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 on the portables. There's no traveling from one bite-sized hub world to the next or 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. Instead, everything is delivered by way of the far less sexy static menu. What were previously real-time cutscenes on the consoles are instead played out as pre-rendered ones on the PSP and as a bunch of stills on the DS, though the script is essentially the same.
The races themselves have also been tweaked slightly. The portable versions sport the same basic tracks and environments as their console cousins, but it's fairly obvious things started on the PSP and were pared down as needed for the DS with a bit of the scope taken out for Nintendo's dual-screen wonder. All that really means is that both games share the same sense of progression: now, six wrenches are hidden throughout the levels that can be picked up and then turned in at the store for upgrades to base abilities. This actually opens up alternate routes like water (with inflatable tires) and metal tracks (with magnetic tires), barricades (with special bumpers) and, uh, tipping the cow-like tractors (with a new horn).
Netting yourself a podium finish will earn up to six stars, which in turn unlocks more races, but for true completionists out there, a postcard can usually be found tucked away somewhere. Catch enough air or stray from the beaten path to grab one of these and you'll unlock a Postcard Event. These are similar to the side quests from the console versions, allowing you to navigate a technical course, make a time trial run or rack up points by drifting. Like the bigger versions of the game, they're an interesting distraction, but hardly exciting enough to truly break up the tedium of the normal races.
Controls-wise, the games are more or less identical; d-pad for steering, A/X to give it some gas, B/Square for brakes and reverse, X/Circle to use a special ability (more on this in a second), R to jump and so on. Drift, rather than being a dedicated button, is simply performed by tapping the brake while laying on the gas. Things like hitting top speed for a stretch, long drifts and catching big air help fill up the Special Ability Meter (think: turbo at first), though later on you can flick between abilities with the L button. It's simple, yes, and that's probably why the game starts to get old very, very quickly.
And that's really the biggest offender here. 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.
What's surprising is that the DS version, despite not having some of the visual oomph of the PSP, actually ends up looking and feeling a bit more impressive. Aussie dev house Tantalus has managed to craft an engine that runs more consistently than the PSP version and with less in the way of graphical hitches. No, it's not a butter-smooth performance on either of the handhelds, but it still managed to stay bite-sized and comfortable on each platform. There's a rather striking amount of colored lighting at play -- particularly on the DS -- which can make things feel like a callback to the 32-bit days, but overall it's solid.
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 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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