see. The whole things holds steady as far as frame rate is concerned, and it never hints at slowing down, even when playing split-screen.
The sound shares the same joyous vibe as the graphics. The voice work is minimal, but you'll hear a few phrases when you bump into someone or when someone gets hit by a weapon. Each is done in a foreign language, lending some personality to the racer, but the phrases are neither loud enough nor long enough to become grating. The music hits the bouncy vibe that's expected from a kart racer, but none of it is really distinct. Each level has a theme that sounds slightly different from the last, but it'll all start to sound the same over time. The sound effects, however, try to remain as realistic as possible. There's nothing realistic to be heard from things like bubble bounces, but the tire squealing and high-pitched drones of the engine sound like they were ripped directly from F1 2012.
In the end, F1 Race Stars is a decent kart racing title. The genre basics are here, with some good track design and a goofy vibe. The presentation is cheery enough, and the effort put forth into making a standard kart racer a bit more technical and involving is commendable. However, the lack of track variety hurts, as does the bland weapon payload, and there isn't much to make the experience memorable. If you're an F1 fan who wants something more accessible, this is a good start. If you're a kart racing fan, however, there are a few other titles you could play instead.
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