A little green man, in a film, once said, “You have to unlearn what you have already learned,” or words to that effect. Never a truer word has been spoken in relation to a video game. The thing about F1 Race Stars that has got everyone on their first play and has seemed like a game breaker is very simple: there is no drift. I can now hear cups and glasses shattering on floors the world over, as you all reel from the shock, but let me give it some perspective. On the box and instructions is the word “kart”. Yes, the game offers cute versions of cars, drivers and circuits but at its very heart sits an interesting twist on the whole kart game genre: you have to brake to succeed. With that out the way, lets get stuck in.
The first thing you will notice is how bright and cheery the game looks. The music is suitably upbeat, the menus are crisp and clear and the loading screens look like something from an old mint advert. You are offered the choices of career mode, time trial, online or just racing. I jumped into a race to get a feel for the game. All the drivers in the current F1 season are present but as cutesy, angular versions of themselves, as are their cars. You can also play as some generic male and female characters or use your own avatar.
Find the sweet spot at the starting grid and, in good old karting tradition, you will get a speed boost off the line. Then you encounter your first corner. Instinct tells you to attempt to drift round it but with that mechanism missing, you’ll go off track and lose places. You’ll look for a hop button and also find that is not present. As your frustration is bubbling over languishing in last place you’ll notice that the tracks look really nice, very cartoony and in some ways stereotypical. Stereotypical tracks? Yes. In Britain, there are Harrier jump jets and double deckers. In Japan, Sumo wrestlers/ In Brazil, a carnival. It’s all done in the best possible taste and gives each track a certain ambiance. Most of the time the tracks are roller-coaster rides of hills, bends and loops but look closely and you’ll see that each track features a small section from the real life track. It’s actually a really nice touch for all the F1 aficionados.
As you struggle to catch up while racing you’ll pick up some pretty standard power ups to help you back on course. Seeker bubbles, boosts and traps. If you are badly lagging, there is also a catch up power up that puts you right at the front. On each track there are KERS zones, like real F1. The difference here is that, to activate them, you have to pump your accelerator three times within the marked area. Successfully do this and you will get a temporary speed boost. It was at this point that I noticed the KERS zones are usually on tight corners and I was having to brake to get the boost. The penny dropped. If you treat this as a cute version of a proper F1 game, you will achieve driving success. As you approach a corner, slow down and try to hit the apex, much like any racing game, then while exiting the corner accelerate out. The difference this can make to lap times is immense.
The different modes on offer give enough to keep you going for a long time, on the surface, but look a bit deeper and some of the niggles become apparent. The career mode looks vast when you first see it but it uses re-hashes of tracks and modes to fill it out. On one track you may do an elimination race. A few races later and you are back on the same track doing a slalom race. It goes on like that for the career mode. The races are still enjoyable but very soon you get a feeling of seeing it all before. Online play works well and is where the game will get some longevity from. All the game modes are available to play online and usually end up in a seeker bubble frenzy to the finishing line. The only quibble I had when playing online was that, due to connection issues of other players, cars would jump around the screen. Other than that, the online mode works as well as you would expect and reminded me of the hedonistic days of playing kart racers with friends all huddled round one console. Which, you can still do as the game also supports split screen play for up to four people. Ahh, the memories.
The final mode that you really should pay attention to is Time Trial. It was here where I was able to master the control of the cars and even post a top ten entry on a world leaderboard. You can race round any track and find all the shortcuts and KERS zones and learn them for proper racing. You can choose between three engine sizes- 1,000cc, 2,000cc and 3,000cc and although the differences are minimal, the 3,000cc will do lap times up to and beyond 10 seconds faster than the 1,000cc. It’s hard to stress how important this mode is if you want to get full enjoyment out the game. Although I’m writing about it last, it should be the first mode you visit to get a feel for things.