Despite the unending popularity of Nintendo’s lead franchises it would seem that fewer publishers are attempting to try and mimic their formulas on current-generation systems than has previously been the case. In contrary to the state of ‘me-too’ mobile gaming, the nigh-on seven years that the Xbox 360 has been available for has only brought one Super Smash Bros. clone and three Mario Kart inspired franchises to the console, and the PlayStation 3 will only go one better with the forthcoming launch of PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale. Some would suggest this is due to a lack of demand on high-definition (HD) consoles, others would say that few developers can match Nintendo’s weight pound-for-pound. Electronic Theatre is most certainly in the latter camp, but there are a few who can stand-up square to first-party productions, if not surpass them.
Of course, no big budget kart racer wants to live in Mario Kart’s shadow, but all are aware that they will be compared to Nintendo’s racing opus throughout development and release. With this in mind, it seems that Codemasters has done the right thing: taken a bite of humble pie and accepted that there are some things Mario Kart has championed that F1 Race Stars simply can’t live without. The fantasy setting, selection of weapons, boosts (including boost starts) and driver variety have all been brought to F1 Race Stars from that well established setting, but that’s not to say Codemasters has tweaked each one to make it fit with the Formula One subject matter.
The included tracks are fantasy versions of real Formula One venues, including a number of famous landmarks and some plays on national stereotypes, including a crash UFO and what appears to be a cameo from The Simpsons’ Truckosaurus. Each track has a number of hidden shortcuts that can shave seconds off your best time, and what’s more each has a special locked route which can only be accessed by bringing a key to it. The keys are found elsewhere in the level, typically on one of the aforementioned shortcuts, but players can not use weapons with the key equipped and should the player be hit with a weapon while carrying the key they will drop it.
The weaponry available is collected from power-up placements on the track that offer a random item. As is the case with Mario Kart, the further back in the pack you are the more likely it is that you will receive a more powerful weapon. Green and red shells have been incorporated as standard – though replaced with bubbles, just as is the banana skin – and there are a number of other items that bear resemblance to those featured in Mario Kart also. The champagne bottle is clearly a revision of the bullet bill, while the storm is in place of lightning; slowing down the whole pack. The safety car weapon is perhaps the most original, designed to close the gap between racers, and coupled with the accumulated damage and pit stops, and the revision of the boost mechanic, is a welcome addition to the formula.
Mario Kart’s hop-turn boost is a technique that players either love or hate. Those familiar with the franchise welcome the opportunity to discover its nuances with each new edition, while less experienced players argue that it offers an unfair advantage. F1 Race Stars has stripped it right back and made it so that every player has the opportunity to make the most of what it calls KERS boosting. Instead or being available on every corner, the KERS is marked by blue arrows across the track in a similar fashion to F-Zero’s health recharge. Each player has a tank that can hold up to three KERS boosts and can charge them by releasing and repressing the accelerator when one fills. Upon exiting the section of blue arrows all charged KERS will be executed at once, potentially launching the player forward at great speed.
Each of the twenty eight drivers has their own special ability dependant on which driving team they are part of, such as super boost or the backwards seeker bubble – available only when such power-ups have been collected – but in the Xbox 360 edition of the videogame players can also jump into the driving seat as their Xbox LIVE Avatar with any of the abilities.
F1 Race Stars features a number of different gameplay modes based around the premise of driving pint-sized Formula One heroes around fantasy-land tracks, including the usual race, time trial and elimination modes. There’s single events and championships to be played – either by a single player or split-screen – and the online gameplay allows for more than one person per system to battle it out against distant foes; an all too often overlooked asset. More interesting however, are the refuel, exhibition and sector snatch modes, which task the player with hitting furl pumps along the path, hitting foes and driving fast or setting the best time on specific sections of the track. None of these modes outshines the standard racing, but each has its own merit to provide an enjoyable side attraction.
The visual quality of F1 Race Stars mirrors that of Microsoft Studios’ Joyride franchise: far from pushing the hardware to its limits but clean and comfortable nonetheless. It’s symbolic of the production values of the videogame as a whole, as F1 Race Stars checks all the right boxes simply by doing exactly what would be expected of it. It’s clean fun for Formula One fans of all ages, or just those looking to bring the Mario Kart experience to formats on which there is no Mario Kart. So Codemasters has proven that, with their newfound singular direction, they can stand toe-to-toe with the best the racing genre has to offer on almost all fronts, and Electronic Theatre would suggest that F1 Race Stars is only the start of something much bigger for the kart racer.