HuffPost UK recently got a chance to sit down with Codemasters for an early bash through F1 Race Stars, the new karting game based on the world's most intense motorsport. Read on for our early impressions...
It's hardly original to observe that F1 Race Stars, the big, bold, cartoony-but real-world-inspired karting game by Codemasters, looks like a cross between Mario Kart and F1 2012.
(It does, though. Because it blatantly is exactly that.)
But what's more surprising is where the game falls in that spectrum. For while the emphasis here is definitely on pick-up-and-playability, F1 Race Stars is also shaping up to be a surprisingly deep game.
And while we loved F1 2012 and its fine recreation the maddening, hazardous sport of racing very fast, this lighter take on the sport might just turn out to be the most entertaining F1 simulation of the year....
Looking like a cross between a Pixar movie and the Disney Epcot Center, F1 Race Stars features 11 sprawling tracks, each based very loosely on one of the season's real circuits.
Make that very, very loosely. For let's be clear: each of the tracks bears only slight resemblance to its real world counterpart.
The aim was apparently to include as many visual gags, light-hearted stereotypes (giant catci in Texas, a massive Bavarian castle in Germany) and ridiculously over-the-top track elements (loops, tunnels, jumps and in one case a river-rapids splashathon) in each track as possible, while still maintaining a semblance of reality. The Monaco circuit does include the famous hairpin corner at the Fairmont Hotel, for instance, but is otherwise almost unrecognisable. Likewise Abu Dhabi, which includes a spin around the Ferrari World Roller Coaster.
Yes, F1 would be more entertaining if these things really happened, but sadly it's not the case.
But while fans might long for a more accurate representation of their favourite chicanes, the result is a selection of tracks that are not only very long, and very lovingly crafted, but which also boast real variety in terms of gameplay.
Each has a number of hidden sections, including one which is only unlockable by a single player with a special 'Key' powerup. And despite their various gimmicks (avoid the giant truck robot dinosaur, jump into the massive shark's mouth…) the tracks also seem replayable enough to not get boring too quickly - which is lucky, since there aren't that many of them.
For all the thought that's gone into track design, just as much care has gone into tuning how the game actually plays. Yes, it might pay homage to Mario Kart in looks, and in its power-up weapons (red 'homing' missiles, bullet-style boosts...), but in handling and strategy F1 Race Stars is very much its own beast.
It's like the game has drawn a cartoon of how an F1 car handles, as well as how it looks. Acceleration is fast, braking is sharp, and taking corners is both easy to get wrong and satisfying to master. You're not going to powerslide like Mario and survive very long, and the inclusion of car damage and slipstream means that overtaking is also a vaguely strategic process.
Several other elements of the real F1 experience also play a part: KERS is included via specific areas of the track, marked in blue, where you have to 'pump up' turbo boosts with the accelerator; rain interupts races and genuinely affects how you drive (unless you called it down with a power-up, when you're give a set of wet tyres); a safety car brings racers together and makes overtaking difficult; pit lanes repair your car but cost you time and DRS is also available via a speed-boost pickup.
The result is a game that feels more reflective of F1 that you'd expect - yes, everything is written large in family-friendly bubble writing, but this isn't just Sonic Racers with Lewis Hamilton's face on the box. You do have to drive.
It's an open question how deep and interesting the single player experience will be since we didn't get to go through a campaign, but in multiplayer the game really shines. Four-way split screen is included, and if you can find three mates to play with online or (better) on your sofa, you're in for a treat. There's an abundance of game modes, from straight racing to elimination, points-based challenges and team battles, and the variety of power-ups is such that you'll never be short of drama.
In recent years it's been a sad fact that the least interesting thing about F1 has been the drivers. That's also true here. Each one of the 2011 season drivers and teams is included in the game, along with a couple of fictional teams with female drivers (hard luck Danica Patrick fans). But while they look friendly and well animated, and while driver-specific power-ups give a bit of personalisation, there's not much genuine character on show - because there's not much there to work with. Cartoon Sebastian Vettel is just Sebastian Vettel with a big face. No more. No less. Same stupid 'I'm number one' finger.
The result is that F1 Race Stars really does feel like the sport it represents: it's both deep and attractive, and has enough appeal to attract casual fans as well as hardcore gamers, but it also feels slightly over-managed, as if intended to artificially generate excitement and fun rather than allowing it to naturally evolve.
To an extent that's the way karting games work - and it really is a blast in multiplayer.
And yes, if this is qualifying F1 Race Stars is right up there in the pack. But whether or not it will be the foundation of a badly-needed series of fun F1 games, or spin out after a single lap, we'll just have to wait and see.