IGN Review of Cars Race-O-Rama
Licensed games are a cash cow, that much is absolutely certain or publishers wouldn't pay out their hoo-ha to pick 'em up and rush to get something out in time to meet the big-screen complement. Kids' games are especially prone to being dumped on some poor developer with the expectation that come hell or high water, the game will be in stores to help bilk unsuspecting but well-meaning parents, grandparents and the otherwise blissfully uninformed out of a few more bucks.
Except... there's no Cars movie coming out -- at least not for more than a year and a half when the sequel finally hits theatres -- prompting many of us in the office to wonder why in the hell THQ would even bother pumping out a half-dozen versions of the same basic game. It's made all the more perplexing by the fact that Rainbow Studios' original movie tie-in was at the very least decent, but by no means bucked the usual license game trend. The inexplicable follow-up, Cars: Mater-National, was all but ignored by us (and, we hope, everyone else), so the arrival of Cars: Race-O-Rama could only be fiscally-inspired. Not surprisingly, it feels every bit like the cheap let's-get-this-out-before-our-license-expires cash-in that we suspect it must be.
There is zero doubt in my mind that this is a lucrative franchise. Devin, my friend's son, still watches Cars on DVD. Every. Friggin'. Day. To be honest, I can't completely blame him; Cars is definitely one of Pixar's most endearing properties, which makes it all the more uncomfortable when dealing with a third-party treatment of that source material -- especially so when it's the third third-party treatment. It should come as no surprise that Race-O-Rama feels every bit like the soulless husk of a great movie, then. There's nothing offensively bad about Lightning McQueen's quest to out-race the returning Chick Hicks and his crew of generic bad guy-errr... cars, but it's certainly not anything to get remotely excited about either.
In contrast to the sort of open-world nature of the first Cars game and the more mini-game-driven Mater-National, things are a bit more compartmentalized. You'll travel from one bite-sized hub world to the next, taking on main race events that help further the story while juggling optional side quests and collecting little bolt icons that help unlock new skins. In the main races, scooping up three oft-out-of-the-way spark plug icons will help unlock new sets of paint, tires and body kit mods, but these are purely for show (though you will get upgrades to Lightning's basic form to make him a street racer or off-roader or monster truck or what have you during the story bits, though they handle largely the same).
Controls-wise, the games are more or less identical. X throws the pedal to the metal, Square slams on the brakes, L2 starts a drift and R2 unleashes turbo. The less often used Circle for e-brake and L1 for tilt (which lets Lightning pop up onto two wheels to squeeze through tight spots). Jumping is accomplished with a sort of down/up flick of the left analog stick. Though you can go into the options and look at the controller layout, you can't actually remap anything. Hell, it's even presented as "Configuration 1" even though there's no 2 or 3 selectable.
The actual races are fairly simple affairs. The inclusion of Doc's "sometimes you have to go left to go right" drift lesson introduced at the end of the movie makes an appearance here, allowing Lightning to scoot around corners without losing too much speed or to kick out the back end for a flashy points-grabbing wide drift, both done by holding the drift button and adjusting the angle constantly, but otherwise, it's basically a game of catching the odd bit of air, going as fast as possible and waiting for the auto-charging turbo meter to fill back up again. Yes, it's about as boring as it sounds, though I realize most six year-olds probably aren't looking for a comprehensive sim experience in their funny cartoon race car games.
Sprinkled around the hubs are multiple types of side challenges ranging from racing in kart-style challenges (complete with power-ups) as the forklift Guido, tracking down tires for Luigi and a few technical laps around increasingly difficult courses that ding you for hitting safety cones or bumping walls. They do a decent job of breaking up the normal races (which become downright tedious by the end), but as a source of actual entertainment, they feel about as lifeless as the core action.
And that's really the biggest offender here. Aside from technical issues that I'll get to in a second, the primary reason to steer clear (ha ha, punny) of Cars: Race-O-Rama is just that it doesn't really possess any of the charm and entertainment found in the movie -- or, dare I say, the original licensed game release. It's a perfect example of a game that lacks the heart, wit and across-the-board entertainment value of the CG flick. Oh, it'll likely keep your little ones staring at the screen for a few hours, sure, but so will that Cars DVD if Devin's any indication.
It's pretty clear that THQ's Incinerator Studios dev house started with the Xbox 360 as their baseline platform and just started working their way down, shrinking or tweaking assets as was needed to get it to work on the other platforms. While this works fine for the 360 version, which isn't exactly graphically demanding in the first place but at least looks fairly nice, as your work your way down the list of the remaining consoles, things start to get progressively more bleak; framerate issues, pop-in, and a general feeling that things were even more rushed on the non-HD platforms doesn't help quell any feelings that this was a quick-n-dirty effort to cash in on the Cars license.
The PS2 version's visuals are without a doubt the worst of the bunch; terrible framerate dips down into the single digits at times happen on plenty of tracks, tons of pop-in hits even fairly close bits of geometry and it's just the most uneven in general. Definitely the bottom of the console versions. Regardless of the version, there are some decent little touches; tires bite and bend a little while cornering and it's nice to see little cars populating the stands when zooming by.
The audio is pretty much identical on all systems, which is to say you'll hear the same inconsistent sound-alike clips over and over and over again on a particular race. Lightning is a yammering, repetitious sound bite machine, boasting about being cool and popular in a way that's almost instantly grating rather than being charming. During the game's cutscenes, there's actually some decent use of the throaty growl of the kind of engines you'd hear on race day, but the actual races are weirdly subdued.
Likewise, none of the voices do a solid job of replicating the movie performances, and the music, a sort of mix of twangy country licks and plucky little ambient ditties, but none of it is particularly memorable nor does it have any real hooks. It's not annoying, which is something I can't say for all the voice clips, but neither is it the kind of thing that makes one crank up the volume.
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