F1 Race Stars is a Formula One themed Kart racing game from Codemasters, developers of the official Formula One games as well as Dirt and Grid and a host of other popular racing franchises over the years. It carries an official license and uses the teams and drivers from the 2012 F1 season. I’ve been playing this game on the PC but it’s also available for the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii U.
This is a bright and colourful game with a lot of personality. The cars are all quite cute with their scaled down proportions and the driver caricatures are all recognisable; some are rather unflatteringly accurate in fact. There are 28 drivers in the game, 24 real and 4 fictional. There are no weight classes so all the vehicles have the same performance but each team has its own special ability. Some are more useful than others but you can race almost equally well with everyone.
There are 11 tracks with a further 4 available as DLC and they’re all based on modern F1 circuits but rather than following their layout precisely they use them as a jumping off point. Each track includes some of the elements of the real world circuits such as the start-finish straight and memorable corners but they soon veer off into crazy-town with roller-coasters, tunnels, jumps and other fun features. Each track has multiple short-cuts and a locked door with a hidden key that opens a special alternate route. The track-side environments are full of details and features unique to their locations and everything has the level of polish you’d expect from a big developer like Codemasters.
There’s a few really big differences between F1 Race Stars and most other kart racers. These differences are probably what will determine how much you like the game. The first is damage. If you get hit with a weapon, bits of your car fall off and you slow down. You can repair your car at the pit lanes that are dotted around the track. I feel conflicted about this feature because on the one hand it fits the theme but also it seems to punish you twice for getting hit with something. You lose time from the hit itself then you lose even more from your reduced top speed and the diversion down the pit lane. This alone will put a lot of people off the game. The weapons themselves will be familiar to most players, there is an equivalent to all the usual Mario Kart items plus a couple of extra ones that relate more closely to F1. The most notable of these is the safety car that bunches up the field and allows back-markers to catch up.
The second big difference from modern kart-racing norms and possibly the most potentially deal-breaking is the handling. F1 Race Stars doesn’t have drifting. The developers decided that as F1 cars don’t drift, the cars in this game shouldn’t either. Instead you have to drive smoothly through the corners and horror of horrors… use the brakes! I think it handles very nicely but it’s not what you would expect from a kart racing game. Drifting has become an expected feature like rocket-jumping or circle-strafing in first-person shooters so to leave it out is a controversial move. Although you can’t drift there is a cornering feature that sort of replaces it but not quite. A few corners in each track allow you to build up a speed boost by releasing and pressing the throttle up to 3 times, the boost activates when you leave the designated area on the corner. It’s meant to represent the KERS regenerative braking and power boosting system that F1 cars have used since 2009. It’s a unique feature that reinforces the theme but it’s a bit difficult to explain and takes some getting used to.
“Takes some getting used to” is probably a good way to describe this game. My first impressions were mixed but I’ve really warmed to as I’ve played more of it. Overall I thinks it’s a good game with well thought out tracks and I actually like the way it handles. I appreciate that it tries to do things differently but I think that also makes it divisive. It’s just a little too different from other kart racers in some important ways and lot of people just won’t get along it for that reason.
Games such as Mario Kart 8 and Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed have set a very high standard for modern kart racing games and although there is a lot to like about F1 Race Stars I don’t think it quite matches up to its competition. Both those games can match or beat this one on presentation and features plus they’re a lot easier for a new player to get into. If you only want to play one modern kart racer, try Mario or Sonic but if you’re an F1 fan or want to see a game that approaches things a little differently then maybe you’ll get something from F1 Race Stars.