So I'm sitting here, looking at the box to Cars, and there's a lot going on in my head. It's still sinking in, just how enjoyable and honest this game really is, and as I glance around at the cover art, I find myself wanting to go back and play some more. Sure, this may be the standard attitude when it comes to most games, but we are talking about a licensed title here. Moreover, it's a game designed for children. Why then, am I having so much fun with it? What is it about Cars that just keeps me coming back? The answer is something that every developer of licensed material should have printed, framed, and hanging on the wall: it's fun.
By now you've of course heard of the movie, which centers around an ambitious stock car named Lighting McQueen. McQueen's world is one where automobiles are alive, each with its own mind and personality, and humans are conveniently nonexistent. Windshields have eyes, and farm tillers are huge and scary (come to think of it, that last one applies to the real world as well). The video game version takes place shortly after the film, with an entirely new adventure that mixes a lot of what we've seen before in movie tie-in titles with a few things we usually don't, like charm and entertainment value.
It is these two things above all else that makes Cars a game everyone can get into. Instead of just going with a standard racing game, Rainbow Studios has placed everything in the soapbox world of Radiator Springs (the town from the film), allowing the player to choose "missions" similar in style to Grand Theft Auto. Different cars from the film (all with their original voice actors) will each present Lighting with a different task, like collecting lost postcards or go tractor tipping with Mater the tow truck. There's a plethora of mini games that are both fun and easy to do, and this makes Cars an ideal title for younger gamers. My young daughter is a nut for everything Pixar, and she was instantly hooked to just racing Lightning around town, picking up bonus icons and basically running everyone else off the road. Since many of the missions can only be unlocked by completing certain tasks, it fell to me to win the races that comprise the majority of them.
The entire world of Cars is beautifully rendered here, and the voice work compliments the pretty visuals to fully recreate the world of the movie. You can literally spend as much time wandering around town aimlessly as you perform missions, talking to other characters and just getting a feel for the land. Driving through the desert is strangely relaxing, and while this isn't too big of an environment, there are lots of little nooks and crannies to explore for bonus points and hidden goodies. There's a bunch of cool and different skins for Lightning to wear, and certain missions require the use of one of the ten playable characters, which offers a nice change of pace and a chance to see the game world from different perspectives. To add to the replay value, collecting items and winning races unlocks bonus content, like movie clips, art, and mini games.
Therein perhaps, lay the only real flaw that I can find with Cars. Although the game is short (under 10 hours), what's most problematic is the spotty gameplay. Lightning isn't as responsive as he should be, and his power sliding ability leaves a lot to be desired. This causes some of the steeper turns to occasionally make or break your pole position, and it was initially frustrating to sometimes lose my place to a car my grandfather used to own, because mine was still learning how to power slide. Once you get the hang of things, however, you should be able to breeze through each mission. Rainbow was smart enough to divide the story mode into two levels, with a more simplified version for younger gamers (hence my daughter's quick mastery). The more "difficult" level isn't all that much harder, but I have to give due kudos to the developer for taking the effort to make the game appealing to as broad an audience as possible.
Compared to the majority of licensed drivel that's released each summer, Cars is a refreshing surprise. Though the control is rough around the edges at times, it's not enough to ruin the experience. Rainbow Studios has an excellent engine here that only needs some tweaking to make it into something great, and I'd really love to see another go at the Cars license. The characters are loveable, the missions are fun, and there's enough here for gamers of all ages to enjoy for the short while that it lasts. In the end, isn't that what a licensed game is supposed to do?