F1 Race Stars Preview: F1 Meets Mario Kart
You probably wouldn't know it for a sport that's fixated with technology and often obscured by politics, but Formula 1's really all about character. This is a sport that's always attracted larger-than-life personalities, from '50s aristocrats like the Marquis de Portago through the mischievous antics of Nelson Piquet and on to swashbuckling modern superstars such as Fernando Alonso.
With the hyper-stylised F1 Race Stars, Codemasters has allowed itself to make an official game where that character comes first. Here's the sport as you'd envision it after having an animated eight-year-old describe a weekend's action to you: colourful, exaggerated and with a cast of rugged superheroes playing out the action.
If you want an indication of how well Codemasters has worked the licence into a family-oriented affair you only need look at the reaction to the original reveal. F1 fans can be a tough bunch to please, ready to snap an arm at any perceived deviance from authenticity - so to see them embrace a game that owes more to Mario Kart than it does to Geoff Crammond is quite something.
A lot of that credit's got to go to the art direction, an expertly worked sugar-coating that re-imagines F1 as a Saturday morning cartoon. Harvey Parker's the man who's leading that side of the project, and if you've a broad enough memory you may recall his artful take on Moto GP for Monumental's ill-fated yet commendable stint on the sport.
Each of the drivers is turned into a toon, from Vettel all the way through to Karthikayen and Pic, and they're all disarmingly cute; Mark Webber looks even more like Superman, if that's possible, and I'm still campaigning for Fernando Alonso's model to be turned into a plushie so I've got something to cuddle up to this Christmas.
There's a limit to the liberties that Codemasters can take with the licence - as great as it'd be to have Maldonado gifted with a Waluigi-esque cackle or for Bernie to appear as a silver-haired special character who throws pots of money around the track, FOM only allows a certain amount. To that extent it's a shame to see the brilliant character work obscured by full-face helmets once the lights go out, even if it's totally understandable.
There's enough character elsewhere to compensate, though. The cars are tiny models with an exaggerated sense of motion, bobbling through the tracks. They come apart like toys when they're smashed through a race as parts bounce off the car - and a quick trip to the pits restores them to a gleaming condition.
There's character in the tracks too, which is perhaps the most impressive achievement given how insipid so much of their inspiration is. A run around Melbourne takes a detour through an aquarium and across a beach where there's a shark waiting in tow, while Monaco's swimming pool is now an obstacle that can be leaped.
Hockenheim's the one track that's available in the early code, however, and it's a perfect example of how Codemasters is blending the real with the fantastical. Towards the rear of the circuit there's a recognisable take on the Stadium section, drawn in big blocks of flat colour. Elsewhere, the extreme undulations take in some other inspirations: there's a run through the Black Forest that gives way to a wide-open Autobahn before racing through a Bavarian castle.
F1 Race Stars plays fully as you'd expect a Mario Kart clone to, though it's surprising how well those disparate elements come together. The half-baked observation that F1's becoming more like a video game in recent years is revealed to have a fair bit of weight: Nintendo's template fits as snugly around the technical intricacies of the sport's contemporary make-up as a nomex glove.
So in place of speed pads are KERS sections, coloured segments of tracks where it's possible to gain a boost that can be maximized by pumping the accelerator. DRS is one of many power-ups, acting much like an invincibility star and propelling you down the track while you shunt other cars out of the way.
Balloons take the place of rockets, and they're available in familiar flavours: red ones seek out the driver in front, purple ones fire straight ahead while yellow ones ricochet across the track. There are some more bespoke power-ups, too - wet weather soaks the track while granting you treaded tires, leaving other drivers sliding around while you power through, while getting a safety car slows up the leading bunch and gives you an opportunity to catch up.
Races are brash and chaotic, and while the handling lacks some of the depth of a Mario Kart, F1 Race Stars has it where it counts. There's character in abundance, and it should make for a disarmingly charming offshoot of Codemasters' official series.