I feel like F1 Race Stars suffers from an identity crisis. Right off the bat, you can tell that it's meant for children. The problem is that I don't know any children that are into Formula One racing. The kids I know that are into racing are either from northern Florida or Alabama and like NASCAR, is a fan of the Pixar's Cars films, or owns a Nintendo system and plays Mario Kart. So even with the bright lights and kart racing, why would a kid pick this over a game with iconic characters driving cool karts with fun power-ups?
The good thing is that F1 Race Stars looks the part. The roster of 28 racers (most of them being real F1 racers from real teams, like Redbull) has cartoonish, bobble head look to them. 'Cute' is the perfect word to describe them. Unfortunately, once the race begins, they done helmets. So all of those cute caricatures get hidden in the name of safety. The Formula One cars also suffer from a lack of character. Every racer's car looks the same, just with different sponsors on it. Usually in kart games, you like to see unique karts that are fun to look at. F1 Race Stars has miniature Formula One race cars that bounce and weave around the track.
The strongest aspect of the game comes from the tracks. There are 11 tracks from around the world -- such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Japan -- and each are charming and full of character. Each track feels like that country in a nutshell. Germany has a castle and streets of a small German town, probably one where you can enjoy a bratwurst and hefeweizen. Monaco has the typical swerving roads on the water so you can see yachts, waterfront hotels and busy streets. Singapore is full of bright neon lights and bright blue skyscrapers just before midnight. They all feature their fair share of turns and and jumps, including a few where your car is driving on its side, basically. It's these crazy turns and roadways -- like one that sends you straight in up the air, and then straight down after a turn -- that have you turning your head every which way that makes F1 Race Stars unique, however disorienting it may be.
After that, the game loses some originality. Instead of shells, stars and banana peels from Mario Kart, F1 Race Stars gives you different colored orbs that you shoot or lay down, short speed boosts and a caution car. Instead of speed pads, you have KERS corners, where pumping the accelerator will give you a speed boost of different lengths, depending on how much you charge it up. It seems like the caution car -- which slows down the lead pack so the others can catch up -- lasts a bit too long and slows down the race too much. As a matter of fact, there's too many slow downs. Your car never really spins out; it just gets snared. Every colored orb/ball someone shoots, they just snare you and stop you when they hit. Storm clouds slow you down. Obstacles in your way bring you to a complete halt. Hit sand or grass? You slow to a crawl. It kind of takes the fun out of the racing when you can't avoid these at all. Sure, alternate paths are available in every level to help make up time, but you need keys for those. And it's not easy spotting those paths when instead of a map of the course, you instead have a straight line with your position on it, showing you how close to the finish line you are. I will say that the caution car and weather power-up -- which wets the track, thus slow down every car except yours -- are a clever merging of F1 and kart racing.
Modes are pretty shy here, as well. You have 'Play Now,' which allows four players to race together on one screen, either through single races or Championship cups of multiple tracks; you have 'Play Online,' which allows 12 players to race together online; you have 'Time Trial,' which nets your a gold, silver or bronze trophy depending on how fast you finish a track, and you can also go against ghosts of you and your friends' best times; and then you have career, where the majority of my play came from. Career -- which four players can also take part in -- has you competing in Championships to earn trophies. There are 30 Championships in all, with 90 available trophies to be earned -- gold gets you three, silver gets you two, and bronze gets you one. These championships take place over two to five races, which are combinations of the 11 tracks in the game. As you can imagine, these 11 tracks played themselves out eventually. You unlock more Championships by earning a certain number of trophies. There's some variety to the races. In one of them, instead of trying to cross the finish line in first place, you would try to be the first to get to 8000 points in trophies, which you do by simply running over trophies on the course.
The ability to play with teams of racers is one thing I did find different. Players can play on the same team and help each other win by executing attacks with the power-ups against other teams. These teams and racers also have a unique ability, but it's nothing that makes you stop and think, 'wow, each of these racers are really different.' It was nice to see co-op play in a kart game like this. There's not much variety in terms of sounds. All of the race cars sound the same, and there's no speaking by any of the racers. Power-up sound effects aren't really noticeable, and the soundtrack is enjoyable, but ultimately generic.
With LittleBigPlanet Karting just being released, and Mario Kart still being as popular as ever, it's difficult to figure out where F1 Race Stars fits in. It's cute, from the character design and novel tracks, to the victory celebrations and animations to start the race. Watching racers acknowledge each other is the cutest little thing. Codemasters has done a respectable job crafting a real teams and racers into a Formula One kart game. It doesn't revolutionize kart racing, but fans of kart games will find some enjoyment in it. What holds F1 Race Stars back is that we've seen it all done before with an iconic mustached plumber instead of actual Formula One drivers.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]
You can follow Movies and Culture Editor Lance Liebl on Twitter @Lance_GZ. He likes talking sports, video games, and the stupidity of celebrities. Email at LLiebl@GameZone.com
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