There are those of you who have, at one point, played and loved some version of Mario Kart but wished there were a port of it that was playable on your Xbox 360 or Playstation3. This game is for you.
There are also those of you out there who are obsessed with all things having to do with Formula One, especially video games. You pick up each new F1 title as it comes out, follow the season and the championship with close interest, have a favorite driver and a favorite team. This game is for you.
There are even those of you who dig easy-to-play racing games – sort of casually or every once in a while – but wouldn't consider yourself a "racing gamer." This game is for you.
We could continue, but you'll probably get the idea after those first three paragraphs: F1 Race Stars is a game that has broad appeal, largely because it is very entertaining as soon as you pick up a controller. We encourage you to continue reading the rest of this review, but we'll tell you right off the bat that this is one of the coolest little racing games that we've played all year (and we've played quite a few).
F1 Race Stars may be pretty brilliant in its execution, but it's far from an original idea. The reason all of the world's Mario Kart fans should be interested, in fact, if because this new F1 experience is basically a differently branded copy of that Nintendo juggernaut. Rather than seeming somehow lessened by the similarities, however, Race Stars provides proof of the whole "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" idea.
The game starts by sort of defying the conventions set by almost all of the F1 racing games that we've ever played. Instead of offering dense, technical and difficult-to-understand gameplay, F1 Stars is a pick-up-and-go title that will appeal to even casual console gamers. All of the pantheon of F1 race drivers are here and accounted for, but rendered in charming caricatures that look like digital bobble heads. You can choose any driver from Formula One's 2012 grid, but you're more likely to want to call them "Kimi" or "Schumi" than "Raikkonen" or "Schumacher" when you're playing.
Taking the cartoonification of the ultra-serious F1 still further, the game designers have basically stuck with the locations and tracks that racing fans know so well – Monza, Monaco and Austin are all accounted for, in a way. While the tracks still maintain some of their elemental character (you won't have a problem knowing when Monaco's iconic tunnel is coming up, for instance), they're mostly genre-appropriate fun houses of jumps, loops, shortcuts and the like.
As you might expect, gameplay strives to blend the fun of a standard "kart" racer, with more familiar bits from the F1 circuit. Each track has sections of blue-and-white-striped "KERS corners" for instance, where the driver is required to pull the right trigger in quick succession to charge up the KERS system, and get a sort of turbo boost for his trouble. Pit stops play a critical role in keeping your car fast after it has been damaged by enemy power ups, the DRS power up gives your racer a brief increase in top speed, there's a safety car to slow down the leader and gather the pack, and you'll actually have to use your brakes effectively to win. In fact, everywhere you look, Race Stars has incorporated real world F1 bits and pieces into a game that's pretty bonkers to actually play.
Of course, one of the reasons that we think the game will be as easy for newcomers as it will be for dedicated sim players, is that it has largely lifted its game mechanics from the aforementioned Mario Kart. Different colored "time bubbles" are fired from your car as power ups, and basically reprise the roles of the various shells in MK. The tracks are similarly set up, too, with secret short cuts that are slightly more difficult to maneuver, and various surfaces and obstacles (static and dynamic) that must be avoided lest they hang you up. The tracks are a bit longer and the races more time-consuming in F1 Race Stars than we're used to from Mario, but the general gist is the same, almost everywhere you look.
The game designers have basically stuck with the locations and tracks that racing fans know so well – Monza, Monaco and Austin are all accounted for.
Race Stars has the same three-tiered racing as Mario Kart (1000cc thru 3000cc classes), too, but with even more total events. 1000cc events are fairly easy to do well in right away, while 3000cc races will challenge your skills quite a bit – knowing the track layouts will be key, as always.
Online play via Xbox Live was sort of a mixed bag for us. The races themselves seemed lag-free and fast flowing and we seemed to always end up with about a 50/50 split of human players and bots to race against, but racing against random humans wasn't all that different from being challenged by the game's best AI. As a party game, with a group of friends online or all together at home, there's a lot of promise for the multiplayer, though.
And, of course, the graphical design of the game is just as far-out as the play itself. Environments are bright, colorful and intentionally goofy in proportion. We'll admit that the menu design and layout isn't exactly cutting edge, and the sound engineering is far quieter and more subdued than we'd expect based on the cheeky visuals. But overall the game looks wonderfully rich in a circus-tent kind of fashion.
In total, F1 Race Stars is a very well done karting-themed racer that offers surprising depth and breadth of play. It's a title that we think we'll reach for a lot when we've got multiple friends to entertain, or when we've got a hankering for a session of casual laughs. As long as you're not turned off by the borrowing of Mario's formula, we think you'll find this tongue-in-cheek F1 racer to be both charming and addictive.