Review: F1 Race Stars [xbox360]

Posted by: Matt Iasenzaniro onNovember 20th, 2012

When you think of go-karting games only one name comes to most people, Mario Kart. Since 1992 Mario Kart has gone relatively unchallenged as the standard kart racing game, packed with wacky characters, hilarious items and over-the-top tracks. This month a new challenger appeared with Codemasters releasing F1 Race Stars. Combining the fun-filled arcade karting genre with their exclusive Formula 1 license, Codemasters has released a game that people of all ages and levels of racing experience can enjoy.

The game got me pumped up immediately with an opening sequence that plays more like an 80s cop drama than a racing game, but that energy was quickly lost when I had to spend what seemed like an eternity choosing my first driver. All 12 current F1 teams and their 24 drivers are included along with 2 fake teams, presumably to include female drivers. If you don’t want to use the bobble-headed version of the driver you pick, you can swap in your XBox Live avatar with the press of a button. Each team has a unique bonus and figuring out what they all do requires you to go to the F1 Race Stars website for documentation. Not having the patience to do that, I just chose Narain Karthikeyan with his “Super Boost” ability and got racing.

The race opens with a silly and over the top sequence of the drivers giving each others thumbs up or finger guns and then an equally silly bit of your driver putting their helmet on by pretending to catch it on a fishing line or accidentally putting it on backwards. A serious racing game this ain’t. But then you’re treated to an F1 style start, with the red lights turning on one by one and a random wait (which can get palm-sweatingly long) before turning off and starting the race. Like Mario Kart, you receive a bonus burst of speed for hitting the accelerator at the right time but, unlike Mario Kart, the AI almost always does this as well, meaning it’s not so much a bonus as a necessity. The AI continues this trend of “doing all the right things” by taking tons of shortcuts and aiming items perfectly. Before each race or championship you can choose one of three engine sizes/difficulty levels and, in all honesty, the only difference I see between them is kart speed. However, the level of BS grows exponentially. On higher difficulty levels the CPU players always seem to get higher end items regardless of their position and use them extremely effectively. This resulted in quite a few rage-quits on my part, as going from a podium finish to 8th place on the last two corners of a race gets tiring after a while.

Most of the items that the AI utilizes so well are straight copies from other games. You’ve got your bubble which shoots straight and then bounces off walls, the bubble that seeks out an opponent and the bubble that can be throw forward or dropped behind you, sitting stationary on the track. Most of the team bonuses affect these items by giving you three instead of one or allowing you to use them backwards when normally you couldn’t. These items cause damage to your kart when you hit them and the more damage you take, the slower you go, so multiple pit lanes are included on every track to fix you up in exchange for a slightly longer route. In addition to the classic speed boost, F1 Race Stars gives you DRS, which makes you invincible while you go faster and the champagne bottle rocket which shoots you forward on the track without requiring any steering input. Other F1-themed items include the safety car, which slows down the leader and anybody else that catches up to them, and two wet weather items which affect one or all other cars, slowing them down. Lastly, there’s the teleport, which magically moves you a significant distance ahead on the track. Some items are extremely powerful, others are simply useless, but there’s definitely a wide variety to play with.

There are 11 tracks available on release with the 12th, Valencia, unlocked with a code included in the game. The first track I played was Belgium, home of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps and the famous corner Eau Rouge. It starts out with a quick trip through some sort of Belgian village, through a factory and then down a hill towards a recreation of Eau Rouge. While the corner itself is accurate, the feeling of driving it was my first real disappointment with this game. It feels like you’re pedaling a bike up it. There’s no sense of speed or danger, you’re just riding along with the gas pedal mashed wishing you could go faster. The rest of the track continues the trend of “Belgium” rather than “Belgian GP” with a trip through a forest and down a winding river before being spat back out on the front straight. Tracks like Italy and Monaco give similar emotions of “I recognize that… but it’s nothing like real life”. Somebody who’s played previous Codemasters F1 games might find this disappointing but I imagine the majority of fans won’t care and will see it as nifty. All the tracks are packed with stereotypes in terms of landmarks, scenery and music to make sure you never forget where you are, and it works quite well. Unfortunately, despite the stereotypes, the tracks themselves aren’t all that different and can blend together.

Every track has a handful of forked roads and secret shortcuts which may or may not be faster depending on your driving skill. Some, like Brazil, include a shortcut that will punish you if you take it too quickly, putting you even further behind than had you just gone the normal route. The problem with a lot of these shortcuts is that the AI always takes them. Just like the speed boost at the start of the race, they’re a necessity on all difficulty levels. Since some of these shortcuts require drastic changes to your racing line, you’re severely punished if you don’t make the shortcut entrance, once for having to take the long route, and again for having had to slow down to take the shortcut. This emphasis on flawless driving on easy difficulty levels frustrated me and I imagine younger or less experienced players would feel the same.

In addition to the average shortcuts, every track has “key” shortcut which tends to offer a very significant advantage. Once per lap a key appears at a certain spot on the track, the same spot every time. Whichever kart has the key is the only one that can take the key shortcut. You can force the keyholder to drop the key by hitting them with an item but it’s harder than it sounds, and even if you do manage to get the key to drop there’s a chance you won’t be the one to pick it up. The part of the key shortcut that truly upsets me is that whoever gets it first will likely get it again, the advantage is that big. I’ve lost on Brazil by 30 seconds with a near flawless race simply because the only guy in front of me got the key shortcut twice. Add that to the list of things that frustrate me.

While F1 Race Stars doesn’t include drifting of any kind, it does include a KERS mechanic where, around some corners, you can let off and reapply the gas to charge up to three stages of KERS boost which will automatically activate at the end of the corner. It’s a fun little mini-game because you’re sometimes given a choice where you can take a shortcut but miss a KERS corner or take the longer way and hit the KERS while also getting an item. It also forces you to take a lot of those corners using a proper racing line, otherwise you’re not on it long enough to fully charge, or you slide off the track and lose your charge altogether!

During a championship some races will have a special mode. The two I’ve encountered so far are Elimination, where every X seconds the driver in last place is eliminated (Though they remain as a ghost which will slow down other drivers if touched), and Refuel Racket, where you’re given a fuel tank that you need to keep above empty. But the more fuel you have the slower you go, so you need to find a good balance. Both of these were a nice change of pace the first time, but quickly became boring.

Outside of the racing there’s an in-game store where you can buy customization packs for 80 MS Points (~$1 USD) which give you new horn sounds, skid marks and boost shapes (which I assume is the KERS tank on the back of the kart). I imagine new tracks and other customization options will become available later as well.

In my opinion the best of the this game has nothing to do with playing the game itself, it’s Codemasters RaceNet. RaceNet keeps track of all your statistics, including time on track, time in boost, number of people hit with each item, how many times you’ve played each track or with each driver, etc. Sure all that information is available in game but with RaceNet you earn experience by playing the game, receive badges and awards for certain achiev…. Oh, it’s 3rd party XBox Live. What’s the point of that?

Speaking of XBox Live, there’s only one thing left to talk about, and that’s multiplayer. My wife and I played a few career championships on local multiplayer and it was just like single player but with one less person trying to ruin your race. Fun, but quickly tiresome. However, I just played two championships with my wife on split screen along with two friends over XBL and it was a blast (Full disclosure, I won). Once you get more people involved your concentration on racing takes a backseat to absolute chaos. Mid-pack battles are just blind firing of whatever item you have, knowing that it will hit somebody regardless of aim and/or placement. Pretty quickly you’re forming rivalries and you no longer want to win, you’re just doing whatever it takes to bring your opponents down. It’s clear that multiplayer with at least a few friends is going to be the way to play this game. I can’t wait until more people pick it up. With up to 12 players at once things can only get better, and with the aforementioned local + online capability it should be relatively easy to fill those games up.

The single player game has its shortcomings and doesn’t have a whole lot of staying power, but if you don’t have Mario Kart Wii, or are just bored of it, then F1 Race Stars will easily satiate your hunger for a fun, zany karting game. As long as you have friends to play it with.

When he’s not busy writing about cars or travelling the auto show circuit, he’s reviewing apps and video games related to the automotive world. In his spare time, Matt is a motorcycle enthusiast, trying not to kill himself riding along with the crazy local drivers. He is also a weekly contributor in the Motor Mondays segment on News Talk 770.

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