When it comes to games and movie licenses, Disney Interactive has been on something of a roll lately. First, there was the enjoyable LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean and now, there is Cars 2. Although the game is targeted at the younger set, there is a surprisingly robust arcade racer under the cartoon surface.
Inspired by the movie of the same name, Cars 2 is not a direct translation of the film. Instead, it occurs within the holographic training simulator of the super-secret spy organization, C.H.R.O.M.E. This allows players to visit many of the locations from the film without the game having to kowtow to any specific events. It's a smart approach that keeps the title free from baggage and focused on racing.
At its core, Cars 2 is a solid arcade style racer. No, you're not going to find the realism of Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo, but you will find responsive controls, power slides, speed boosts and plenty of weapons. Some liberties are taken given the expected audience, but for the most part, Cars 2 feels like a Pixar-themed mash-up of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Mario Kart. This is a good thing.
Perhaps realizing that younger gamers aren't likely to read instruction manuals, the developers at Avalanche implemented a nifty tutorial level. All of the controls (from the basic stuff through the trickier stunts) are demonstrated by an AI car before you are instructed to attempt them yourself. The game even highlights the correct button prompts on-screen. Yeah, it's overkill for a core gamer, but ideal for the target audience.
Once through the training missions, it's on to the actual game. Cars 2 is split across six different "clearance levels," each of which contains a variety of race type. Initially, only the first level is unlocked, but as you win races, you earn points toward unlocking the next level. Any game types and tracks that are unlocked in mission mode are then available for free play. Some of the locations that you'll visit are Italy, London, Tokyo, the airport, the oil rig and Radiator Springs.
Among the mission types are attack, battle races, hunter, survival and traditional races. Attack mode requires you to destroy enemy cars in order to add time to the clock, while Battle races are simply races with weapons. Hunter is something of a friendly Cars twist on Horde mode in Gears of War 2. Here you have to face off against five waves of enemy cars in a limited amount of time, with the goal being to destroy as many as possible. Arena and disruptor are multiplayer only. Arena is deathmatch style, every car for himself, while disruptor is a team objective, with the goal being to plant a bomb in your opponent's base. Survival has you racing along the track, collecting shield pickups along the way. The race is over when your shield is depleted.
Much like the tracks, there are also plenty of cars to unlock. Initially, the selection is a bit limited, but in all, there are 35 cars available on the game disc, with more being available via DLC. In fact, you can snag the Queen as a freebie. Unfortunately, DLC cars don't seem to integrate nicely into the game. You cannot use them in the C.H.R.O.M.E. missions, and they also do not appear in multiplayer. DLC cars only seem to work in single-player free play modes.
Cars 2 offers up a gentle difficulty curve, with a good chunk of the early missions being trivially easy to master. After the first third of the game, though, the difficulty starts to steadily ramp up, with the AI driving smarter and more aggressively. In order to compete effectively in the later levels, players will need to make liberal use of tricks, such as driving backward or spinning in the air, in order to earn boost and stay competitive. Thankfully, the controls are solid, with tricks mapped to the right analog stick. Cars 2 also plays fast and loose with wall collisions in order to reduce frustration. Unless you hit a wall head-on, expect to simply bounce right off.
Aside from the aforementioned DLC issue, Cars 2 stumbles in a few other areas. They aren't game breakers, but they are annoying. The first is the lack of a view change. In most racing games, you can swap the camera into a windshield or bumper view to get a better sense of speed. Not so here. It's a third-person view all the way. The other major issue is the utter lack of online support. Cars 2 features up to four player multiplayer, but it is only split-screen. Not supporting Xbox Live seems to be a massive oversight. Finally, there is the Xbox 360 wheel support. Yes, Cars 2 works with it, but steering with the wheel is sluggish and pretty unresponsive. Don't plan on using it, even if you own one.
Despite the rough spots, Cars 2 still presents an enjoyable experience because none of the issues impact the core game. Whether you're a hardcore Cars fan or just looking for a kid-friendly racing game, Cars 2 is sure to please. It's perfectly tuned for the younger set, while at the same time packing in enough quality gameplay to keep things entertaining for all the older gamers out there. In short, if you happen to be a parent with kids, this one is right up your alley.
Editor's Note: Be sure to check out our "Cars 2" movie review for more on the cinematic adventures of Mater and McQueen.
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