Version tested: Xbox 360
Pixar's Cars is a godsend to the weary games developer, tired of crowbarring kids movies into wheezing platform-game shapes, picking out the key action scenes and working out how best to stretch them into something that will work on a console.
The adventures of Lightning McQueen cut through all of that. When all your characters have wheels, and your hero is a racing car, the game genre sorts itself out naturally. No matter what you need them to do, it's got to be a driving game. And now, with Cars 2, Lightning and Mater have become international secret agents, with missiles and guns and a cackling bad guy. Driving. Shooting. Cackling. It's almost as if Pixar is writing the game design document for us!
So it is that Cars 2, the game, is inevitably an example of the venerable combat racing game, with front wheels parked neatly on the pavement of Mario Kart Street and the back rudely blocking the driveway of Mr Twisted Metal.
It's a slick, chunky and responsive racer, and one with a few tricks up its sleeve to amuse the kids. While the left stick steers and the right trigger accelerates, just as you'd expect, the right stick seems more interested in pretending it's controlling a skateboard game.
Flick down on the stick and your car flips around and starts driving backwards, ready to fend off attacks from the rear. Flick the stick upwards and you balance on two wheels. Left and right shunt your car across the track for instant and gratifying Road Rash-style side-swipes against overtaking enemies. There's also a simple drifting mechanic, which can be automatically activated for kids who struggle with the timing of the button presses.
These cars don't even need ramps, as a prod of the A button sends them hopping into the air all by themselves. While in the air, the right stick now twizzles and turns your vehicle in an immediately appealing series of flips and barrel rolls. It's a lovely, intuitive control system and one that taps straight into what kids love about gaming: the ability to do cool stuff really easily.
These stunts aren't just for show, however. Each trick you pull earns you boost, which gradually fills up four bars. Each bar is equal to one use of the turbo function, but when all four are full you can double tap for an extra fast speed injection which comes with a rival-frying shield as well.
Weaponry falls into all the expected categories. There's a machine gun, a rocket or a trio of rockets. Oil slicks and energy traps can be dropped behind you. A satellite laser fulfils your smart bomb needs, and instead of a homing missile there's a little RC bomb car that will chase down the driver in front and send them sky high (although in the world of Cars, isn't this like using babies as suicide bombers? Probably best not to dwell on that). It's a functional weapon set, but one that feels a little unimaginative given the potential that Pixar's wacky, knockabout world offers.
Track design is more ambitious, graduating from simple broad curves to tricky chicanes and hairpins. There are short cuts and Easter eggs aplenty, and each location is explored and reconfigured to suit six tiers of themed missions.
Straightforward races are joined by battle races, combat arenas and more specialised survival modes where you must keep the timer going by destroying enemies or collecting shield batteries. There are also a couple of multiplayer modes, though these are offline only and support just four players.
There's a half-hearted attempt to weave some story into the action, but it doesn't really work and the rather clunky and long-winded menu system makes it tricky to keep track of progress without flicking up and down, backwards and forwards, through lots of icons.
Cars 2 is chunky, pleasing stuff, and with dozens of characters all drawn in the familiar wide-eyed Pixar style, there's a lot for children to enjoy. Where the game comes unstuck is in its wonky difficulty curve. There's a crude spike around Tier 5, where the skill requirements shoot upwards. It's hard to put a finger on precisely what changes, but there's some tweak in the countdowns, the agility of the enemies and the tenacity of rival racers that makes the game hit a brick wall.
The inability to easily switch characters between stages compounds this problem, as a slower, stronger car might be ideal for a combat stage but virtually useless in a challenge where speed is of the essence. Having to quit out, return to the core menu, then restart as the racer you want is a lumpy way of progressing and many kids probably won't understand why their favourite car isn't up to the job.
It's not just that the game becomes harder - that's what you'd expect and hope for - rather that it suddenly becomes almost impossible to win, particularly for the game's intended audience, as Cars skews much younger than other Pixar brands, appealing mainly to the five- and six-year-old age bracket. Failure feels unfair, heightened by the steady introduction of ruthless environmental hazards, and making young players feel cheated is a good way to turn them off. That's a real shame, since developer Avalanche Software did such a fantastic job of understanding the ways children play with last year's delightful Toy Story 3 sandbox.
As it is, Cars 2 is a simple yet robustly entertaining kid-friendly racer that switches from accessible fun to gruelling grind in the blink of an eye right before the end. This may not trouble many of its players, who will be happy to pootle around in the game's earlier stages, but it's just enough to tarnish the game as a whole and hold it back from must-have territory.
7 / 10