Frankly, we're amazed this exists. Can you imagine trying to convince the super-serious, multi-million pound world of Formula One motorsport that its cars and drivers should be super-deformed and turned into a kart racer where tracks can loop the loop? Apparently, though, the real-life F1 teams love it. Except Lewis Hamilton, who was a bit concerned about the size of his virtual ears…
Above: Strange, really - he's got his helmet on most of the time...
But it does exist and is already playable, both in single-player and two-player split-screen around the reimagined (with the emphasis on 'imagined') Hockenheimring. And, despite only being at Alpha stage in development, it's already surprisingly well balanced.
Cute as a Button
The art style has been created with a lot of care and attention, observing animated greats like Pixar to see which graphical techniques produce the most likeable stylised CG humans. The result is some very likeable character models for the racing stars themselves – even though pre-race faces don't even animate yet, just seeing Vettel rise up from the cockpit of his mini Red Bull like some crazed supervillain had us laughing out loud. It works.
Above: The art style is far removed from the simulation-styled F1 2012
The scenery around the tracks is distinctly cartoonified as you leave the reasonably authentic stadium section from the real-world track and head out into the forest… and along the Autobahn, complete with traffic going with and against the racing. Things get even more unlikely as you race through the corridors of a Bavarian castle and even head up onto its battlements if you get your KERS boost just right.
KERS boost? Surely this isn't going to be a simulation-style racer?! No, fear not. The KERS battery for extra bursts of acceleration can only be filled on certain sections of track, a bit like the pit lanes in F-Zero. These, however, are track-wide and require you to pump the throttle every time a section of your battery is filled in order to start filling the next one. Fill all three by the time you hit regular tarmac again and you get a massive boost of speed.
Above: The KERS area. Look closely and you'll see the battery on the car's rear
At regular race pace, the game isn't particularly breakneck – nothing like WipeEout or the main F1 sims from Codemasters - but it moves at a fair lick. It's about as speedy as Mario Kart 7's 150CC mode. Driving your mini F1 car is fun, although the turning circle is a lot looser than you'd expect.
You can't drift, either, nor is there a jump button. But touching the brakes yields more responsive cornering and it's easy to get to grips with. The track design is mostly open with shallow turns, but a few sections require either use of the brakes to avoid the walls, or an immaculate driving line. It's up to you.
Damage plays quite an important role in the proceedings. It's all cartoonified and won't end your race, but you can still lose your nosecone and bend your back wing. At worst, your car looks like something out of Wacky Races… you know, after Dick Dastardly has crashed into a ravine.
Above: A plume of cartoon smokefrom the car in front shows it's damaged
Top speed takes a tangible hit, but you can fix your car by driving through designated pit lanes, of which there are several per lap. You don't even lose any speed by entering them, again, like F-Zero. Hey - nothing wrong with borrowing from the best.
Pray for Rain
Speaking of 'borrowing from the best', the weapons and power-ups mostly have an F1 theme, but are clearly based on Mario Kart's staples. Shell equivalents are bubbles, which catch rival racers and suspend them in the air for a brief time. There are also balloons you can drop with cover the screen in confetti (think squid ink from Mario Kart DS).
The Wet Weather power-up instantly soaks the track, slowing down all the other racers but also giving you wet weather tyres. The overall effect is like Mario Kart's lightning bolt, only this weather change has a huge impact on how the game looks. The skies darken and the track looks beautiful as the slicked, HD surface catches the light.
Above: No picture of the wet weather, sadly. But look at the flags in the crowd
Then there's the 'Fizzing Bottle Rocket' which is obviously meant to be a champagne bottle only without mentioning alcohol (keeping it family-friendly, see?) which turns your car into a fizz-propelled rocket, flying forwards and gaining you several positions in one go. Sounds like Mario Kart's Bullet Bill, doesn't it?
About the only weapon that doesn't have a Mario Kart equivalent is the teleporter, with which we managed to clinch second place from way back, right before the line. Sure, you could argue that's potentially going to annoy gamers, but it's unlikely to be distributed in a position where using it will guarantee a win.
Above: F1 cars have probably never driven through a Bavarian castle. We think
Our only real issue with the weapons at present is the way they're illustrated in your inventory window when you collect them. Most look like an F1 car with a coloured bubble somewhere around it. They're not different enough to make you instantly certain what you've just picked up, except for the speed boost and its clearly recognisable arrows.
More than grid girls
Some ten tracks are planned, which means there won't be one virtual track for every real-life race meeting in the full 20-race F1 season. But there's always the possibility of DLC. All 24 drivers from the real-life F1 2012 season are included, but surprisingly they're not alone. The mysterious female racer on the cover of the game is there to represent the fact that there will be fictional female racers offered to appease all quarters of the family. There have actually been female F1 drivers before… they've just never been particularly successful, is all.
Above: We don't remember any teams having pink race suits. Hmmm...
It will be interesting to see how the public responds to a kart racer with F1 drivers in it. Arguably, the current crop of drivers is the best mix of characters since the early 1990s had with 'The Professor' Alain Prost, 'True Grit' Nigel Mansell and "I don't feel sorry for no-one" Nelson Piquet. But has the public got enough of an affinity with Alonso, Webber and Button to care about karting caricatures of them? We'll see.