What do you get when you take the F1 series and cross with it Mario Kart? You get enormously cute F1 racers that offer up some serious/not serious racing moments.
A lot of initial reaction to this game has been solely on how it sorta mimics Mario Kart and LittleBigPlanet Karting. That reaction is definitely warranted, as it does certainly have that cartoony feel and wacky style that each of those bring. At the same time, there's always room for a fun racing game, which is what F1 Race Stars could be. There's something to be said about how absolutely entertaining the 'fake' racing world is when applied correctly. To this day I still play Mario Kart 64, as it's still one of the more addictive racing games out there.
So what makes a game like Mario Kart 64 addictive? Well, you can start with track design, which features secret shortcuts, ramps, boosts and curvy roads. Next, you can say the power-ups are addictive, sometimes predictable and vicious (in the most hilarious manners). Add to all of that the fact that the entire Mario cast is in there, which consist of familiar faces, and you have yourself a game. That's even before the large amount of racing and difficulty.
F1 Race Stars has the flavor of Mario Kart 64, as it sports some pretty huge tracks that have wacky and wild flair to them. For example, in one of the tracks, you have have a course that contains Asian themes. These themes feature sumo wrestlers (huge statues of them) banging into each other. You also get robots coming in and out of a huge Asian house that resides in the middle of the track. Each of these is alive and creative, and are very much a part of the game. Almost all the levels in F1 Race Stars is like this one track, so you can't take that away from Codemasters' credit.
What about the familiar faces? You get an enormous amount of familiar, actual racers in the game. All of them cartoon'd to your liking. From Fernando Alonzo to Lewis Hamilton to Daniel Ricciardo, it's packed with famous faces. Maybe they're a bit jagged and rugged looking (and have lots of gel in their hair), but they keep the realism of the original F1 series intact, which Codemasters is known for year in and year out.
So what about the power-ups? I think the power-ups probably start a little of the downhill slide for F1 Race Stars. You get a series of different ways to tank your opponents in the game. From Balloons that put confetti on the windshield, to Rain Clouds that create weather for cars to drive in, to Seeker Bubbles, which could be compared to the red shell out of Mario Kart; there are plenty of different ways to bring racers ahead of you to the back of the pack. Codemasters did a splendid job with finding a variety of different ways to have players fight each other. I commend them for that effort.
The problem with the power-ups is that they're completely random. I know what you're thinking, "And?", which is an appropriate question to my statement. Ask yourself, when you're in need of a star or a blue shell from hell in Mario Kart, when are you most likely to get it? When you're in or near last place, right? Well, F1 Race Stars doesn't give you the luxury of getting the power-up you need when you need it the most. There were times during my racing experience where I found myself dead last, and after hitting several power-ups nothing helped to alleviate that. The game, since made for a younger audience, should give drivers the best chance to win, especially the ones at the end of the line. It's not cheating or some NBA JAM 'come from behind' option. It's how racing games of this type are made. A little more intelligence to the power-ups would have been great because bad players ned to feel good about their experiences and must depend on power-ups for a boost.
This leads to another point, realism. While the F1 games from Codemasters have always been potentially the most realistic F1 simulators in our modern age of gaming, there's little need to translate any of that to F1 Race Stars. Don't get me wrong, keep your faces and teams that made it feel authentic, but don't apply accurate driving experience to this kids' game. Why am I bringing this up? Well, it was difficult to make turns in the game. If you go too fast, you slide right off the road (not once, but all the time). If you go too slow, you get nailed by the drivers behind you, which damages your car. There isn't a middle ground to the curves. This portion of the game just needs to be simplified better. I've been trying to figure out how to drift in the game, but haven't been able to as of yet.
Now, with that said, the overall driving experience when not having to take sharp curves at high speeds is pretty solid. I found myself fascinated by how easy it was to maneuver through the game around opponents, and even catch their slipstream to whip ahead (and create a power-up in the meantime). F1 Race Stars was very good when it wasn't frustrating, which makes me a bit sad because the frustrating parts seem to overwhelm the good ones.
Shifting gears, let's talk fun things like visuals.
The tracks you get to hone your driving skills on are enormous, and enormously fun. From deserts to giant industry laden cities, even into the mouth of a large mechanical shark and around a wacky octopus, there's plenty of fun creative tracks to be had in F1 Race Stars. While certainly not on the Mario Kart level, there is a fun variety of twists, turns and loops that you get to drive through on your way to victory (or failure). The levels are huge and sprawling, with plenty of life and color to make them visually appealing. For example, there is a fun level where you're going through a large city. During one of the turns, you will find yourself on top of a set of trains that help lead you to the next part of the track. Around you, as you're riding on top of the trains, is city streets that are teeming with life (cars, movement, etc). These levels have personality and it shows, as Codemasters did a great job with them.
Sticking with the city track, Codemasters has implemented 'frustration free' portions of the tracks for the younger audience. I remember when I played Mario Kart 64 for the first time on the city level. I kept running into cars, which ultimately led to some curse words. I still have issues with this, and it's frustrating, especially when you're trying to get on a roll. Codemasters cityscapes have vehicles in them, but if you run into them your car simply slows down a bit. It doesn't crash to a stop, it just slows. The car you hit goes into ghost mode and you just lose momentum. I like that, as it's less frustrating and definitely less jarring. You'll find several occasions in the game that do this, which translates to Codemasters had an idea who their audience was for this title.
Visually, it's a very appealing game when it comes to tracks. It's very visually appealing with the racers and the cool cars. The game looks as good as it should look coming from the creators of the F1 series.
So, if it's got the pretty on the outside, what about the inside? Well, there is some depth to be had for a $39.99 game. You have three choices to pick from when you're getting ready to start things up. You can play a quick race, develop a career or simply play online/offline. The quick race is self explanatory. The career mode can be very much compared to Mario Kart's. You choose your driver, enter in specific races and race through a series of tracks to possibly when a cup. You have the choice of racing in 1000, 2000, or 3000cc. The higher the number, the harder the competition. Heck, by the fourth cup I was struggling to keep up on a 2000cc race. Don't take this mode lightly, as it's not all turtle shells and koopa dreams. This portion of the review is very much related to the 'realism' complaint. I think the curve of difficulty shifts too high early in the game. Again, it's a challenge, but you will not be in for a smooth ride. The career mode provides the most depth in the game, so if that is what you want, then there it is.
Now, as for the last option, the multiplayer is what you would expect. Go head-to-head in different types of games and against (up to) 12 worldwide opponents. The MP portion of the game hits its mark, though it still maintains the frustration of curves and unpredictable power-ups. If you don't like playing online then you can choose 4-player mode, which does a nice split screen. Regardless, for a $39.99 game, it's impressive to see this much detail in the MP. It certainly adds to the value.