They may be a fundamental part of our industry, but licensed games often get the bad wrap when it comes to solid production value and intuitive core gameplay. After all, unlike the majority of top-tier games, licensed games oftentimes succeed or fail not because of the quality of the product itself, but the license it represents. Why continue to push game after game in the SpongeBob series or Power Rangers franchise? Simple. It makes cash. So when a game like Cars comes around that goes out of its way to attempt what others in its category stray away from, we pay close attention.
Developed by Rainbow Studios, the software house that brought you the MX vs. ATV series, Cars has been given more focus on actually being a quality product than we've seen from most licensed games as of late, and that alone has kept us interested for the past few months. Though the final product might not be all we were hoping for, we're still quite happy to report that Cars is still leagues above the norm, providing a pretty solid iteration of the franchise that will accompany the movie quite well.
It's hard as an objective team of reviewers to constantly access the same style of licensed game, as most companies continuously pump version after version of rehashed gameplay with the primary goal of hitting shelves over scoring well. Many of the games we look at are simply too cookie-cutter to set them apart in our minds, and thus can't be recommended as a $30-$40 dollar investment when it comes to consumers. Luckily for everyone, however, the very essence of the Cars franchise lends itself to a different style of gameplay. The racing genre is really a no-brainer, and that's most certainly the reason THQ decided to sign on Rainbow Studios to do its dirty work.
The hope here was to take the initial formula that Rainbow is so famous for and team it with the license to create a product that not only pushes the franchise, but also entertains in a way that the majority of Cars competitors can't. In creating the world, Rainbow Studios focused on one main Story Mode that houses the majority of the gameplay, having a recreated town of Radiator Springs from the movie as the free-roaming hub of activity. From this main hub, players can interact with many of the Cars characters and accept races or challenges to progress the story, with the ultimate goal of competing in numerous "Piston Cup" races, which are the Cars version of Nascar events. The story for the game is told using recreated cut-scenes inspired from the movie, though the actual premise is non-linear.
Since the main element in Cars is of course the driving, the core gameplay ends up dictating the appeal of the game almost entirely. After all, a huge world to explore and tons of events are well and good, but they mean nothing without spot-on control. Though we wouldn't go as far to say that Cars controls poorly, it isn't as tight as we were expecting. Gameplay is based on simple controls, primarily focused on acceleration, braking and drifting with the ability to jump off the ground and pull off a few added moves as a bonus. The sense of speed is a bit slow overall though, and the drifting is cause for a few more frustrating control issues. Initiating a drift is as simple as holding down the designated button, but it's often ended far too quickly.
A more slippery feeling similar to Burnout or Super Mario Kart would have worked perfectly, and in the end it feels like the cars were grounded too much to get the true feel that was desired. Players will constantly struggle to stay in drift mode. In addition, a drift won't work if the car is braking, so it is very difficult to manipulate the speed and direction of the car when engaged. Time and time again we would enter into the drift, begin to feather the control and then attempt to brake, sending our car into the rail or off the track. The overall feel that was needed (and expected) just never came through, and in the end we're left with a game that controls decent on a fundamental level, but doesn't excel in the areas Rainbow Studios is famous for, and that's a disappointment.
Another major issue in the game's design comes into play when working with the free-roaming atmosphere. Since the main game is based entirely around an open-ended environment, much of the level design is done by creating new boundaries within the area, so that the space could be maximized. We've seen this in tons of games before, such as the Need for Speed series and Rainbow's own MX series, though in the case of Cars it seemed a bit too dumbed down to be effective. For starters, many of the objects in the world are solid collisions rather than being destructible, so the majority of gates, signs or fences won't budge upon contact. It may be a bit odd to see poles and trees break away while cruising through a city, but it would have helped a ton in the case of Cars since it is a child-centric game that should be as freeing as possible. Along those same lines, many objects that should be jumpable (such as small gates or ledges) will often have invisible walls above them which will come as a huge shock when speeding from area to area in a race or free-roam modes.
In addition, an "off-course" icon will come up if the player veers outside the boundaries of a race, and though that is expected in this style of design, the counter will often start simply from taking a wide turn or even place the player back too early or ahead of the pack when a restart is initiated. We actually had moments in races where we would cut a corner by driving on the far inside to pass a rival only to have our car reset. The feature was obviously put in place to help players from losing the race for one bad mistake, but instead it actually ties the hands of racers to an overbearing extent.
Even though there are a few plaguing issues that keep Cars from being as highly received as previous Rainbow games, it still offers a great deal of entertainment on a more basic level, which still puts it higher on the list than most licensed games before it. As the main story progresses players will unlock boost abilities and new environments to race in, as well as a ton (30 in all) of mini-games. Some of these mini events in the story mode are really quite cool, such as an obstacle course that requires players to weave, jump and boost through a military training route, and rally courses that require an obscene amount of boost and drifting. Every course that is completed in the main game will also become available as either a mini-game or arcade race (depending on its context in the story mode), which can be replayed at any time with any of the game's unlockable players. Each story mode event also rewards players with bonus points, which can be used to unlock the 10 total racers in the game and outfit them with numerous custom paint jobs. For the completionists out there, the game offers over 200 trophies to acquire, as well as concept art and clips from the movie to unlock as well. It may not be the most solid racing game out there, but there's still a ton of great content for younger gamers which definitely adds to the product.
As far as the full production value goes, Cars is pretty much a toss-up across the board. As we mentioned, the general control has been compromised a bit, featuring simplistic racing that ends up not living entirely up to our standards due to some odd control, invisible walls and wonky "off-track" issues, though we still had our fair share of fun regardless. The graphical presentation is also a mixed bag, as much of the animation and environments have a great look (especially on the Xbox version) but still suffer during up-close shots during the pre-race.
The general racing is still pretty fun, though the Piston Cup races don't have enough depth to validate the dozens of laps needed to complete a few of the later races. As far as the audio experience goes, Cars is again a love/hate combination, featuring voice acting from the actual movie actors, and Dolby Surround in addition to just mono and stereo settings teamed with a soundtrack from the movie that, while remaining true to the film, isn't what we'd call a strong track list for a true racing game. Nearly every facet of the game's execution is a balance between strengths and weaknesses, which puts Cars at the "good, not great" category.
For the Wii version, THQ has done a pretty straightforward port of the original game, mixing in some basic motion control to compliment the same overall product. When we originally went hands-on with the game, only one control scheme was included, having players hold the Wii-mote sideways and twist the controller like a wheel to turn. Since then, an additional control scheme has been added, though it's entirely traditional, making use of the nunchuk and Wii-mote and using very little motion at all (flicking the Wii-mote will make cars jump in both control schemes). The idea here was to allow players to either play the game using the newer motion control, or instead combine the nunchuk for the more familiar analog feel.
As an odd move though, there aren't any specific options for tuning the controller. Button layout can't be changed, and neither can the tilting sensitivity for the Wii-mote itself. The layout choice was a little odd to us, having the gas assigned to 2 while the brake is put on A rather than 1. Instead, the speed boost ability is assigned to the 1 key, and while the game's emphasis is obviously on speed, it makes feathering the gas and brake really difficult to pull off. In addition, drifting and tilting is done using the D-pad, and while there's no real issue with assigning moves to a directional pad it will stop players from simultaneously drifting and using the main brake at the same time, something that we found to be a bit annoying when trying to make precision turns.
Of course the game's nature is far more casual, and the Wii's control gets the job done for the most part. In addition to tilting to turn, players will also use the controller in different ways for 30 mini-games and side-quests, acting out the motions of a pit stop or steering McQueen around a top-view farm ala Monkey Ball. There aren't any newly added events into the mix, but the preexisting content has still received a decent run of motion control added on. Whether that control is worth the added cash asked for in the Wii version ($49.99 as opposed to the Cube version which can now be found for $29.99), is really in the eye of the beholder.
On the graphical side, the game is nearly the same as the GameCube version, with a few more polished textures and higher poly models here and there. Since the game runs in 480p and 16:9 there's an added feel of clarity on the screen, which definitely helps, but if you were hoping for a full overhaul for the Wii version you might be a bit let down with the visuals for Cars Wii. It's a bit of an upgrade visually, but you're still essentially looking at the same game with everything from visuals, gameplay, presentation, and lasting power it provides.
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