I love a good kart racer. Ever since the inception of Mario Kart, the genre has remained in the background of console after console, usually entertaining, rarely agitating. It also knows no bounds. You can make a kart racer out of almost any theme; case in point, F1 Race Stars. I literally had no idea this game was coming out until about a month ago, and even then still couldn’t fathom the idea of Indy car racing, in kart form. Be that as it may, F1 Race Stars is full of charm, but also several obscure design decisions that hold it back.
To create a good kart racer you need a few key ingredients. The first is an outlandish interpretation of your source. Race Stars does this by taking the likenesses of several professional drivers, and crafting them into smaller, cartoon-like versions of themselves. They have bouncing helmets before races, wink and nod at each other and simply have an embellished feel. This also transfers over to the tracks. Each one has its own setting and is exaggerated on almost every level. Giant monuments and structures abound. Loops litter tracks along with boost pads and plenty of color. This game is definitely bright and cheerful all the time.
The track design is good, but also suffers from being a tad too long. Races can run a solid 5-6 minutes at times, and often fill a lot of that with bland, open space. Kart racers live and die by offering players bite-sized chunks of fun, and Race Stars seems to try and pad out events more often than not. Another questionable mechanic is the damage and pit stops. As your kart takes damage it will show signs of wear and tear, but worst of all, it slows down. This means you need to hit a pit stop to repair. There are usually two per level, and they take you on a longer route than the main course. This mechanic slows down races, and definitely siphons some of the fun.
Like any good kart racing game, you also have power-ups to attack other players with. It feels a bit contrived with Race Stars though. Instead of interesting things like oil slicks or lightning bolts, we get bubbles. You heard me right, bubbles. Granted they are different colored bubbles with boosts and balloons thrown in for good measure. Basically, due to some restriction from F1 or who knows what, all of your attacks are different colored bubbles. The red ones are homing, the yellow bounce around the track, and the blue ones go behind you like banana peels in Mario Kart.
In fact the only originality with the attacks is that each racer has a specific ability with these items. For example, some can shoot the red bubbles behind them. Also, racers are split up into teams, and if you are racing in the team mode you can swap your powers between the two. It is a novel idea, but in the end, all the racers feel pretty much the same outside of aesthetic differences. It also doesn’t help that the power-ups simply feel stale, mostly due to appearance, but also due to lack of any creativity.
Race Stars comes packed with a lengthy career mode. You will tackle various races and championships that are all themed. For example, you will race all Japanese-inspired tracks and then move onto European-inspired tracks. It all feels a little familiar and dull after a while. The team aspect never excels it past this mundane design either. The only glimmers in the career are the unique challenges that pop-up on occasion such as having to keep refueling your car, but even these can’t eliminate the tedium.
Multiplayer is one area where Race Stars shines, though. In addition to being able to go online, you can get four players locally in split screen. This takes you back to the glory days of playing Mario Kart on the couch with buddies. The sheer amount of diversity in the modes is also appreciated. You can create custom settings and playlists to keep things fresh. The online ran smooth enough to make it interesting, but I cannot stress enough how much fun this game is split screen. These kinds of games were made for this type of competition. Trash talk is encouraged.
My favorite part of F1 Race Stars though, is the visuals. I simply love the way this game looks. The light-hearted style and exaggerated design really make it pop on screen. The tracks may have some dry areas, but when they are at their peak, they look fantastic. It all runs at a smooth clip as well, with very little slowdown in the action. I did find some of the menus cumbersome and excessive at times, but it never ruined the experience. The music is fitting with some decent sound effects, but it’s nothing to write home about.
F1 Race Stars isn’t a bad game. In fact I had a lot of fun playing it, especially offline with friends. The problems arise from its lack of creativity in power-ups, and the bland career mode. There just seems to be so much filler for a game that should shine through simplicity. When it gets that core concept right, it excels. The rest of the time you are left wondering why they made the decisions they did. Fans of F1 looking for a solid kart racer (imagine how small that window is) will be pleased, but there are better options for everyone else looking for a solid title in this genre.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.