Discussion Review: F1 Race Stars

Review written by Matt Litten & Tim Mack.

F1RaceStars

Tim: In the US, Formula 1 racing is overshadowed by NASCAR. Both styles of racing have their merits and if you spend any time watching either sport it is clear that it takes an almost Jedi-like awareness to be able to drive at the speeds that those cars achieve and not end up in a flaming wreck. Codemasters has a long track record of creating realistic racing games and simulations, but racing games don’t always have to be all about the perfect configuration of wheels, brakes, torque and all the rest that makes gear heads happy. Sometimes racing is just about sitting around with friends and having fun. To this end, Codemasters has released F1 Race Stars, a blending of fantastical kart racing and real F1 teams and drivers.

F1 Race Stars offers Quick Races, Career Mode, Online and Time Trial. Playing through Career mode unlocks a large selection of racing variations which add some unique twists to what starts out as a fairly vanilla kart racer. I say vanilla because of the initial presentation of the game. Menus. Lots of static menus. Nothing about the game screams, “Hey, You! Pick Career mode. It has the most interesting options.” Picking the Quick Race option sets up a typical race, but no modes can be selected and after every race the game drops back to menus. I may just be nit picky, but in my mind the deepest and most worthwhile portion of the game should be better pronounced in the opening screen.

Once Career mode is selected a large set of locked races becomes available. Placing first, second or third in the initial races awards trophies that unlock additional modes. I can understand why there are some standard races set first (to allow racers to become familiar with the various tracks) but going through the motions of loading up a set of races and sitting through the same opening animation time and again isn’t particularly fun. Why does the game need to play a horribly cheesy sequence of each racer pointing to each other and then have their helmets bounce and spin onto their heads just to announce that the race is about to start? Cutesy, bobble-headed real-world racers is at odds with what F1 racing feels like in my opinion. Thankfully that animation sequence can be skipped.

Putting the framework art style aside, what’s most important here is how the game handles. Every car drives the same. There are no per-car modifications that can give a gamer an advantage. Instead the potential advantage comes from selecting a driving team from a huge list of real-life F1 racers. When I mentioned menus above, driver selection is one of the busiest screens of all. Each driver has a bonus that applies to the power-ups that can be collected during the race. Choosing from 26 different racers just feels overwhelming. Figuring out each driver’s unique ability is easy, but more often than not the ability doesn’t provide any true advantage once the race begins.

Fourteen different power-ups level the race courses into a jumble of chaos where gaining an early lead and avoiding power-up attacks is the only thing that gives a racer any true advantage. Power-ups vary between speed boosts, colored bubbles that stop cars for a few seconds, items that when dropped become obstacles to avoid, or one that swaps positions with a car closer to lead. The power-ups all work on the same level of annoyance so I guess they are all equal. What makes the power-ups frustrating is more often than not, the ones that can help defensively while leading a race rarely if ever spawn and there is no easy way to dodge an attack that has been focused on your car. Dropping from first or second to seventh, eighth or dead last can happen so fast that earning more trophies to unlock new modes becomes an exercise in frustration.

That being said, the game is still pretty fun. The karts handle extremely well (as would be expected given Codemasters’ track record). The subtleties with gameplay (and keeping a solid lead) boil down to knowing how to drive and understanding how to properly take a corner just as any other solid racing game would expect. Unfortunately knowing how to execute that play style still doesn’t help when there is such aggressive AI and multiple pathways for computer controlled opponents to seemingly come out of nowhere to take the lead.

Matt: If there’s one company I trust to make a great racing game, it’s Codemasters. Between Dirt and Grid, the Codies are responsible for two of the finest racing franchises this generation. Instead of pumping out the usual simulation style racing games, though, lately Codemasters Racing has been giving some of its known franchises an arcade tune-up job. In the case of Dirt Showdown, the change of style worked out extremely well. Once you get over the fact that it’s not the traditional Dirt experience you’re used to, it’s a blast of destruction derby meets arcade off-roadin’ fun. F1 Race Stars, however, is a failed concept that sputters across the finish line.

F1 Race Stars isn’t a poorly made game, but rather a poorly conceived idea. Many of the mechanics at work are designed well and control properly, but the whole idea of shoving F1 rules into a kart racer just seems fundamentally flawed from the outset, in my opinion. Things like kart damage, pit stops, and the lack of drifting make complete sense in an F1 game, but not so much in a kart racer that’s meant to be casual pick up and play fun. Slip streaming is about the only realistic racing mechanic that fits into the arcade kart format.

For me, the inability to drift is this game’s fatal flaw. I get it, it’s an F1 game and drifting isn’t part of the real F1 racing experience. But this isn’t a sim, it’s a kart racer and kart racers just aren’t that fun when you have to worry about braking into corners rather than being able to hit a hairpin at full speed and nail a perfect drift that takes you around the curve with the tires squealing and screeching. Making matters worse, in many situations boost pads are placed directly ahead of turns, defeating the whole purpose of the turbo boost since you almost immediately need to slow down so you don’t slam into the wall or skid off the track.

I actually like the cute style of the game. The characters look like collectible vinyl figurine replicas of the real drivers and the tracks similarly appear as if they’re made up of a bunch of plastic toys and props. Track design is definitely this game’s strength. The global locales give each race a distinct and authentic visual identity and the developers also did a good job of spicing things up with rollercoaster loop-the-loops, ramps, shortcuts, tunnels and multiple routes. Each setting also has a distinguishing hazard or set piece moment to add further excitement, such as carnival floats in Brazil, a giant T-rex robot on the U.S.A. track, two giant sumo robots slamming into each other in Japan, and a ramp on the Australia track that sends racers launching into a tunnel that’s been carved into the toothy maw of a shark leaping up for a bite to eat.

I wish the power-ups were as inspired, but sadly they’re not. Most of the weapon pick-ups are some form of bubble that temporarily encircle the targeted driver and send them floating into the air. Yellow bubbles ricochet off walls, red bubbles home in on the racer immediately ahead of you, blue bubbles fire off behind your kart like trap mines, and so on. There are some others, such as balloons that pop and splash confetti on the screen to obscure the driver’s vision and a safety car that slows down the other racers so you can catch up, but all in all the power-ups are fairly generic and uninteresting.

I 100% agree with you about the aggressive AI. When you’re in the lead, the rubber-banding comeback capability of the other drivers often goes beyond frustrating to the point where you’ll want to smash your controller and then dig out another so you can break it as well. A larger problem is just getting into a race. You always start in last place and if you don’t get off to a quick start it becomes extremely difficult to catch up because the AI seems to know all the shortcuts and all the perfect driving lines through every corner. This is particularly problematic during some of the events that aren’t based on finishing position. For example there is one type of event in which you earn a running point total based on your position, but since you’re starting in last place it almost seems to take dumb luck to be able to not only catch up to and overtake the first place driver, but then overcome the huge point lead he’s been able to build by having the first-place starting advantage.

What did you make of the speed of the game? Is it just me or do the races seem to drag on for a long time? Even in the 3,000cc karts, driving speeds felt really slow to me and it seemed like every race was taking 10 minutes or longer to finish. Perhaps it just felt that way due to the aggravation of having to replay events multiple times, so in my mind each replay became longer and longer.

Tim: A mistake I made when I first started playing was to pick a race at 1,000cc. I think it was the longest race I played. The sense of speed definitely doesn’t make itself felt until you play on the 3,000cc races. There is an odd thing about the sense of speed and overall time in the game that flip flops depending on which course is played. Some races feel shorter even with three laps, while others drag on and on even with only two laps. Tokyo is one such race that manages to wind through several different cultural touchstones of Japan almost to the detriment of course. It’s almost as if part of the game tries to be more like a driving sim than kart racer but the kart racer wins out.

Even so, as you said, it is a shame that the game doesn’t have a more creative selection of power-ups. Between the lack of defenses against overly aggressive AI and “random” power-ups that more often than not end up being the same two or three boosters, the game occasionally veers off a cliff and nose dives into a wreck of un-fun chaos. If the non-traditional race modes were unlocked sooner, the game might feel more varied and enjoyable. Always starting at the back of the pack is one constant that definitely sets the tone for a racing match against the odds.

As for multiplayer, I attempted to play through the online racing on several occasions, but only ever found one or two matches to compete in. While I didn’t have to wait too long to join a match, I can say that the game doesn’t appear to have a huge online user base (at least not on the PS3). While online racing fell flat for me, the game fortunately offers local split screen with minimal hassle.

Local split screen with four players is a lot of fun, but at the same time slightly frustrating that the AI still dominates even when you are busy trying to worry more about the person sitting next to you who is constantly ready to fire the next power-up at you instead of gunning for AI to try and help move all real players up the ranks. Maybe that has to do with the fact that I’m playing with my kids who have more fun playing, “let’s get Dad!” But I think there is also something about the disconnect of real F1 racers positioned in a strangely cartoon-ish kart racing world.

The game does find a nice groove in local couch split-screen racing, but there are some weird touches that become apparent during a race. Randomly the UI pixelates and when that happens any power-ups that a car is wielding disappear. Another design question that is a head-scratcher revolves around the choice of music. Some of the courses have the strangest music playing that just clash with what is playing out on screen. Carousel music toots and flutters during one race, while other courses have a more traditional synth pop/dub step racing vibe.

There is a lot that almost works to make F1 Race Stars a great game, but unfortunately there are also a lot of strange choices that help make the game fall short of that mark. F1 Race Stars is a well designed (on a driving/technical level) kart racer worth considering in a pinch, but the overall presentation keeps the game from taking first place.

Tim-TryIt

Pros:
+ Kart handling is responsive and easy to learn
+ Course design is over the top and fun to race on
+ Four player local split screen works smoothly without any frame rate hitches

Cons:
– Odd mix of real world racers with cartoonish uncanny valley vibe
– Menu heavy interface hides some of the fun for pick up and play
– Rubber-banding AI can be extremely unfair

Matt: It’s good to at least hear that the game is more enjoyable in local split-screen play. I too attempted to find some online competition on numerous occasions and rarely found anyone to race with. I think the fullest match I ever got into was only two or three other live racers (out of a possible 12 players). The remainder of the field fills out with bots which is nice, but at that point you might as well just continue playing offline if even during multiplayer your competition is largely AI.

I concur that there are a lot of functioning pieces to F1 Races Stars that show potential for a great game. As you say, from a technical perspective the karts handle well and the controls are sound. I also thoroughly enjoyed the track designs and the toy-like charm of the visuals. However, I just can’t comprehend the idea of marrying traditional F1 rules with cutesy kart racing. If you’re an F1 enthusiast, the crazy tracks and bubble-based power-ups will likely send you driving back to your copy of F1 2012. And if you’re someone who doesn’t know a lick about F1 and just craves a straight up arcade/casual kart racer, the game’s attempt to maintain some form of F1 authenticity will be nothing but a speed bump on the track to funtown. F1 Race Stars falls smack in the middle of these two audiences, failing to do enough to satisfy gamers at either end of the spectrum and alienating both in the process.

There is a likeable quality to the game that sucked me in initially, and I found myself wanting to continue playing in hopes that the mechanics would finally click. It just never happened.

Matt-SkipIt

Pros:
+ Exotic and exciting track design
+ Toy-like graphics lay on the charm
+ Core racing mechanics are solid

Cons:
– F1 and kart racing just don’t jive particularly well
– A kart racer without drifting? No thank you!
– Slow sense of speed makes races feel long and monotonous
– Starting position and cheap AI tactics put you at a constant disadvantage
– Dull weapon pick-ups

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for PC and Xbox 360 and coming soon to Wii U
Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: Codemasters Racing
Release Date: 11/13/2012
Genre: Kart Racing
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-12 (2-4 local split-screen, 2-12 online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!