A couple of years ago, Codemasters attempted to revive the top down racing genre with Toybox Turbos. It was essentially Micro Machines, but without the license to call it Micro Machines and although the gameplay was basic, it managed to capture the essence of what made the original games so special.
The success of that release must have paid off because Micro Machines: World Series sees Codemasters reclaiming that famous name, although with it comes a lot of extra baggage, including some rather odd in-game design choices that fundamentally change the spirit of the series.
While Turbos was a charming nostalgia trip, World Series often feels calculated and almost soulless. Whatever deals were made with Hasbro for the Micro Machines name seem to have come at a price and Nerf branding is slapped liberally over the scenery and the UI. Familiar weapons from Toybox, the Tommy Gun, the Hammer and the Mines are rebranded as Nerf products, while countless Nerf guns litter the tracks and arenas. It all feels a bit like you're playing an advert rather than a game.
The problems go deeper than that though, starting with a noticeable absence of any kind of single player Championship mode. In its place is a more concentrated effort on online multiplayer with classic races and the new Battle mode supporting up to 12 players online at once. There's an argument to be made that magic of Micro Machines lies in its multiplayer, sure, but the lack of an offline Championship mode to noodle about in leaves it all feeling rather empty.
That's not the only thing to have been scaled back. In Toybox you had a total of 35 vehicles to choose from, in World Series there's only 12 - although these can be customised cosmetically via awards received from unlockable loot crates, because 2017.
Likewise the number of race tracks has fallen from 18 in Toybox to a mere 10 in World Series. What you get in their place are 15 extra arena maps created specifically for Battle mode in which you can play 6 v. 6 matches of Capture the Flag, King of the Hill and Bomb Delivery. Much like the race tracks, these arenas take place in familiar, over-sized household locations, but instead of being full loops they sport non-linear layouts with multiple routes around them that include handy shortcuts in the form of ramps, spring boards and even remote controlled drones.
While the locations are imaginative and sometimes, in the case of one set atop a giant Hungry Hungry Hippos board, even genius, navigating these Arenas can be rather confusing. Tight turns, deadly drops and a confusing mini map don't help matters much but when you add the chaos of the combat to the mix, things can quickly go from fun to frustrating.
In Battle mode, each vehicle has its own unique powers. Three of these powers are available from the off but require recharge time between each use, while the fourth ultimate attack is earned through scoring points and destroying other players. With so many new attacks to learn and so many ways to die, things get hectic fast and you'll find yourself waiting to respawn on a regular basis. These arena matches do have their moments of brilliance, especially when each team member is playing to the strength of their vehicles - ambulances are healers, etc - but they feel out of place in a Micro Machines game so it's sad to see Battle mode getting top billing.
The online portion works well enough - quickmatch will attempt to put you in lobby with as many human players as possible, but will plug the gaps with AI characters if necessary so there's always a full match and you're never left waiting too long for a game. As a nice little treat for nostalgic gamers, the avatars for the AI racers are lifted straight from the original games and include memorable characters like Spider, Cherry and even Violet Berlin.
The real joy of World Series comes from the local multiplayer Skirmish mode. Despite the smaller amount of tracks, this is the mode that'll keep people coming back, although if you're anything like me and my friends you'll skip over Free For All, the watered down version of Battle mode and stick to the tug-of-war classic, Elimination mode.
Handling wise, the cars tend to feel a bit too floaty in World Series. They slip and slide all over the track, no matter what vehicle you've chosen and as a newcomer it's very easy to over or under steer and end up careening over the edge of a table or getting lodged in a pile of pretzels. While prepping for this review I went back and tested both Toybox and the original Micro Machines and the handling in World Tour is actually much closer to the friction free Mega Drive original than it is to the more chunky feel of Toybox.
I've mentioned Toybox Turbos a lot, but it's almost impossible not to compare the two games when you realise that multiple assets from the 2014 game have been recycled for World Series. Hell, one of the new race tracks, Mixer Madness is almost identical in layout to the Baking Cakes map from Toybox Turbos. All that's really changed is the positioning of a deadly electric whisk and the removal of one of the trickier short cuts.
If you're coming to World Series for old school Micro Machines kicks, especially off the back of playing Toybox, you're going to come away feeling short changed, even with the games' budget price tag. With the emphasis here firmly fixed on Battle Mode, fan favourites like Elimination mode and the standard races play second fiddle and feel like afterthoughts.
For a franchise that so obviously trades on nostalgia to not make the most of these classic modes feels like a misstep. Codemasters could have built on what it achieved with Toybox, but instead it's scaled that back and risked it all on a brand new concept. In all honesty, no one who buys World Series because they played Micro Machines on the Amiga is going to give a stuff about Battle mode. They'll give it a couple of goes no doubt, but it won't be long until they return to what they know and love, which is unfortunately a watered down version of Toybox Turbos.
Playing World Series is like going to see your favourite band live and finding out most of their setlist is made up of new songs. It's nice to see something new, but that's not why you bought your tickets. You bought them so you could mosh along to the oldies.