F1 Race Stars preview: Giving presents and hopping swimming pools with Codemasters pocket rockets

F1 Race Stars has been looking more polished every time we’ve been shown a new build. But now we’ve got a 5-track version to play at our own pace and really dig into what’s on offer. And dig we have. New game modes, new tracks, and a new shortcut across the swimming pool at Monaco. Why hasn’t Bernie Ecclestone thought of doing that?

The game has been packed with new modes since we last saw it. Aside from the expected vanilla Race option, there’s a new Elimination mode and a try-to-stay-first-for-longest Pole Position mode. Refuel mode sees you picking up fuel icons as you race, with the twist that the less fuel you have in your car, the faster it goes. But of course you risk running out. There’s an achievement on offer for winning on empty if you’re feeling particularly daring.

Then there’s Slalom, in which the track has three coloured gates across it at regular intervals. Driving through one colour brings up a ticking clock icon. If you can pass through the same colour again before the clock runs out, you get bonus points as you all race to hit a set score target. Passing through a gate before anyone else does (denoted by a star) yields way more points, so it helps to be leading the field while you do it.

Also new is the gift system. After each multiplayer race, the game declares one player ‘the best’ and gives them a special gift to give to another player of their choice. We won a ‘guaranteed start boost’, as well as the option to start the race with a weapon pre-loaded. However, the gifts have to be selected pre-race, or they won’t work, as our startline burnout proved. The races are long enough that these things don’t really matter, but it’s a friendly touch, unless you’re being petulant and choose not to gift anything to anyone, which you can. Meanie.

The 11 tracks on offer (down from the 20 circuits offered by F1 2012 but one more than we were previously told) can be made more varied by applying up to three modifications pre-race. The ’90s favourite ‘mirror mode’ can be applied to shake things up a bit, plus special conditions like permanent wet-weather racing. There are also three speed types (read ‘difficulty options’) which work like those in Mario Kart, although the highest tier moves at a considerable pace, noticeably faster than Nintendo’s title.

Staple karting techniques like a rocket start are in, triggered here by revving up before the lights go out, letting go of accelerate and then hitting the gas the moment the race starts. There is also a slipstream effect triggered by following close behind another car for a second or so, which is again like Mario Kart, but also a technique that works in real F1.

That’s just two examples of a bewilderingly odd mix of realistic traits and karting nonsense on show. Real F1 cars don’t race over Brazilian wooden walkways or get trapped in cartoon bubbles like these, yet the game expects you to brake for corners instead of flying around them with a hop and a slide like you would in any other kart racer.

It’s actually quite refreshing to ‘drive properly’, although the barriers are forgiving enough that you can get around without braking if you really can’t be bothered. It’s certainly no simulation game.

F1 Race Stars currently looks better on some tracks than others. Much of Brazil looks great (above), especially when you enter the carnival section, but by comparison, some sections of Italy look a little bland and lifeless, leaving you under no illusions that you’re plainly driving a kart around computer-generated landscapes. However, we would have said the same thing about the German track a few weeks back and that now looks far more alive (below), so fingers crossed all the tracks will look as exciting as that does now in the finished game.

Germany is most certainly the track that looks most finished now. The start/finish straight is awash with colourful graffiti coming down from the packed spectator stands and everything looks solid, glossy and colourful. There are some truly impressive vistas too, especially as you round the final corner and see the Bavarian forest in the distance.

F1 Race Stars is playing well, raising more than the occasional smile (Grosjean putting his helmet on backwards made us laugh out loud – maybe that’s why his starts have been so eventful this past year) and working very nicely in split screen, even before final optimisation. Keep your eyes on GamesRadar for the full verdict soon. The game is due out on November 16 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

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