At a glance...

Previewer Platform Publisher Developer Players Release Date
Matt Bailey Xbox 360 Codemasters Codemasters Birmingham 1-4 (Split-screen), 1-12 (Online) November 2012

F1 Race Stars preview

When we sat down with Steve Hood and Paul Jeal at Gamescom last year to talk about Codemasters' F1 games, they talked a bit about the restrictions imposed by Formula One Management (FOM) as part of the licence to make officially-sanctioned games about the sport. They can't, for example, have Lewis Hamilton driving an AMG Mercedes (at least, not until next year, maybe...), so when you do multi-season championships, all drivers must remain at their current teams, except the one that you are replacing.

This was just one of many restrictions, so it was surprising to see F1 Race Stars revealed in July; a licenced F1 game that's certainly taking a more liberal approach to that agreement. Of course, Lewis is still in a McLaren, but it's a McLaren-branded vehicle that looks more like a kart than a traditional open-wheel racer. With power-ups, colourful visuals, and handling firmly in the arcade end of the spectrum, this is Formula One meets Mario Kart.

Lewis lays a trap for Kimi

Lewis lays a trap for Kimi

Despite the stylistic changes, F1 Race Stars is still firmly rooted in the sport. Not only are all the correct teams and drivers in place, but also the 20 tracks that make up this year's calendar. They're a bit different from the ones in F1 2012; the Hockenheim course shown off at Gamescom features the main grandstand and the tight last few corners of the German circuit, but also veers off to into the forest before taking a trip on an Autobahn. These diversions allow Codemasters to create tracks which emphasise fun, as well as capture a bit of the spirit of the country they're based on. Some of the power-ups have a distinctly F1 theme, but there are still some more generic coloured power-ups to take out opponents, you also have a safety car which slows everyone down and bunches people up, plus DRS to bring you through from the back of the field.

Various kart game have tried and failed to capture the feel and fun of Nintendo's series, but I think F1 Race Stars stands a good chance based on my time with the game in Cologne. It's certainly the most fun I've had with any of these games, particularly in the 2-player split-screen mode that was shown off, where battles capture that same sense of chaotic drama, unpredictability and tense final moments. 4-player is promised for the final version, a rarity on the Sony and Microsoft consoles, alongside 12-player online multiplayer, where you can also bring along split-screen players. What also helps the game succeed where others have failed is the strong sense of character. There's some interesting drivers in the current F1 field, and their cartoon counterparts capture their traits. Drivers acknowledge each other on the grid as the lights count down, before the FOM-mandated helmets appear and the race gets underway.

If you get damaged, you'll need to head for the pit lane

If you get damaged, you'll need to head for the pit lane

Despite the direct comparisons, there's unique ideas here too. One of which is damage, sustained from an onslaught of attacks by your rivals, and while you can't be completely taken out, you will be slower until you make a quick dash through the pit lane. You can also build up charge on the boost pads, for an extra speed burst, and along with the tighter handling, there's possibly more depth to the driving style than many other kart racers.

What, on the surface, might appear to be a cynical cash-in of the brand, is actually something that the parallel team at Codemasters Birmingham are clearly putting a lot of love into, offering a family-friendly sibling to their colleague's more serious recreation of the sport. While the main series arrives this week, you'll have to wait until November before you can take control of cartoon Kimi, Fernando, Seb, Lewis, Jensen and company.

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