Super Hamilton Kart
Codemasters has already produced three well-received simulation racing games based on Formula One, the world's most popular motorsport, but it's come up with a very different approach for this spin-off. This is F1 meets Mario Kart - a colourful, kid-friendly arcade racer with over-the-top tracks, chaotic action, weapon power-ups and a cartoon style.
F1 Race Stars a fun take on a sport that often takes itself too seriously, and F1 fans will get a kick out of seeing their favourite drivers from the 2012 line-up, from Lewis Hamilton to Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher, rendered as bobble-headed cartoons. Most of them are accurate, funny and cute likenesses too (although we'd challenge anyone to pick Jenson Button out of a blind line-up). The miniature toon-style cars look great as well, although it's a shame that the drivers' silly exclamations sound nothing like them.
Rather than accurately represent the tracks, Codemasters has come up with a series of spectacular fantasy versions which borrow the setting and style of the originals, plus maybe a couple of famous corners. On top of these they add huge jumps, multiple routes, short-cuts, ridiculous animated hazards (like giant mechanical sumo wrestlers in Japan) and more. At times they more closely resemble rollercoasters than racing circuits (the Abu Dhabi one actually has you drive on a coaster) - which is just as it should be in a kart racer.
Things are mostly as you would expect from a Mario Kart-style game, but there are a few tweaks to the formula. For example, the weapons - characterised as bubbles and balloons, presumably because F1 bosses didn't like the idea of strapping guns to their cars - mostly operate just as you would expect. But get hit in this game and you're not just slowed for a second, you actually take damage which reduces your top speed and can only be repaired by driving through the pits.
The most surprising change is that you can't power-slide, or drift, around corners, which has been a staple of this genre of racing game ever since it was invented 20 years ago with Super Mario Kart. It takes a little getting used to, but the very slight focus on more realistic cornering, where you have to slow down and take the right line, is at least faithful to the spirit of F1. Lest you become worried that things are getting too realistic, there's also a whole range of ways to get massive speed boosts, from slipstreaming, to executing a perfect landing, or pumping the throttle through certain corners (actually based on a real-life F1 technology called KERS).
It's a shame that there isn't more variation and feel in the handling of the karts as they barrel along the wild courses, riding river rapids one minute and climbing vertical banking the next. But the tracks are really pretty and well-designed, and it's all cracking good fun - especially in company, as is always the case with this kind of racing game.
Thankfully, you never need to play F1 Race Stars on your own (unless you want to play Time Trial). There's support for four-player split-screen as well as online multiplayer - even, brilliantly, both at the same time. You can create custom races using a wide range of options; there are several alternative race types and some fun modifiers (such as reversing the lead driver's steering), and you can tweak the balance of the power-ups and how damage works.
You can also take four local players into the game's career mode, which covers a huge range of cup tournaments. This is a good thing, because it's a very long mode spread out over just 11 tracks, and the repetition could get a bit much if you were playing it solo.
But F1 Race Stars is all about larking about in multiplayer, and played that way it's never less than thoroughly entertaining. It might not be the very best kart racer on the market, but it will be hugely appealing to younger F1 fans - maybe even older ones who find the realistic approach of the main F1 games too dry or difficult for their tastes. Over and above that, it's a nice change to see a licensed sports game put fun before nerdy authenticity. More of this please!
- A creative use of the F1 licence that fans of the sport will love
- Solid multiplayer racing action with loads of options
- Fernando Alonso sings his own name when he overtakes - if only he did this in real life!
- The lack of drifting is bizarre, and there's not enough feel to the handling
- The tracks are spread too thin over an over-long career mode
- "Cute" cartoon Schumacher will haunt your dreams