Developer: Rainbow Studios
Release Date: June 6, 2006
These days, movie games can almost always be placed in one of two categories. First, there are the ones that are released incomplete because their ambition exceeded the reality of making the movie's release date. Then there are the ones that forego ambition to make it out on time, and so are complete but derivative and bland. It's sad, but given how many cash-ins fit into the above two categories, it's difficult to give up that mindset.
It would be nice to say that Cars bucks the trend, but the truth is that it's a completely unenthusiastic effort that falls squarely into the latter category. However, there's more to question, given that Cars is a children's game based on a children's movie; while it certainly doesn't break any new ground (indeed, the new ground is far off on the horizon for Cars), all it has to do is hit the notes that a child obsessed with Pixar's excellent movie would care about. Does it manage that?
First, let's make explicit the answer that question implies: If you're an adult fan of Cars (and there's nothing wrong with that - it's a smart, funny homage to Americana), you're not going to want Cars for Gamecube. You've most assuredly played this game before, and the jokes are so without depth and the voice acting so unenthusiastic - though the voice cast is from the movie, so that's something - that it might actually take away from your experience with the film. On top of that, the game is almost criminally easy, except for the very few occasions where it's frustrating. Just watch the movie again, okay?
Prospects improve for Cars when considering it for a place on a child's shelf, fortunately. At its heart an arcade-styled racing game, Cars also fills itself in with a smattering of mini-games based on some of the movie's characters and scenes. For example, as Luigi, you'll pick up abandoned tires to be loved into shape, while as Guido, you'll perform pit stop maintenance on Lightning McQueen. Choose story mode, and all of these races and games are spread out as checkpoints across small town Radiator Springs and its outlying areas, chained together via a rather thin narrative about training for the next Piston Cup Tournament. Also strewn across these maps are bonus points that can be spent to unlock new characters and paintjobs for multiplayer modes; you're free to explore these maps GTA-style to pick this stuff up, if you like.
Cars performs best when you're racing around Radiator Springs; as it was made by the ATV game virtuosos at Rainbow, the off-road turn and hop-heavy desert racing is perfectly workable and entertaining. It becomes less fun when you're only turning left in the Piston Cup events (powersliding and boost are inexplicably disabled in these races), and racing monster trucks is downright awkward.
The other games are all over the map, though they only range from the moderately entertaining traffic avoidance of High Speed Heist to the aggravating "stealth lite" of Tractor Tipping. There is one game mode where you have to chase down speeders and arrest them, which will either make you memorize rote or drive you insane, depending on your level of dedication. The most unfortunate clincher is that throughout every mode, the AI is prone to breaking. This is most obvious in the racing modes, where you can suddenly find yourself with an insurmountable lead because one of your AI rivals got hung up on some bit of the environment, causing an inescapable pileup. Cars wasn't particularly difficult anyway, but problems like this certainly don't help anything.
Visually, the title has it where it counts and only where it counts - the character models. The cars are extremely evocative of their movie counterparts, with wonderful mouth animation and delightfully expressive high-resolution eyes. The cost of this, however, is everything else in the game. Environments are empty and lack color, and background details noticeably repeat themselves, particularly in the Radiator Springs environment. The draw distance isn't great, and the muddy detail-less textures can sometimes make it hard to tell where the racetrack is and where it isn't. Fortunately, the game has a nice soundtrack of licensed car-oriented tunes and adequate audio effects, even if the voice acting (from the original voice cast, clearly caring quite a bit less than they did with the film) and scriptwork is noticeably sub-par compared to the film.
While there haven't been a lot of positives touched upon in this review, there are enough in the game itself that it would almost certainly pass muster for a younger audience. The good character models have a lot of weight in this, and while the jokes they tell aren't funny to me, I can see them making a child laugh. The off-road racing is fun enough, and the rest of the modes provide enough variety to keep a youngster glued through to the finish; they may even try playing some of them with their friends, though only the racing mode has a chance of staying in playgroup circulation. Most importantly, it sticks to the mythos of "Cars," playing itself up and a straight sequel to the movie. That has a lot of value to a child, being a Lightning McQueen in Lightning McQueen's world, and here the game succeeds; you can definitely see this quest for the Piston Cup as the next stage of McQueen's life, even as it plays out banally as it does. It is believably banal. That kind of thing works for a kid.
As a game, however, Cars doesn't work nearly as well. It's a journeyman effort from some very talented guys, but concessions to the timeframe of the movie and the lack of audience sophistication means that as a gamer, you're much better off with some of their earlier efforts. It has a good amount of variety, but only parts of it are really much fun. It has some glaring visual flaws and technically deficient AI. While it captures the parts of the movie that captivated the kiddies, it disregards the heart of the film that made it enjoyable to adults. That's a pretty tall order for a game of this type, sure, but it doesn't provide much else for adults, either. Leave this one to the playroom, or save your money for when "Cars" comes out on DVD.
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