Racing games are easy to identify. They have cars, some sort of track and generally you drive in circles. Some games allow you to drift and pull fancy manoeuvres while others arm you with weapons and encourage you to blow each other to smithereens. Sometimes they have cool locations, or cool vehicles, or maybe a car customization feature. Sometimes, like in the case of Disney Pixar's Cars 2: The Game, it's got so much stuff going on you barely notice you just spent six hours driving in a circle. All without spending a cent on gasoline.
The game opens with the Cars characters many gamers with children (or, fine, a Disney addiction) will recognize. Lightning McQueen, Mater, Sarge, Luigi and all the others are there, along with some new characters from the sequel itself. This includes the sleek and suave Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine), the seductive and stylish Holley Shiftwell and the evil Professor Z, among others. The cars are at the top secret C.H.R.O.M.E. training facility where super spies like Finn and Holley trained. In this facility, the cars have access to top notch holographic training programs that allow them to, among other things, race their shiny little exhausts off.
(Note: The acronym C.H.R.O.M.E. is never actually explained in the game or if it was I somehow missed it. It bothered me enough that I spent a good bit of time finding the answer online. In a video produced by Disney, Jonathan Warner senior producer of Cars 2: The Video Game, says it stands for "Command Headquarters for Reconnaissance Operations and Motorized Espionage.")
The game opens with mandatory "New Agent Training," a crash course that teaches the amateur driver drifting, jumping and pulling tricks. While this could be tedious in any other title, the developers sandwiched the lessons between introductory races, allowing the player to put everything they just learned into action right away. By the time you've completed the third part of training, you've already got a decent grip on the basics.
In training, the player learns that drifting, incapacitating other players, leaping obstacles and pulling tricks all fill your four-part turbo meter. Throughout the levels, there are also bright blue and white oil drums that help bolster your turbo as well. While the player can get a quick boost at any time their turbo meter fills one section, if the player fills all four sections they can enter "in the zone" mode. It's a super hyper ultra crazy turbo boost that also surrounds you by a shield for the length of the boost.
To perform tricks the player uses the right joystick, either in the air or on the ground. On land, you can use left or right to bash cars beside you (handy in battle missions). Right joystick up will allow you to drive on two wheels while joystick down will make you drive backwards (and yes, the controls are backwards too). In the air the player can do flips and spins. All of these help fill that turbo meter even faster.
The other game controls are simple. RT is to accelerate and LT is to brake. You drift by holding B and the left joystick steers you around those corners. The Y button launches your weapons and pressing X launches your turbo boost.
After the training missions there are six levels, each containing six races or missions. These can be standard races, battle races, hunter missions, attack missions or survival missions.
Standard races are pretty obvious; simply be the first to cross the finish line to win a gold trophy. Battle races are similar to standard races but the course is peppered with weapons that allow players to slow down or incapacitate their course mates. Weapons include oil slicks, machine guns, missiles, homing bombs and other generally well-known race weaponry. It's not innovative, but it's fun.
Hunter missions are similar still to battle races. The key difference is that you are not racing other character cars; you're fighting Lemons (defective cars, kind of the evil minions of Professor Z). Also, you are not trying to win the race; you're trying to destroy as many Lemons as possible as the clock counts down. Each time you destroy a Lemon more time is added to your clock. Attack missions are the same as Hunter missions except in a free-play world, not on a race track.
Survival missions are awesome. Professor Z is targeting you with a giant laser and the only way to stay alive is to keep your shield powered. The player must race through the track collecting shield powerups and see how many laps they can survive. There only other cars on the track are minion cars which can be destroyed for added shield juice.
The player doesn't just have to play as Lightning McQueen either. As you progress through the game, you unlock other characters from both Cars and Cars 2. Like any other racing game, they have different weight classes and balance speed versus power in different ways. Sometimes you can unlock the same character except in a costume, like "Materhosen" who wears lederhosen and a green alpine hat.
Playing with friends takes the game right over the top. You're driving around in this big crazy world with talking cars, occasionally some weapons, with cars that also have the ability to pull stunts. You really can't go wrong and playing in multiplayer will still unlock all those characters you want.
While the game is just as vibrant, colourful and dynamic as you would expect from a highly rendered cartoon, I've got to admit that I really had to look to try and guess which city a particular map was supposed to be set in. If it were not for highway signs with Asian characters or double-deckered tour buses, I'd have never guessed Tokyo and London were the locations being depicted. I'm sure Big Ben is in the background somewhere, but the player is too busy trying to dodge and shoot and drift and execute tricks and steer to look at the scenery going by. The details on the cars are astounding, their expressions flawless and it is very much a Pixar-based game, but the backgrounds seem to fade in comparison.
I definitely enjoyed the soundtrack, however. It was vaguely reminiscent of a Bond movie and fit the spy-race car atmosphere to a tee. It was never intrusive enough that I felt I needed to turn it down and I actually found myself head bobbing through the loading screens. The sound effects on the cars were brilliantly done as well. You still felt like it was a real racing game, which I definitely enjoyed.
On top of the background music, each character has a set list of phrases they'll say during a race. Depending on which character you drive, these can get really repetitive. Mater, one of my favourite characters, was particularly annoying after long gaming sessions. As adorably redneck as his accent is, there are only so many times where you want to hear the words "Dag gum" before you move onto a different character.
If I do have a gripe or two, they are so small as to be negligible. If you're a perfectionist and want to get a gold trophy on a level, you're probably going to end up playing the same level over and over again. If that particular level has a cut scene, you cannot skip it. They aren't long and it's not the end of the world, but it does get tiresome.
Also, during the normal racing matches I would have loved to have a mini map to let me know how far ahead (or behind) I am. It's great to know I'm in first place, but it's hard to plan a strategy when you don't know if enemies are right behind you.
Despite the fact that I did not see the movie (yet), I can honestly say I really enjoyed Cars 2: The Game. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. It's not just a children's game, it's more challenging than it looks and it's not to be snubbed as a go-to party game. In what other social situation can you say "I just shot a missile at a sports car from a rusty tow truck?"