Booting up Cars 2, I had a genuine worry that it would be the confluence of two disappointments. Movie tie-ins don’t have the best track record, and neither does Pixar’s weakest franchise. The big-screen sequel to Cars arrives under the influence of Disney moneymen, and it’s a Disney studio that is responsible for the associated videogame.
To be fair to developer Avalanche Software, its recent form in this area is pretty good. Last year’s Toy Story 3 game was well received, even if the studio has the likes of Hannah Montana: Spotlight World Tour in its back catalogue.
As the opening moments of Cars 2 shift into gear, hope emerges. The neat intro video might lack the charm of your standard Pixar short, but it has all the explosions and wise-crackery you could ask for. This tactic of passable imitation is deployed throughout almost every aspect of the game. Usually that would be questionable, but the squashed development time forced on creators of movie tie-in games doesn’t allow for sweeping originality.
It quickly becomes obvious that Cars 2 is a kart racer, so it naturally owes a debt to each and every Mario Kart game. Racing is all about boost and drift, with every car handling more or less the same. Some tracks have weapons, including missiles, satellite lasers, and the ubiquitous blue shell equivalent. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but Avalanche has successfully replicated what makes kart racing fun, with a layer of Pixar paint slathered on top.
Graphically it could never be worthy of top-notch animated cinema, but there’s a pleasant plastic sheen to the vehicles. All 25 characters look like toy cars. It’s impressive, but a little lifeless, so various visual effects are cleverly employed to add a little flair to the functional rendering. Best of all, at the start of each race, the camera swings around your vehicle with added motion blur as you pound the accelerator to generate bonus boost.
The Race and Battle Race modes are the most enjoyable and easily the most chaotic. Competitions take place in a handful of locations, each with a number of tracks and arenas carved into them. Navigating all of the many shortcuts is key to victory.
Even a prodigious knowledge of every nook and cranny might not be enough to win. The early stages are pretty easy going, but for a game aimed primarily at kids, the difficulty ramps up quickly. Most adult gamers should be able to blow through the whole thing in four or five hours, but younger players will be able to wring a little more length from the game.
That’s if they don’t get bored before the finish line. The game’s campaign is just a series of levels with an occasional narrative preamble. The premise is that the whole Cars gang are in a special C.H.R.O.M.E. training facility, but it’s irrelevant as far as the gameplay is concerned. Really it acts as little more than a buffer for parents having to explain to their kids why it’s not okay to shoot missiles at automobiles in real life.
Only half of these levels are actually races. The other modes exist primarily to prevent the game from being entirely derivative. One is a weird shield collecting mini-game, in which you try and avoid the laser cannon of the villainous Doctor Z. The other two require you to destroy enemy grunts, either in wave-based combat or during a racetrack time trial. None of these options are bad, they’re just not as fun as the races. Given the relatively short campaign length, a much more liberal spread of proper karting would have been preferable.
Even more worrying is the total lack of online multiplayer. You can play locally with up to four players, but really. What racing game is released in 2011 without the barest of online features? I understand that development time was at a premium, but this should have been near the top of the list. The gameplay in Cars 2 is solid good fun, with a decent amount of skill involved. Providing the ability to compete with other players around the world would have prevented copies of the game piling up in the local trade-in bucket.
Which, sadly, is the likely fate for this title. And not because it deserves it. The gameplay is good and there’s enough variety in the content to maintain continued exposure. If only racing the AI over and over was enough to keep you hooked. Without PSN or XBLA support, the thrill of the chase will fade fast. A child with a love for the franchise might find this the perfect title, but regular gamers will obtain nothing more than a quick hit of Kart racing entertainment.
You can rent or buy Cars 2 at Blockbuster.co.uk.