Developer: Rainbow Studios
Release Date: October 29, 2007
Although most licensed video games based on movies are not worth one's time, the first Cars game, which was released at the same time as the Pixar movie of the same name, was kid-friendly, fun and definitely worth taking for a spin by children and adults alike. The follow-up title, Cars: Mater-National Championship, looks to continue that trend. Both Cars games were developed by Rainbow Studios, who have developed the MX racing series and Mat Hoffman Pro BMX, so they definitely know how to make racing games.
There are three different modes of gameplay in Mater-National Championship: story mode, arcade mode and versus mode. The story mode is set up just like the first Cars title and is sort of a sandbox game. It opens with Mater introducing the town of Radiator Springs and issuing an invitation for vehicles from different countries to participate in the town's international racing contest. This continues the story from the previous game, where they invited characters from around the globe to test their mettle and race against the Cars cast.
Mater-National Championship was developed to entertain those who aren't looking for an in-depth racing experience. You can drive through most of the areas to find nodes that will activate either a race or a minigame. There are a few minigames that are collection quests, which means that an NPC tells you to find a particular object, and you drive around the unlocked areas trying to locate it. Mini-games like this are almost pointless because you're given no specifics about where to find them; you just have to scour every inch of the map, and of course, it's always in the last place you look. However, upon completion of minigames like this, you may unlock other cars to use in some of the gameplay modes.
Other minigames are short races or rhythm-based minigames. The entire point of the races and minigames is to earn Bolt Banners, which will unlock new races and areas for you to race in. Arcade mode allows you to instantly play any of the minigames and races that you've unlocked in the story mode. Versus mode allows you to play against a friend in any of the unlocked minigames or races that are suited for two people.
Mater-National Championship is not difficult to control and has many standard racing game features, such as power slides, which help you to make quick turns. The developers have also added a very quick turn called a "tilt turn," where the car leans onto its left or right set of wheels and makes an extremely sharp turn. You use the controller's face buttons to accelerate, brake, and switch the camera, and the bumper buttons and triggers help you with tilt turns and power slides. The one really aggravating thing about the controls is the jumping. To jump, you have to pull back on the left analog stick and then push it forward, which is extremely awkward and can quite easily throw you off during a race. This wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that you have to jump to reach some objects and track segments in the game.
Graphically, Mater-National Championship doesn't look bad at all, but it definitely doesn't approach the standard of the movie. While the title doesn't push the Xbox 360 hardware at all and doesn't look much better than the first Cars game did on the PS2, it accomplishes everything that it needs to, given that most of its target audience is young gamers. One of the good things to be said about the graphics is that the levels are very well designed and there are very few instances of pop-up; all of the trees, buildings and NPCs appear at a distance and gradually get bigger as you approach them.
The game is divided into a couple of different levels, with each one having a distinctive feel. It still has the same general layout as in the first Cars game when you're inside each town, but the outskirts are different. In races, the size of the area that you can explore has been decreased by the use of barricades (ironically reducing the game's "open world" feel). Other levels have hardly changed at all, except for the occasional new sections, which can only be explored from within a race.
The sound portion is pretty good in that all of the music seems to fit with the story. Sound effects are also adequate; when you crash into a wall, it sounds like you're crashing into a wall, and when you crash into another car, you hear that character complain about it. One amusing thing I noticed about crashing into other cars is that in story mode, they have some very funny responses, such as, "Oh, you're an awful car!" It's almost worthwhile to drive around and crash into everyone a couple of times just to hear what they'll say. The voice acting is also very good, perhaps due to the fact that they brought back some of the original voice talent, including Larry the Cable Guy as Mater, Cheech Marin as Ramone, and Tony Shalhoub as Luigi.
The multiplayer mode in Mater-National Championship allows for two people who are playing on the same console to compete in any of the unlocked races or minigames from story mode. One major downside is that you cannot race against other gamers over Xbox Live, but that's more of a draw for adult gamers, which isn't exactly this title's target audience. The multiplayer aspect doesn't really add much replayability to the game, as you're going to the same locations, racing on the same tracks, and performing the same minigames — except with an extra person thrown into the mix.
The original Cars game was one of the better movie-based titles out there and was an exception to the shoddy licensed game rule. Although Cars: Mater-National Championship is very fun in its own right, it retains much of the same gameplay as the previous title. Unfortunately, this also means that it doesn't do anything new beyond adding a few new tracks, minigames and characters; essentially, this feels more like an expansion instead of a sequel, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. This title would be a very good candidate for any child who's a fan of the "Cars" movie or enjoys cartoony racing games.