Developer: Rainbow Studios
Release Date: October 29, 2007
Cars Mater-National for the PS3 is the sequel to a game based upon a movie for which there is no sequel. Pixar has only made a sequel for the franchise resulting from its first major theatrical release, the juggernaut "Toy Story," so there never will be a proper sequel to "Cars" — although the movie, as expected from the talented computer-animation studio that forever changed animated feature films, was indeed a critical and commercial success.
THQ is in the business of making movie tie-in games for Pixar's films, and it's fair to say the game versions never come out even in the same ballpark as the movies, notwithstanding the fact the licensed material will probably sell like hotcakes to young Pixar fans and their indulgent parents. Movie tie-in games aren't known as spectacular affairs, period, and THQ's Pixar-licensed titles have a deserved reputation for shoring up the south end of the genre. Their original Cars title, however, met with more critical success than usual, even greater commercial success — perhaps indicating quality does count at least little in games based on kids' movies. Whether or not Cars was good enough to merit a sequel released a year after the game first came to HD consoles remains arguable. But the product of a questionable decision speeds well clear of tainting its predecessor's success.
Of course, this Cars sequel is no better than the original, but it's no worse, either. In fact, wisely, THQ stuck almost to the letter to the formula that made their original Cars game so roundly popular. The title is foremost more of a robust expansion pack wrapped in some new thematic elements than it is a fully realized sequel. The principal plot — if you can stretch it to "plot" — is set at an international racing rally hosted by the movie's signature, lovable, laughable tow-truck character, Mater, and includes new tracks, new cars, a new mode, new minigames and new bonus content, but it's otherwise essentially the same as the first Cars game: a simple arcade racer with simple controls and, appropriately, cartoonish graphics. It’s a racing title intended to appeal to children who loved the movie and first game, and loved both enough to want more of them.
Even though THQ's Cars games are half a head or so above the crowd in this area, they are still merely fire-and-forget titles released to coincide as best as possible with the theatrical release, the movie's release on video, or a holiday shopping season. They line shelves, sell off those shelves, then their retail price goes into free fall, and before too long, you're hard-pressed to track down a copy even in the discount bin. Cars Mater-National will follow the usual arc for kids' movie tie-in games. It will sell, children will enjoy receiving it as a treat or gift, they'll enjoy playing it a while, and over a couple months it will come out of the case and into the PlayStation 3 less and less, until it's forgotten in favor of the newest space opera or yet another title based on a popular new movie. This particular game is, however, worth picking up if you run across it.
Mater-National's visuals and sound are sufficient, but if publishers could still assume all PlayStation 3s sold could play most recently produced PlayStation 2 games, there's not enough here to support a PS3 version that those backward-compatible models' upscaling can't handle. The Cars game sequel is at heart a last-generation title that happens to run natively at 720p and 1080p. Even the audio production is a last-gen throwback, not that this will matter to kids who never played the original Cars games or are merely looking forward to extras tacked on to an existing favorite.
THQ has included SixAxis motion control for steering cars and performing jumps; children will probably enjoy the Wii-ishness of it, but, per usual, motion-sensing with Sony's SixAxis is best implemented for auxiliary in-game actions or limited to brief scenes or sequences. Only in rare instances — flOw is a good example — is SixAxis motion control the most suitable option as the control scheme for a whole game.
Bonus content in Mater-National is accessed by loading up on points through in-game accomplishments, collecting pick-ups and performing bonus actions while playing: stunts, of course, and, of all things, driving backwards, which acts as a bonus-score multiplier. The bonus content itself is nominally questionable as to whether or not it's actually worth pursuing — additional paint jobs for some cars; bonus cars, which appear unique but are fundamentally the same as the basic set of cars; and the ubiquitous, humdrum concept art.
Mater-National includes both a story mode with a small selection of playable characters — in this case, characters are of course anthropomorphized automobiles — a pick-up-and-play arcade mode featuring a much larger cast of playable characters, plus some new minigames for social gaming or a break from the title's standard fare. By the far the best, endearing new feature of this "sequel" is "Monster Mode," which elevates your standard in-game cars onto monster-truck chassis. This mode, appropriately, includes guest appearances by the titular monsters from another Pixar fave film — as you can guess, "Monsters, Inc."
As intended, Cars Mater-National Championship will appeal to children who have never played the first Cars game or did really love it, and also the kids who even quite a while after release are still enamored with the movie, or were too young for it when it originally debuted in theaters or on home video. The game may also be a boon for gaming parents, especially those who favor racers and have younger children who aren't quite ready for the complicated play or more mature content of the games Mom and Dad likely prefer.
Sure, it's called a sequel when it feels more like downloadable content — granted, a lot of downloadable content — but you can't knock THQ for delivering a second, very similar iteration of their Cars game without diminishing the original and, ultimately, improving somewhat on that game. It's also a title with which even quite young children can fool around, without too much frustration; and primary-grade kids can surely master this one, while adults will tolerate, if not outright enjoy, playing occasionally on evenings of family gaming. Cars Mater-National will not provide you nor your progeny — about spoiled today by a wealth of content-suitable, quality titles — months of infinite entertainment value, but, especially if there may be more children in your family's future, once played-out, the game will shelve nicely as a collectible, alongside your new Blu-ray edition of Pixar's "Cars" movie.