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Review - itty bitty racing, this time from Infogrames

Micro Machines! Well, no, it's "MicroMachines", apparently. Still, semantic naming issues aside, it's no surprise to see a modern day update to this classic miniature racer, although instead of "Codemasters", the byline now reads "Infogrames Sheffield". After some sort of licensing coup and a modest period of development, the next generation PS2 and Xbox versions of MicroMachines have appeared - but has the formula grown with the technology?

Short answer: no, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. MicroMachines retains its simple formula; pick a driver and scoot around workbenches, living rooms, beaches, garden ponds and all sorts of other locations in a tiny plastic car, viewed from a quasi-overhead view that shifts and pans with the action. Ninety per cent of the skill is in remembering the next turn in time, five per cent is in marshalling the accelerator in the face of pitfalls, and five per cent is in making considered use of the various power-ups, which range from extendable boxing gloves and magnets to speed boosts and frying pan thumpers.

One of our heroes outfoxes the farmer

Time to swear

There are eight tracks to play about with to start off, and you unlock more as you complete the various four-map rounds of the main championship mode. Sadly, it won't take all that long to do this. Bronze championship features some very simple tracks (scoot round once and you'll never slip off the side again), while Silver, Gold and Platinum introduce progressively more varied designs, which makes memorising them a lot harder. And if you can't remember where the next turn is, you'll need to either slow down or risk ending up off course, in the wrong direction or worse, pitching off the side of a table. To do so means a few lost seconds as you get back up to speed and a lot of loud swearing.

Cars and drivers have cute honking sounds and characteristic quips, and you can pick from the likes of a Frankenstein's monster-esque zombie, an '80s playboy and a cop called Callahan. Switching drivers makes little difference, but it's a nice bonus. Each driver gets five different vehicles, although these are pre-selected depending on the stage - wouldn't make much sense taking a sports car to a speedboat race, after all. The difference in handling is slight - bikes are nippier for instance than sports cars with smaller turning circles, while boats tend to skid out and have more trouble accelerating.

Watch out for his bulgy fingers

Behold the beauty of incidental detail

Unsurprisingly, MicroMachines makes its biggest strides forward in the graphical department. Each of the game's tracks is a basic route surrounded by luscious superficial detail. Racing through the whizzkid's lab, you'll zoom along gauze netting, past bubbling (and exploding) test tubes and past the guru's fingers tapping on a keyboard. In the barn, you'll dodge under tapping feet, race across roof rafters and bounce into piles of hay, with chickens clucking at you from the sidelines. Take it into the garden and plants will snap their jaws at you, rats sniff and swipe their tails across your path and leaves flutter in the wind. The biggest triumph though is on the water - hop into the pond and the rippling, undulating surface is a beauty to behold, with little floating leaves denoting the track boundaries, water lilies, belligerent frogs and guppy fish cooing at you. Beneath the shiny surface you can make out all manner of objects on the bottom, like discarded coins, rocks and vegetation. Sometimes you even end up switching terrain mid-race, travelling beneath a lightning zapper and then sliding into the water just as your car is transformed into a speedboat.

The environment is quite interactive in places, too. Race along a crossbeam during the barn party and you may have to dodge balloons, and ram-raiding the Christmas crackers dotted around the course often reveals hidden power-ups. Then there's the chap peeping out from the manhole cover as you race over it, turning it into a rudimentary jump, the crow in the spooky pond taking snaps at your boat and clamshells on the beach doing likewise, as you dash between the sandy toes of a buried and mildly irate Dad.

Each of the cars is neatly modelled, although obviously they're rather indistinct for the most part. Close-ups reveal your little drivers yanking the sticks and twiddling the wheel though, and, in the case of water races, one little feller is always sat in a dinghy with his hand on the tiller. The real attention to detail with the cars though is in the sound effects - hooting horns and that indefatigable clicking noise that plastic makes as it hits the concrete, with various clomping noises for the power-ups and a bit of smack talk between races. Or not so if you end up placing fourth.

The camera can frustrate, rarely offering more than a vague hint at where the track next goes

For cluck's sake

Sadly, all this graphical excitement breeds a few complaints. First off, the camera is oddly positioned, so that if you find yourself spun by an opponent's magnet and shunted off the track, you could end up with your car completely obscured by a clucking hen, at which point it's trial and error to get your car facing the right way and back on the track. What's more, as with its predecessors, MicroMachines frowns on shortcut-taking - deviate a little and a green exclamation mark indicator pops up, but if the game thinks you're really extracting the Michael, the exclamation mark goes red and the game pops you back on the track at an earlier point.

Then again, frustration is something MicroMachines players will always have to put up with. Repeating the tougher tracks four or five times to truly get the layout and then focusing on taking all the turns at the right time is crucial, and quite painstaking when it comes to the Gold and Platinum championships. Fortunately, those sick of having to guestimate the next turn can always ignore convention and opt for the new Micro GP mode, which places the camera in a more traditional above-and-behind position, although this is more of a novelty than a game in its own right. Sometime soon, you will have to spend time learning the tracks.

However, doing so can be quite rewarding - as with good old 16-bit MicroMachines 2 and MicroMachines V3 on the PlayStation, the time trial mode will suck up a lot of your, ahem, time, once you get the hang of layouts and so on.

Ever had a rat tailing you?

Burns bright, short lived

But the biggest problem of all is that although MicroMachines sticks to the values of old, there really isn't enough of it for single players. There's maybe four or five hours tops here before you've exhausted all the options for lone players, and then the game is left either to pick up dust or to be picked up for five minutes once every few months.

Unless of course you can convince some friends to join in regularly...

Put MicroMachines in front of four people instead of one and it's a revelation. The Bomb Tag mode, which sees you struggling not to be the bloke with the bomb as the timer hits zero, is the most enjoyable foursome since [oops, family publication -Ed], rivalling the likes of Bomberman for sheer simplistic, arcade fun. Then again vanilla racing with four players is almost equally enjoyable.

When viewed as a whole though, MicroMachines is worse than the sum of its parts. It looks stunning at times, and it's curiously addictive for something so frustrating, but it's not as varied as MicroMachines V3 and it doesn't really introduce anything to the series apart from the Micro GP diversion. As a multiplayer game you really can't fault it, but the chances are you own V3 already, and £40 is an awful lot of money to spend on something so plainly derived from its unrelated (and available much cheaper) predecessors. Don't own a MicroMachines game? Add a couple of points to the score.

MicroMachines screenshots (PS2)

MicroMachines screenshots (Xbox)

6 / 10