Developers: Codemasters Birmingham
I’ve got a confession to make; I was quite looking forward to reviewing this game. Firstly because last week I reviewed LittleBigPlanet Karting – a fairly decent game but a missed opportunity to deliver a great karting experience – and was looking for another karting game to fill the void. Secondly I’m personally a fan of F1 anyway, so I was more intrigued how they had linked in the concept and feel of F1 – a very serious and detailed sport – into the fun and quirky world of console kart racing.
First impressions before I’d touched the controller were pleasing. The visual style was going about its business with a sense of bright colours, and cartoony driver models – making it look like all the racers were out of Team America, in a good way. And the intro movie showcasing the game seemed to suggest vibrant wacky locations with lots of character, mayhem on the track with items going every which way and the drivers being as camp as a box of tents. So things were looking good. But if ever the adage of “looks can be deceiving” needed a PS3 game to embody it, then F1 Race Stars is it.
F1 All Stars sets itself up like the majority of other kart racers out there. There are a variety of tracks to race around, with gold, silver and bronze trophies awarded to podium finishes. And as is customary in these games, there are various items you can pick up throughout the courses to help you to victory or hinder your opponent’s chances. The instant attraction to this game though is that you can choose to race as your favourite F1 star from this season’s crop of racers. So if you feel like showing Vettel and the lads that Karthekayan really can win a race, then this is your best bet.
The career mode (the single player campaign) is made up of 30 trophy races. And each race is made of 2-5 tracks. Whilst the majority of these are normal races, there is the odd new mode thrown into the mix, such as an elimination mode where the last racer gets thrown out after periods of time until there is only one racer left. Points are scored based on final standings in these events. After all events in a trophy race are complete, the final points are tallied and the trophies are dished out. Races can also be taken online to pit your wits against the world in these events.
All of the tracks are linked to the race calendar of F1, and will feature some memorable track sections of its F1 counterpart as well as some stereotypical symbols of said nation. So for example in the British track you could race down the Silverstone main pit straight and into another section of track with a red bus and a phone box. Abu Dhabi in contrast sees you racing close to Ferrari World, then into a hotel, and then into the desert off-road. Whilst some F1 purists will bemoan the fact that these track only nod to occasional parts of tracks rather than following them to the letter, for me that’s not the important thing. The tracks themselves are well presented, with plenty of cartoony detail. This issue I have with all of the tracks are their length. In even the highest cc option of kart, it takes a good 2 minutes to do a lap of most circuits, sometimes more, leading to races that can last up to 5 or 6 minutes depending on the lap count. Now that sort of lap was OK as a one-off for Rainbow Road, but not for every track. You’ll find yourself becoming bored, as what should be short bursts of fun, seem to drag on for that little bit too long, and sadly that’s only the beginning of F1 Race Stars’ problems.
By the first corner, the other thing you’ll realise with this game, is that, in its first step to pay tribute to the world of F1, there is no drifting or power slide option. If you want to turn a corner, you’re going to have to press that brake like a normal F1 car, and this is the game’s first mistake. We’ve just discussed how the tracks feel a little on the long side as it is, but when you couple this with the fact that you can’t keep your own speed up throughout because of some tight corners, the game loses its flow. It tries to make you take things seriously when all you want to do is throw caution to the wind and take the corners in an audacious unrealistic fashion. In other karting games there is something really satisfying about nailing the perfect power slide around a tough corner, to shave seconds off your time trial time, you just don’t get that with the perfect brake and turn motion that you pull off in F1 Race Stars. Previously, braking for corners in a karting game was reserved for those who couldn’t master the art of the power slide. Here, without that option it really feels like a step backwards.
There are other nods to F1 in this game, the first being the pit-stop. Every time you are hit by an item (more on those later) then your kart becomes damaged. As the damage piles up, bigger sparks start flying around and your kart becomes much slower, and it’s time for you to hit the pits to get this fixed. Luckily these pit sections are dotted throughout the map, and rather than you having to stop for them, they are run-through sections of track that you can drive through at full pace and your car will still be fixed. A nice idea in principle, but the reality is that your car can go from perfect to useless in a few hits and you could still have a quarter of track (30 odd seconds remember) to go until the next pit area. The whole field can then pass you by as you’re limping along in slow motion, it certainly can feel like a long old trek. Also the very concept of these pit stops feels like the game is punishing you for playing this type of game the way it should be played. This type of game should be all about speed, mayhem and fun, and the repair and pit stop mechanic damages all these three areas.
It’s not all bad though, an interesting addition to this game is the KERs sections of the track meant to emulate the use of KERs a driver has each lap in a real F1 race. The idea being that when you get to one of these blue sections of track, you pump the accelerator to add KERs to you battery, with 3 pumps giving you a full battery. Depending on how much you charged your battery in the section, determines the one-off boost you get at the end of the KERs section. It’s a nice touch that rewards the skill of you be able to traverse the section and charge your KERS simultaneously. However its execution is flawed not least because you can guarantee that the AI will always get a pretty good boost from all KERs sections, reducing the benefit to the player, but also because the majority of these sections appear on corners. And as discussed, the brake mechanic takes a lot of fluidity out of the race. There would be nothing more satisfying than blitzing the corner with an epic power-slide and then getting a full KERs boost at the end because I’d managed to coordinate my hands in such a way to achieve this, but alas instead you get a boost out of a slow situation because you had to brake for the corner anyway.
And so to the items I’ve mentioned a few times already. I wish that what’s on offer is worthy of so many paragraphs of build up, but they really are uninspiring. The majority of items on offer come in the shape of coloured balloons. Red ones are homing missiles, blue ones are left on the track for opponents to avoid, and yellow ones go flying out in front of you. Now there’s nothing wrong with those items – in fact they all sound eerily familiar to other karting games I could mention, but the fact that the differentiation is just a different colour balloon beggars belief. It almost feels like the items are an afterthought, with no design put into them individually. Given that so much character has been put into the levels and even the camp actions of the drivers, the lack of item character feels odd. There’s even one item that gives you a bunch of balloons to leave behind you and if an opponent drives into them, they get a screen of ticker tape. Yes that’s right ticker tape. Not oil or anything remotely related to karting or F1, but ticker tape. Given that the designers have put so much emphasis on making this an F1 experience; it seems they missed a trick when the items could have been a fun nod to the F1 sport.
So, overall it feels like F1 Race Stars is suffering from a bit of a personality crisis. All the changes that have been made to make the game stay true to F1 – the longer tracks, the pit stops, the lack of a power slide – actually make it less of the fun kart racer it was designed to be. Its not that changes to the karting formula aren’t welcome, we should applaud Codemasters for trying to change the way we experience karting games. However when these changes lose sight of the fun, fluid karting experience you want to create in the first place, there will always be problems. Sure the fact that the graphics are competent enough, and the overall visual style is pleasing on the eye will mean younger players will enjoy it for a while. Even the camp representation of current F1 drivers may entice some older people into playing it. But they will soon realise the irony that for all the grinning faces of the box art and fun it tries to convince you to have, it’s a game that has taken itself too seriously, and has squeezed F1 into this game in a way that prevents it from being a fun, enjoyable racer.
- Clear, clean visuals and character modelling
- KERs system is a nice addition
- Tracks have a lot of character and individuality
- Races are too long to maintain interest
- No power sliding to keep racing fast-paced
- The need to pit your kart detracts from the action
- Item design is uninspired
The Short Version: F1 Race Stars can’t be accused of a having a deceptive title. There are races in there, and a choice of your favourite F1 star to race as. The problem is the other aspects of F1 that have shaped this game have ruined its appeal and its fun factor. Pitting, cornering and even completing the long races can feel like a chore. If the quirky, charming style of the game hadn’t stopped at the visual design and made its way into the game-play, this could have been a much better game.