I have to admit it: I was intrigued when I first heard of Codemasters’ F1 Race Stars, which was presented to me as an arcade style Formula 1 racing game. I’m a more-or-less fan of the F1 2010
series of sim-cade games - they aren’t quite as sim as I’d prefer, but they are close enough. And, of course, they benefit from being the only F1 game worth the name for so long as Codemasters holds exclusive access to F1 licensing. I was curious about what a pure arcade version would look and play like. In fact, I had pretty high hopes for it. I was visualizing a game that I might be able to convince my teenaged daughter to play with me. Perhaps, I hoped, it would be something like Formula 1 meets Need For Speed. Fun, kind of realistic but too much, and easy enough to understand without all of the arcane rules and the black art of car setup.
If you’ve read this far because the above sounds like something you too would want too, you can stop right now. It’s not happening with F1 Race Stars.
I am going to digress for a bit here to tell you that there are many times when I first start playing a new game or simulation and try to put myself in the shoes of the publisher’s marketing department. I try to imagine what/who they determined to be their target market, how they intended to differentiate their title from other games in the same genre, and how successful I believe their ostensible marketing strategy will be. Using my understanding of their intended audience, I try to view the game through that filter. It would hardly be fair to evaluate an arcade game by comparing its merits to, say... iRacing, right?
All of that fell apart with Race Stars, though. Frankly, I have no idea what they were thinking. But we’ll get back to that.
As mentioned above, Codemasters holds a license that allows them to use Formula 1 properties such as drivers, team names, and tracks in their games. Knowing that, I wasn’t surprised to see plenty of familiar names and faces in the game, even if they were heavily caricatured. The game definitely has an arcadish look to it, but they told me that right up front so I wasn’t surprised to see it. I actually found it to be visually appealing, albeit clearly with a much younger audience in mind. I found nothing to object to with the look of the game, and in consideration of it started to formulate my ideas concerning the target audience: I was thinking ages 6 - 12. That was personally a little disappointing since I was hoping that my somewhat-older-than-that daughter would deign to play with her old dad, but that’s my problem, not Codemasters’.
The 6 - 12 age group is interesting because it is pretty much the last age group that doesn’t always get to pick games for themselves. That age group is, in my opinion, still well into the parental programming stage. This is the stage in growth and development where parents can still delude themselves into thinking that they can program their kids to enjoy the same things that they do. My own daughter could fill a small barn with gifts that I bought for her because they appealed to me and I still futilely harbored the dream that we would someday share interests. The older, wiser me shakes his head at the complete naivety exhibited in the preceding sentence as he writes this one, but I suspect that I am not alone in having gone through this. And so it transpired that I decided that Codemasters marketing had selected the younger me as the target audience for F1 Race Stars. They were looking squarely at the parent that was interested enough in Formula 1 to want to try to pass that interest on to the kids.
I remain undecided as to whether they hit the mark or not.
What they did was to take the standard kids console kart game (think: Mario Kart. Think: Crash Team Racing. Think: Dozens of other nearly identical games) and merge in the F1 branding. Nothing more, nothing less. See if any of this sounds familiar: you race as a cartoon avatar against other cartoon avatars in a virtual fantasy world. The karts are enabled with forward-firing weapons, rearward “mine” type weapons, and various power-ups. The races are short, and the rubber-banding is applied with all of the subtlety of a tire iron used to de-seed a grape.
It does sound familiar, doesn’t it? They haven’t completely ignored the F1 branding, but the game mechanics for the most part are nothing new. The F1 properties are reflected in the design the cars and avatars of real drivers (although on the Xbox you can choose to use your Xbox Live avatar, but it doesn’t make much difference since everyone is wearing helmets), and the locations of the tracks. The cars and driver avatars are fine, but the tracks are a bit off. Rather than use the entire F1 track, they chose to use short lengths of the real world track but then divert off into purely fantastical tracks. So it is that you will find yourself thinking, “Ah, Eau Rouge! How cool!!” just before being diverted off to drive in a river. The dichotomy between the two sides of the same track was so jarring that It was like a bad LSD trip. Or so I assume.
Now here’s what the should have done:
I will again speak from the position of an adult F1 fan looking for a fun game that will introduce his progeny to the world of Formula 1 in an approachable and fun manner. I won’t look at it from a 6 - 12 year old’s point of view because frankly, that kid really wanted Mario Kart because that’s what all of the other kids have. First of all, they should have used shorter, cartoonized versions of the entire real world tracks. Spa-Francorchamps, Monza, Monaco, Suzuka: these are all distinctive, challenging, and universally known tracks. Sure, they’re long and would take way too long to get around at their actual length, but they could have been scaled down easily enough. Using the real tracks would have given Dad something to enjoy, and the kids wouldn’t have known the difference. In a few years, they would have been able to walk into Codemaster’s F1 2016 with no problem at all.
Rather than ruining the racing with offensive weaponry, they should have simply dropped the entire concept of combative racing and gone with a somewhat forgiving pure racing model. Ignoring the weapon power-ups, this is one thing that they did pretty well in the game as it is today. You can bump and push and shove the other karts, but you will pay a price in damage to your own kart. Damage comes at a cost to performance, which is as it should be. Damage can be repaired by passing through the pit area which also comes with a cost in the form of a track position penalty. This too is already in the game and works well. Split screen and online multiplayer work well, but there is no option to turn off the AI cars. Because of the weaponry model, the AI cars can be detrimental to racing with live friends to the point of being irritating, so it would have been nice to get rid of them if you wanted to have a pure race with your buddies. I also would have liked to see more customization options in the races; the ability to set the number of laps and the weather conditions would have been nice.
Carrying on with the idea of more emphasis on racing, I would like to see a more opaque way of providing rubber-banding. It is a fact that at some point someone will fall too far back from the rest of the cars and get bored. This is addressed in the game with a super-powerful power-up that completely takes over control of the car and zooms it back up to the rest of the field. It’s really a bit too much. In a more realistic model, this could be accomplished in a number of more subtle ways. One way is already built into the game: a safety car can be brought out to slow down the leaders. I never did figure out what was bringing the safety car out, though. It might have been a power-up triggered by another player, or it might have been an attempt at a more subtle rubber-banding. Either way, it could be used in the latter case anytime someone gets too far back from the next closest car.
There is one power-up in the current game that is very well designed. They call it KERS (which is a performance enhancement in real F1 cars), but it is very different from the real thing. What they have done is created “KERS corners” and they way that they offer the performance boost actually requires a bit of skill to use. I really like the way they implemented it, and I would keep it in my version of what the game should have been.
At the end of the day I see F1 Race Stars as it stands today as a missed opportunity. Rather than use the F1 license in a unique way that would have differentiated the game from the large pack of other similar games, Codemasters simply used it to put the F1 tag on what is really just another mundane entry in an already crowded genre. Rather than providing an upgrade path to their more sophisticated titles, they have chosen to dumb down their brand.