The Worst of Both Worlds
HIGH That first time Fernando Alonso enthusiastically shouted "Alonso!," like an F1 Mario.
LOW When Fernando Alonso kept enthusiastically shouting his name, like an F1 Mario.
WTF "Release and then hold RT to charge KERS!"
Bold, bright primary colors and a run of fist-pumpingly cheerful guitar lines signal the beginning of F1 Race Stars. This game oozes positivity from the get-go. In fact, those smooth, open-air tunes and popping visuals are actually kind of like the vibe in… corporate training videos or primetime game shows. Exciting trappings for unexciting experiences. Hang on a minute…
It was somewhere in the main menu when the charm started to lose its hold on me. I had played two or three of the twelve tracks in the free play mode, and then moved on towards Career. Despair took hold as I counted the championships—all thirty of them. How on earth could there be thirty championships with only twelve tracks? It was at this moment that the situation began to crystallize around me: this was a half-assed effort, and I was in for a long ride.
On my first race, I drove over striped arrows which my gaming awareness suggested would be a boost. The following phrase appeared on screen: "Release and then hold RT to charge KERS!" For those out there who aren't familiar with Formula 1 racing (and that's probably quite a significant number, including myself), it took a pause of the game and a Google search to reveal that KERS means Kinetic Energy Recovery System, a device to encourage racing drivers to slow down on corners, offering improved acceleration afterwards.
Yes, it's a boost. It made me wonder why can't F1 Race Stars say "Pump the accelerator to charge your boost!" Perhaps there is a stipulation that in order to maintain the official F1 license, they must insert useless jargon into kart-racing games that seem to be aimed at young children.
In approaching the kart-racer format popularized by Mario Kart, it strikes me that Codemasters opted to copy-paste the Italian plumber's racing game, replacing the art assets with forgettable and ill-created track designs, and the power-ups with bubbles. Three of the most useful power-ups are lifted straight from Mario Kart—the green shell, red shell, and banana skin. The confusing tone of the Formula 1 overlay on top of a familiar formula means that the whole experience just doesn't add up. It's not exciting to have to slow down at corners in a kart racer. It's not rewarding to force players to make pit stops to repair their vehicle. Overall, F1 Race Stars is a frustrating exercise in mediocrity.
Apart from its mismatched sensibilities, the game is a very unsatisfying single-player experience. 12 competing carts per race feels like far too many. It's chaotic, and not in a good way. Due to the prevalence of power-ups and the multitude of other racers, the outcome is basically random, and when victory comes, it's always cheap and rarely feels earned. Of course, few people buy a game of this type to play on their own, and so I felt compelled to dedicate time to the multiplayer.
This is where I'm supposed to say "The game really comes alive online!" Except that it doesn't. Excusing the fact that the online community isn't exactly thriving with players, the race system requires drivers to wait until the game it has found for them has finished, meaning that I'd join on the next race. With a 12-cart count, this means that most of the other "players" I'd be waiting for were the same AIs I was racing against in the single player mode. When I finally got into a race? It felt the same as being offline.
Simply put, F1 Race Stars is the kart racing equivalent of a self-help seminar, or of a powerpoint on learning real estate sales. Like those sorts of intellectual death marches, it frequently made me yawn while playing and the whole thing has a painful sense of inevitability to it—which at least draws a further comparison with the sport on which it places primary focus.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via the publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately nine hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There is a multiplayer modes, and approximately three hours of play were devoted to it.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains comic mischief. There is little to be found in the game that could prove objectionable to parents.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There are no audio cues that aren't without visual equivalents in this title. In some way, a lack of audio makes the game marginally more enjoyable.