Cars: Race-O-Rama is a little odd for a movie game. The first Cars movie (and the first game) came out three years ago, and the sequel won’t be out until summer of 2011, so there’s no box-office tie-in to juice sales. Could it be that THQ wants this title to succeed on its own merits?
Quite possibly. This isn’t the best racing game on the market, but it’s one of the most kid-friendly ones available for the next-generation consoles, and it’s a lot of fun to play. Serious racing fans can skip it, of course, but it will make a great Christmas present for that little gamer on your list whose mom won’t let him play Modern Warfare 2.
Of course, the most important thing about any racing game, especially an arcade racer, is the feel. A good racer makes it seem like you’re really hurtling around the track at high velocity, narrowly avoiding collisions and fighting neck-and-neck with other cars. This game succeeds at this for the most part, providing players a decent sense of speed and opponents that fight back.
The controls, unfortunately, detract from this for the hour or so it takes to get used to them. For some reason, developer Incinerator Studios flipped the setup most other racers use, mapping the boost to the right shoulder button and the accelerator and brake to the thumb buttons (the only alternative to this setup is a racing wheel). The left shoulder button, meanwhile, serves as a sort of drift control. It’s not a handbrake, exactly, because if you use it while you’re moving straight, nothing happens. When you combine the drift button with a turn, you drift, and if you let go of the drift button while you’re turning, your car rights itself. It makes absolutely no sense in terms of physics, but it somehow feels natural and quickly becomes second nature.
Another minor problem with the core gameplay is that it could afford to be more gimmicky. In the typical race, all you can do is accelerate, brake, drift, and boost (the meter fills itself), which feels a little bare-bones considering that this is a game about talking cars. The arcade races do have power-ups, and some opponents have special abilities, but still, the developers should have taken more cues from the Mario Kart and Excite Truck franchises.
The single-player story mode features 27 “gold star” races, and typically you must come in third or above to unlock the next event. You play as Lightning McQueen in every race. These events are divided amongst several worlds; in each, you can complete extra events to unlock playable characters, car upgrades, paint jobs, etc. The gold-star events are usually traditional races, sometimes with unique cars such as a tow truck or monster truck, but the extra events range from stunts to time trials. There are also three difficulty levels to choose from and hidden items to find on each track, so in terms of single-player content, this game delivers reasonably well for its discount price ($40).
Also, while the default (medium) difficulty is very easy on the whole, there will be some speed bumps for even the experienced gamer. Most of these stem from problems in the design. For example, there’s no crashing, so anytime you hit a solid object, you’re forced to back up and get back on the track (if you stray too far, it will reset you, but this takes a pretty dramatic mistake). This would be a fair enough punishment for running into things, except for the fact that the other cars’ AI directs them to plow right into you, which can spin you around to face the wrong direction. Some of the track designs are pretty cheap as well, especially one that forces you to jump into a maze of cacti capable of bringing you to a complete stop. Invisible walls are used liberally, as are alternative paths through the tracks, and it’s hard to tell which is which. On a few tracks, there’s the additional problem of being forced to drive a car that’s practically uncontrollable.
The “open-world” aspect of the game is handled quite well, though. It’s fun to explore each of these locations at top speed, driving from event to event and picking up various extras along the way. Some of the roads are long and winding, which can make it tough to figure out how to get to the more out-of-the-way events, but there’s a map, complete with a warp function, to help with that. In other words, you’re free to play this game however you’d like. You can warp from one gold event to the next, finishing the game in just a few hours, or you can take the time to explore and truly conquer your surroundings.
There’s also an arcade mode, in which you can race and play mini-games as more than 30 different characters, 15 of which are new. This includes two-player local multiplayer. There’s nothing unique about the two-player games here (except maybe that you can race as a forklift), which include circuit and relay races, time trials, stunts, and various other challenges, but they’re far from broken, and parents of siblings will be happy to keep two kids occupied at the same time. There is unfortunately no online support.
In terms of presentation, this game is a mixed bag. The graphics never astound, but for the most part they’re quite competent. The shadows look nice, the surrounding area reflects on the polish of your car, and each world has a fair number of endearing quirks to its design. The framerate is fine in the vast majority of races, but for some reason, one of ours had hiccups of almost seizure-inducing frequency. The music fits the mood of each world and the sound effects are fine, but the voice-over sayings get repetitive and annoying in a hurry.
There are also some very good-looking and clever cutscenes, which lay out the lighthearted and proudly clichéd plot. As Lightning McQueen, you’re preparing an academy of cars to win the Race-O-Rama competition, but so is your nemesis Chick Hicks. Each scene is filled with the kind of eye-rollingly cheesy one-liners that kids seem to love.
Racing game of the year? Definitely not. A decent effort that will entertain kids and tide fans of the movie and original game over until Cars 2? Definitely.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.4 Graphics
They never astound, and there are occasional framerate issues, but for the most part everything looks good. 3.1 Control
For some reason, this game ignores the racing genre’s conventions, but it’s easy enough to get used to. 4.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music captures the unique vibe of each world. 3.9 Play Value
There are three difficulties, plenty of extra events, multiplayer modes, and hidden items. Not to mention a discount price. 3.7 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.