Licensed kart racing is nothing new. While some games have used original characters, most racing titles have relied on either famous video game mascots or animated characters to get behind the wheel of a go-kart and follow the Mario Kart formula. Most people want a decent kart racing title to let you race fast, use strange weaponry, go on tracks rife with shortcuts, and engage in multiplayer. Few games would go beyond those ground rules, and fewer still would be endorsed by an actual person. While it might not be the first to do this, Jimmie Johnson's Anything with an Engine breaks the norm by having a real NASCAR champion promote and star in a game where the vehicles are the stars. It's a shame that a few issues hurt the game pretty badly.
At its core, Anything with an Engine follows a few standards set by most kart racing games. You have different racers with different stat levels on their karts. There are tons of tracks, each sporting different themes, including a jungle, medieval town, and the set of a disaster movie. All of the tracks have zip strips, which racers can driver over to get a temporary speed boost. Each cart can access weapons and, with the exception of single races, the single-player game is played via cup series rules, where placement in each race translates to overall points to determine the winner.
The game's big twist is the vehicles. While each vehicle behaves like a standard kart, the vehicles are anything but standard. Like the title states, just about everything here has been transformed into a kart. Dumpsters, toilets, recliners, bombs, and other everyday items have been given engines, four wheels, and a steering wheel. The weaponry acts the same, but they've been changed to reflect the kart type or driver. Driving the bathtub, for example, gives you toilet brush missiles and rubber duck mines. Beyond stats, all of the vehicles behave similarly but the aesthetic changes give the title an offbeat quality.
Odd vehicles aren't the only things that make the game different from other kart racers. All karts are governed by an energy meter, and while the meter slowly depletes, it depletes faster if the player is hit with a weapon. There are no health pick-ups, but there is a pit stop where, through button mashing, weaponry can be replenished and kart energy can be refilled. Everyone has access to the game's three weapons (missiles, mines and a side ram), but they aren't automatically gained on the track. Instead, the player has to run over colored markers on the track to increase fan approval. Increased fan approval then gets you access to those weapons as well as a nitro boost, all of which can be leveled up once the fan approval rises. While weapons are limited, nitro is limitless, but a cooldown meter must be observed before it can be activated again. Fan approval also plays a part in opening up shortcuts, which are anything but hidden since bright wooden barriers block off access to these routes if the fans don't approve of them being open yet. Finally, each track has one or two environmental hazards which can impede progress. In the medieval town, for example, running over the hazard trigger can cause a dragon to temporarily spread fire on the track while hitting the trigger on the practice track can cause a waterfall of mud to cascade onto the course.
The game's main cup series mode, which has five base cups and three bonus ones, features all of the various race types. In Classic races, the winner is determined by who crosses the finish line first after completing a set number of laps. Survival is your typical elimination game, where players are allowed to race until a timer expires. The person in last place when the timer expires is eliminated; everyone else keeps on racing, repeating the process until only one racer is left. Time Attack has you racing a few laps, trying to beat the target time before you complete your final lap. Endurance has you racing a set number of laps, with points being given for your position once the lap is completed. At the end of the final lap, the winner is determined by who has the highest point total. Duel has you on a one-on-one race with every weapon available but no pit stops, track-specific traps, or weapon and nitro upgrades. The contest is a best of three, with the winner being the one who can be the first across the finish line in two bouts. Finally, Matador takes your standard race mode and flips it around; half the pack races the track normally and the other half drives on a mirrored version of the same track. While the objective is to still make it across the finish line first after a set number of laps, you also have to worry about the oncoming traffic not impeding your progress.
Anything with an Engine does some great things, but it also suffers from a few flaws. With an unlimited supply of nitro, players will be tempted to use it every time the meter fills up, taking away any advantage for having speed strips on the track in the first place. Until you upgrade them, the basic side rams and missiles seem ineffectual, making the basic mine valuable, even if only as a shield. The biggest gripe is the AI. It seems as if rubberband AI has been programmed into the game, so even if you're ahead of the pack, the game will make it so that someone is always nipping at your heels, ready to take the lead. It makes for some exciting racing, but the rubberband doesn't always work in reverse. Make one mistake — get hit with weaponry, blow up, or fly off of the track — and you'll go from first to sixth in an instant. You'll barely have an opportunity to catch up, and since this always seems to occur late in the race, your chances of finishing in first are slim at best, on even the easiest difficulty level. The lack of balanced AI really rears its ugly head during duels against Jimmie Johnson. The first duel had him inches behind you, and a good missile strike or side ram ensured he took the lead at almost every opportunity while your own weaponry barely affects him at all. This may have been more forgivable on the later cups, but this occurs in the first cup on the easiest difficulty level. Consequently, the task of getting tokens to unlock the remaining five vehicles will no doubt frustrate the intended audience more than any other kart racing game to date.
There is online multiplayer good for up to eight players, and while you can play all six racing modes, there isn't really anyone online to challenge or join. Luckily, the game supports split-screen for up to four players and system link play for up to eight, with four on each console. Every racing mode is available, though Survival is tweaked so that losers can become chicken cars and blow themselves up against the remaining participants. The reduction of rubberbanding AI opponents and the inclusion of human ones make the experience less frustrating and more fun, and the game gets a chance to shine. The use of pit stops finally becomes strategic, and the same goes for weapons, where you find yourself waiting for the perfect missile strike instead of just hammering the trigger at every opportunity to stop someone who's passed you for the umpteenth time. Even though nitro can still be used, at least the racing can be more enjoyable.
While the controls are easy to grasp, there are a few things that may initially throw some people for a loop. The gas may be on the right trigger, but braking is done with the left bumper, veering away from the default scheme for almost all racing games. The left trigger is instead used for initiating powerslides while the face buttons unleash weapons. Nitro use is handled by double-tapping on the right trigger, though this would have made more sense if it had been assigned to the right bumper instead since that button isn't used for anything. Double-tapping on the gas loses you a bit of acceleration in the process.
Graphically, Anything with an Engine is good but not special. All of the tracks sport wooden roads and flat obstacles, but since this is meant to be separate tracks in one giant stadium instead of different tracks in completely different locations, you can go along with the somewhat flat presentation of background elements and hazards. The weapon effects fare better, with some unique actions done per weapon, such as soap suds if you hit a rubber duck or a plethora of clippings if you hit a bag of cut grass. The vehicles may not be extremely detailed, but they do a good job of showing you that whatever you're driving was hastily put together instead of an intentional work of art; it works well with the given theme.
Likewise, the sound is average on all accounts. The music is a mix of rock and hip-hop instrumentals that feel fine in a racing game but aren't memorable. They serve their purpose as background noise but nothing more. The effects also do their job, but it feels like more could have been done. All of the karts, for example, have the same engine noises, with the attacks being the only unique sounds. The voices are also mediocre to stereotypical without being offensive. The one-liners are predictable but not exactly funny. The announcers are pedestrian, even though the cut scenes suggest they have more character.
If it weren't for the steep difficulty level, Jimmie Johnson's Anything with an Engine would have been a very competent kart racing title. The graphics and sound are decent enough, but the unusual kart models provide enough to hook your interest. The changes to the standard kart racing formula make the game a little deeper than expected. The racing strategy and the gameplay mechanics aren't too bad. However, the rubberband AI and difficulty, even on the easiest levels, make the single-player game frustrating, and while players can stick with the multiplayer since all of the tracks are available from the outset, the allure of five unlockable racers that can only be earned via the single-player mode ensures that everyone experiences the unfair racing conditions at some point. There aren't many good kart racing games on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, so if you've already gone through the likes of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing with Banjo-Kazooie, then you'll get some enjoyment out of this title, especially in multiplayer. Otherwise, try renting Anything with an Engine and if you're playing solo, hope that you can accept constant losses before experiencing any close victories.
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