F1 Race Stars (opens in new tab) is a cartoonified version of Formula One motor racing, fusing real-life locations, teams and drivers with Mario Kart’s combat and F-Zero’s crazy racetracks. It’s hard to imagine it working given the sport’s reputation for regulations and technical minutiae, but with all the serious stuff stripped away and replaced with nonsense and charm, it’s as likeable and instantly enjoyable as Mario’s finest.
The key to the game’s success is its super-smooth movement, combined with a universally palatable art style, which turns the normally serious Maldonado, Alonso and Webber into smiling, happy, toonified charicatures of themselves. It’s a shame they have to race with their helmets on (safety first), but the startline and podium sequences have recognisable likenesses and a warm, silly sense of humour.
The humour spills over into the racing itself, but not in an annoying, ‘trying to be funny’ kind of way. There’s just something very endearing about seeing little diddy F1 cars racing over the swimming pool at Monaco instead of around it, and unrealistic trackside elements like Truckosaurus at the USA track mean there’s always something to enjoy in the scenery.
Famous elements from the real world circuits like Eau Rouge at Spa or the Abu Dhabi pit exit tunnel merge with fantasy track layouts, bolting on F-Zero-esque flyovers, speed pads and even loop-the-loops. While you’re up in the sky looking down at the Singapore cityscape, the frame-rate doesn’t falter, even holding up impressively in the 4-player split screen mode.
The multiplayer is accommodating for players of all skill levels, thanks to an easy control scheme that only has accelerate, brake, steer and fire. There’s no drift feature, unlike most kart racers, which is more faithful to F1 but takes some getting used to, especially as you actually have to slow down to successfully navigate hairpin bends.
It’s forgiving enough to let newbies bump off walls and still get round the track, but actually beating the AI to win a race takes some considerable skill, even on the slowest speed tier. It’s a game that’s enjoyable to control even if you aren’t right at the front, which is perfect for family play.
Whether the AI or your friends, races are a blend of managing the level of damage your car has (which can be fixed by simply driving through one of the many pit-lanes on each lap), hunting out alternative routes and looking for speed boost opportunities.
Special sections of the track can be used to fill your 'KERS' battery by pumping the accelerator. These are often placed on tough corners, making it hard to trigger the biggest auto-boost, which kicks in when you hit regular tarmac again.
It was always unlikely we’d see an equivalent of the Quake Disruptor from Wipeout, but the weapons are weedy compared to the bold design of the rest of the game. The rainstorm is the best one, instantly drenching the track while giving you wet tyres. But when that’s the most exciting weapon, it says a lot for the ferocity of the others. Trapping your opponents in bubbles is not the most exciting offensive method in the world.
Single-player offers a wealth of multi-race events to choose from, taking in alternative rules like Elimination, Pole Position (get points while leading, not ‘set a fast lap’), or Slalom. These can be surprisingly difficult too, especially as the gates in Slalom yield higher scores if you’re the first kart to pass through them. All the special rules can be played in multiplayer, adding some variety to the fun once you’ve exhausted all 11 tracks.
We did experience a couple of instances where players took a wrong turn thanks to branches rejoining the track just as a bend indicator suggested turning in that direction, possibly exacerbated by the smaller split-screen window making detailed sections harder to navigate. But these instances are few and far between and don’t impact on the overall experience too much.
The F1 license does put this kart racer into a strange middle ground, appearing too childish for simulation nuts (who will already have F1 2012 (opens in new tab)) and perhaps having too niche a license for casuals. Especially when Sega and Nintendo have more recognisable brands already established in the karting genre.
But if you’re looking for a family-friendly kart racer, this is it. It’s super-slick, charmingly funny and exciting to play. Its appeal is universal in the best sense of the word, never being too dumbed down for the hardcore or too complex for the casual. That (if you’ll excuse the pun) is a winning formula.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360