If nothing else, this game proves that the third time definitely isn't the charm.
Cars Race-O-Rama marks the third game from publisher THQ that revolves around the Pixar film in some way. It follows the original Cars game, which was a film tie-in, and the Cars: Mater-National release that followed. While I kind of enjoyed the original title, Race-O-Rama definitely doesn't live up to it and is obviously a pretty poor attempt to cash in on the animated film once again. The races are pretty boring, the gameplay mechanics are very basic, and the extra filler content isn't nearly compelling enough to make you want to bother with unlocking it all. It's nice to be able to customize the starring character of Lightning McQueen, but those changes are merely aesthetic and have little impact on the gameplay. I could see this appealing more to younger audiences, but at the same time, even kids should be able to see through this pretty shallow attempt at making a quick buck off of the "Cars" franchise.
Admittedly, "Cars" isn't my favorite Pixar property, but I did enjoy the original game release. It's obviously a title that lends itself well to the video game world; racing animated cars sounds like a no-brainer, and I'm genuinely surprised that the concept didn't crop up before the movie even hit theaters. Each vehicle has its own unique personality, look and cute little expressions to match. While Race-O-Rama captures the look of the film, it somehow manages to miss the mark when it comes to the comedy and heart of the movie. It's difficult to complain about something as nebulous as "heart" in regards to a game, but everything about this title feels like superficial content, with nothing underneath. In part, this comes from the lack of a real story element. You're tossed into your first race from the get-go and then plopped into the initial hub world at the track setting. From there, you jump from hub stage to hub stage, engaging in a bunch of randomly connected races, mini-events and customization options. There's an underlying plot about training new racers to compete against a rival team, but that information is barely presented in the game. It's handled poorly for what could have been a fun little cartoon story, and without that draw, it's hard to become immersed in the game.
Race-O-Rama's control scheme works well, so that's one of the few positives, even though it's a pretty basic setup. You've got two options. One is motion-based, much like a lot of other racing titles on the Wii. You can tilt the Wii Remote left and right to turn, and the gas, brake and turbo functions are controlled with the face buttons. If that's not your cup of tea (it's definitely not mine), you can opt to go with the Wii Nunchuk for your directional controls, which feels a little more precise. It definitely doesn't have the same set of customization options as Need for Speed Nitro, since there's no Classic Controller or GameCube Controller support, but given the game content and intended audience, I couldn't find any issues with the Nunchuk-based control scheme.
Visually the title won't turn any heads. The character models represent the movie characters well enough, but there's not much polish to the graphics, and I've seen better efforts with other racers on the Wii. The environments are generally modeled after the movie spots, like Radiator Springs, so fans of the film will enjoy seeing digital representations of those locations. The texture work is pretty poor, flat and lacking in detail. If you're going to develop a game based on a Pixar film, you don't want to come off as a slouch in the graphics department, but that's exactly what Race-O-Rama does. A little more polish would have gone a long way, even if this isn't a full-fledged movie tie-in.
The same goes for the sound. There's a fair amount of voice acting in the game, and something sounds noticeably off about the voices, almost akin to watching the "Aladdin" cartoon on TV instead of the film. There's a definite drop in quality that's difficult to get past if you pay attention to that sort of stuff. It'll probably passable for kids, but adults will be able to tell the difference. A lot of the sound bites used during races also get really repetitive. I found it really annoying that the random bits of dialogue sounded like commentary from announcers, as you might expect at a racing event on TV. This pops up every few minutes, and it's just distracting to have it not present on a consistent basis. The same goes for Lightning McQueen's one-liners throughout the race; they're annoying and far too persistent to be comical or charming.
At the very least, there's a fair amount of variety in the race types. There are the basic circuit races, which make up a good chunk of what you'll be seeing, but you also have the Monster Truck races, which alter McQueen's look appropriately; the Guido Kart races, which place you in control of smaller, forklift-like cars; and the Rust Bucket derbies, which make use of the popular Mater character. There's a series of other mini-games to check out.
Along with that, there are three spark plug icons to collect on a lot of races. There are plenty of unlockables that you'll earn for collecting the spark plugs and finishing the races, including visual upgrades or changes to McQueen's body style, which can be accessed at a special shop within the hub world. Other unlockables come in the form of 15 new characters, which is useful when you opt to play the basic Arcade mode that allows you to tackle the tracks you've unlocked via the Story mode.
Cars Race-O-Rama tosses a lot of content at you, but it can't disguise that the game isn't very fun to play. There are some incessant loading issues; everything you do, from starting races to going to shops to outfitting McQueen with a new look, takes a hefty load time that's far more than I would've expected. The controls are fine as far as arcade racers go, but there's not enough variation between a run-of-the-mill racing game and Race-O-Rama to make it a memorable experience. The track design is very basic, bland and short. Most tracks are circular, with little in the way of cool effects, shortcuts or interesting features. The additional modes are nice to have, but the kart racer mode is bogged down by poor power-ups and a slow sense of speed. The title's graphics aren't going to wow you; it takes a visually outstanding franchise like "Cars" and degrades it a bit for this specific game. Even if you're a big Pixar, Disney or Cars fan, I'd suggest that you think twice before picking up this game release. It might appeal to young kids who eat up this kind of stuff, but everyone else should pass on it.
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