Version tested: PlayStation 2
What the crivens is this? A Pixar game-of-the-movie not based on familiar kleptomaniaical platforming jolliness? Currently number one in the nation's charts, you say? Outselling Grand Theft Auto while borrowing its sandbox game structure? Someone cancel E3! What? They did? Hurrah!
Whatever the borrowed sub-genre, it's always tough reviewing games (whisper it) not meant for grown-ups, but Pixar movies have always - to my mind - been as much for adults as the kiddywinks, so why shouldn't the games based on the popular animated movies have that same broad appeal? Someone at THQ certainly seems to think so, anyway, by flagging up an easier mode specifically designed for the little 'uns. Good plan. But did it turn out that way, or is Cars the usual old cobblers that's churned out to appeal to the lowest common denominator? Having faced numerous dire Game of the Movie adaptations recently, hope remained that THQ would be the one to buck the trend - after all, it's number bloody one.
By basing the movie on motor vehicles, Pixar makes it embarrassingly easy for THQ to come up with a faithful gaming premise. Simply by creating a small sandbox environment (handily set after the movie), populating it with familiar characters and throwing together a few basic racing modes, mini-games and minor customisation options, it's a licence to print money. Add a layer of gloss with voice-over contributions from major Hollywood stars and a few likeable cut-scenes and it's the text-book example of how to make a nice, safe inoffensive piece of digital merchandising to cash-in on the buzz around the movie - and just in time for the school summer holidays.
Avoid the void
For anyone over the age of eight, though, playing it for more than a few seconds rips off its friendly mask of cuddly appeal, and reveals a cold-hearted and lazily transparent attempt to make a game that ticks all the right boxes, looks attractive, but is as vacuous a videogame experience as you can imagine.
At this point, the hideous spectre of winning being 'everything' looms to mind, and Cars' central design philosophy seems to be to make it practically impossible to lose. While this is a great way of making intolerant young kids feel less frustrated, you can bet it'll also ensure that they'll be bored of playing Cars in record time. Stretching the concept of elastic AI to (ho ho) breaking point, any time you make a mistake and slip down the pecking order results in everyone in front of you visibly slowing down to make sure that you can screech into the lead again in seconds. Not winning would be an extraordinary achievement in the majority of Cars' events, so it's actually less of a game, more of an 'interactive' animated charade where you're playing the part of the elite up-and-coming driver Lightning McQueen. With the exception of some of the mini-games, Cars is about as challenging and involving as a pop-up book.
Funnily enough, the mini-games are quite good fun - at least on the first run through, before it subsequently just dishes up multiple levels of the same (albeit of increasing difficulty). The tractor tipping, for example, is a hilarious little night time jaunt against the clock where you must honk your horn in front of a series of tractors to cause them to fall backwards with shock. All the while an angry bull-esque combine harvester patrols in search of the transgressor, while you hoot with laughter at the childish mayhem going on. It's great.
Others aren't quite as chock with comic touches, such as the dire hubcab/tyre collection mini-game for Luigi, or the plain dull boot camp off-road races. It's cheap filler fodder all the way.
Grand Theft Automaton
For the majority of Cars, you're simply tasked with driving around a fairly dull desert-esque environment of Radiator Springs that acts as the openworld hub for the missions. But as good intentioned as this idea was, there's literally no architectural effort made to make the place remotely interesting to drive around, and all it appears to do is artificially hold you up in between races as you drive from one point on your mini-map to another. In addition, the mini-map itself is utterly unhelpful in telling you which missions you haven't yet attempted, and during the Luigi mini-game seems to have difficulty placing the waypoint blobs with any degree of accuracy.
Nevertheless, once you do eventually suss out where your next mission is, the result is rarely in doubt whether you're attempting a desert rally or doing 12 laps of an indycar circuit. The former does at least attempt some variety to the parade by forcing you to come in to do a pit stop, but the resulting mini-game is simplistic in the extreme - merely requesting you press buttons in the right order to proceed, or hit them quickly.
You'll learn boost and powerslide manoeuvres, as well as jump abilities and or driving backwards, but at no stage does your car appear to handle sensibly. Obviously, no one's expecting a cartoon racer to handle like TOCA, but Cars blots its copybook by feeling like a broken Burnout with none of the responsiveness and about 10 per cent of the thrills. Power sliding, for example, never really feels anything like it should, and the ever-recharging boost is almost redundant. For a start you barely ever need it, and even when you do use it, the response is muted in the extreme. Meanwhile, damage modelling is entirely absent in Cars, meaning that you can endure the most ludicrous smashes with no penalty - and even when you do spin off, the physics is so poor that you'll do the strangest things and end up back on the track regardless. It's a game that wills you to win, and one that delivers no sense of satisfaction when you inevitably do.
Road accident ahead
On a technical level, Cars does what it has to, managing to faithfully replicate the movie's characters without stressing over the rest of it. That means we get great-looking in-engine cut-scenes that are voiced to perfection (by a typically great cast including Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt and Michael Keaton, among others) and well animated, but as soon as the 'cars of the show' are placed in the dreary environment, you could be racing around any low budget game from years ago, filled with glitchy, pop-up ridden scenery, samey tracks and terrible sludgy handling. If someone took the racing element out of context and got us to review that on its own, you'd struggle to be kind to it on any level. You'd certainly be aghast to learn that something so fundamentally inept on so many levels could have soared to the number one spot. There's the underlying feeling that introducing young people to poor gaming experiences is a short-sighted one - as is alienating the older audience that still believes in the fanciful notion of universal gaming entertainment.
As usual, a decent movie licence has sold an under-par videogame single-handedly, and one that will be deemed exempt from 'grown-up' criticism because it's aimed squarely at kids. Admittedly, there are some very young kids (as in 4 to 7) that will get on well with Cars - even on the non-kids mode they'll be able to pick up the controller, press X, steer, win race after race and enjoy some cute cut-scenes and 'live the movie'. Cars is just about big and varied enough to offer the required value for money for that very specific audience, and scores points by being faithful to the look and feel of the movie. At best, it delivers one of those non-threatening interactive playgrounds that parents can feel safe letting their young 'uns explore, and on that level it's job done. For the rest of us looking/hoping/praying for a decent driving game based on the latest Pixar movie, you're best advised to ignore its No.1 status and steer clear of this road accident. We're most definitely in 'bad movie licence' territory yet again.
4 / 10