Cheap cash-in or sweet fan service? Certainly, Codemasters' decision to paste its prized motorsport licence somewhat roughly over the Mario Kart template might look a little calculating - especially when the sport in question is the ruthlessly commercial Formula One. F1 Race Stars is an uncomfortable fit, epitomised by the strangely sinister spectacle of a bobble-headed Michael Schumacher mugging blankly at his rivals on the starting grid - to say nothing of the transformation of Abu Dhabi from a luxury hotel complex in an oil-rich city state into a lush, Arabian Nights fantasy land. (Thank God they didn't do Bahrain.)
Look at F1 Race Stars another way, though, and it's a welcome burst of imagination in the hidebound world of licensed sports games, where implementing bug fixes and reshuffling last year's feature list is what usually counts for innovation. Furthermore, the sensibilities of the sport and the developer have knocked a few interesting kinks into the well-worn mould of the family-friendly cartoon racer. Not with unqualified success, it must be said - but F1 Race Stars still amounts to more than the perfunctory rebranding exercise of last week's LittleBigPlanet Karting.
That won't be your initial impression, because at first, F1 Race Stars comes across like an anodyne clone with a limb lopped off. Tracks borrow a corner or two from their real-life inspirations, but mostly take the form of smooth, broad, colourful rollercoasters punctuated with short cuts, hazards and spectacular jumps. Replace platform-game paradigms like lava land and ice world with inoffensive national stereotypes (beer breweries for Belgium, carnival for Brazil, sumo wrestlers for Japan) and it's all very Mario Kart Wii.
The same goes for the mostly tried-and-true power-ups: you get homing and ricochet missiles, invincibility, high-speed autopilot, speed boosts, mines and the rest. They're functionally identical to the standard set, although their presentation has been whitewashed by the lawyers until they're an almost comically harmless armoury of bubbles, balloons and confetti. Of the novelties, a couple are misjudged (such as the warp that jumps you up the order) and only the safety car, which slows the leaders down, has anything to do with F1. A much better idea is the damage system which reduces your top speed with subsequent hits - with the option to take a slight detour through the pits to fix yourself up.
The licence poses Codemasters with a further problem that's hardly of its own making: the characters. The toon racers look cute and some of them are uncanny likenesses - Mark Webber's hollow-eyed cragginess and Fernando Alonso's hirsute curls raise a smile every time - although the forced jollity of the animations is regrettable and the strictly unofficial voice samples are plain embarrassing (with the notable exception of the great Spanish champion trilling "Alonsooooo!" like an opera singer every time he performs an overtake). All told, though, the style is pulled off; the miniaturised cars look terrific as they bounce and strain around the courses on elastic suspension struts.
But even in 2012, which features one of the strongest driver line-ups in the history of the sport, Formula One is a little short on true heroes. All those clean-cut blonde boys from Germany and Finland look the same when reduced to caricature, and it's hard to get excited about playing a cartoon version of Charles Pic or Nico Hulkenberg when you've no idea what they look like in real life. The problem is only highlighted by the inclusion of two fake teams of female racers in pink cars. We can only dream of the licensor allowing Codemasters to go to town on a toon gallery of the sport's true legends - racers like Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and James Hunt, or maybe even the pint-sized impresario Bernie Ecclestone himself. (I know, never going to happen.)
"In tighter corners you do actually need to pick out the best racing line; sometimes it's even a good idea to brake."
Perhaps the most jarring first impression of F1 Race Stars, though, is how it drives. There are three engine classes, but only a mild increase in speed and difficulty across them. There's no difference in the handling of the cars and not enough feel in the surfaces, even when wet weather strikes. More surprisingly still, there's no way to powerslide around tight corners. A kart racer without drifting sounds like an exercise in anathema, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that Race Stars' racing is flat and pedestrian.
This is where a little patience pays dividends. Codemasters has been unwilling to give up entirely on the importance of actual cornering in F1, and in tighter corners you do actually need to pick out the best racing line; sometimes it's even a good idea to brake. This overlaps neatly with an alternative boost system, based on the real sport's KERS technology, where pumping the throttle through certain corners will give you three stages of extra acceleration on the exit.
There are several other boost techniques to master, including perfect landings from jumps and a pretty good implementation of slipstreaming. Once you readjust to Race Stars' alternative handling philosophy and discover the tracks' secrets - they even feature hidden keys that unlock short cuts - you'll find there's more satisfaction to the driving than first appears (albeit not quite enough to sustain the game's time trial mode).
The tracks are well designed and lavishly produced, but with just 11 of the 2012 calendar's 20 destinations (12 if you pre-ordered), F1 Race Stars comes up a little short on content. This is most keenly felt in the career mode, a long, thin trudge through a huge number of cup tournaments that recycle the circuits more than they can stand. Some of these cups feature the game's half-dozen alternative race modes, where you might be competing for points or sector times or picking up enough fuel to keep your car going (but not so much as to slow it down). The best, Slalom, has you chaining coloured gates in sequence for points. They're a valiant attempt to inject some variety, but most don't do much more than mildly dilute and confuse the core game.
"The presentation of this mercenary, Machiavellian circus as a candy-striped funfair of friendly rivalry is more than a little strained."
Sensibly, career mode can be played split-screen by up to four players, and you can even take all four of you into online multiplayer. The game's a dependably good laugh with friends, online or off: easy to get into, just unbalanced enough to be cruel and unpredictable, but still rewarding knowledge of the tracks and skill with the layered techniques. Unusually for a kart racer, Codemasters has provided a wealth of options to tinker with, including power-up balance, damage implementation and race modifiers that do things like reverse the lead driver's controls or make boosts continuous until you brake or take damage. They're fun and should certainly help extend the game's life.
Contrary to first impressions, F1 Race Stars isn't a by-the-numbers kart racing clone; it's actually a mildly idiosyncratic one. It's enjoyable and solidly made, but with its toned-down driving style and thinly-spread content, it's hardly from the top drawer. For genre fans, it will suffer from the head-to-head comparison with Sumo's scintillating Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, also out this week (watch out for our review on Friday morning, but we're happy to confirm now that it's the pick of the two).
So it's on the unusual use of the Formula One licence that F1 Race Stars' appeal has to rest - and what a weird proposition that is. The presentation of this mercenary, Machiavellian circus as a candy-striped funfair of friendly rivalry is more than a little strained, but it's not totally false either. It's certainly more true-to-life now than it was 10 years ago, and it's not like the sport couldn't do with taking itself a little less seriously. Junior F1 fans will love it - and maybe older enthusiasts will find it lifts their spirits just a bit in the off-season, too.