Nowadays, every blockbuster movie comes with a video game in tow. It's par for the marketing course, a promotional tool that's usually greeted by gamers with apathy. And for good reason, too. The stigma surrounding these tie-ins is that they're fluff projects with a whole lotta movie clips, promos and trailers—and little else to write home about.
Given the ubiquitous marketing surrounding one of this summer's biggest films, Cars, I anticipated a similar video game. Cutesy, cartoonish vehicles playing bumper cars on the highway. Treasure hunts along a Route 66 backdrop. A nice, sweet, teddy bear approach coupled with substitute voice-over actors impersonating the real ones.
Allow me to make a sharp U-turn on that opinion and choke on my own exhaust.
One More Time 'Round the Block
Unlike even the best film-based video games, Cars doesn't simply repeat the main attraction's story line—though it easily could have done so and still have been a successful game, given the strength of the movie. Instead, it picks up after the credits have rolled on the big screen. Lightning McQueen, the once self-absorbed hotshot rookie racecar, is now a full-time resident of Radiator Springs, surrounded by all his endearing pals. Still ultra-confident (but a lot less cocky now that he's learned to value teamwork and friendship), he's yet again chasing the granddaddy of racing prizes: the Piston Cup. This time, his main concern is rival Chick Hicks, who will stop at nothing to send Lightning into a permanent pit stop—including hiring a bunch of thugs to ruin his chances.
To get through these obstacles and win the ultimate competition requires learning new tricks, training and, above all, burning lots of rubber on the 30-plus courses offered. You'll take lessons from town mechanic and driving expert Doc on how to "powerslide" around tight bends (and trust me, you'll need this). You'll rough it on the rugged and challenging off-road tracks of former army vet Sarge. And you'll even receive a booster function from resident hippie Fillmore via his "organic" fuel (which, yes, could be seen as a wink-wink drug reference).
The challenge, however, is unlocking the Piston Cup events through these various side missions and races. At first, these ancillary undertakings seem almost laughable: chasing an old-timer's postcards that have been scattered across the dusty desert by the wind, finding lost tires while under the clock. Definitely kiddy-game material.
Yet it's not long before races and challenges become more about your tactics and strategy than simply tearing up the road.
This unexpectedly intelligent gameplay sets Cars apart from the usual E-rated fare. Sure, the vehicles still have animated smiley faces and personalities that could charm a toddler. And no, this isn't as nuanced as, say, Project Gotham Racing. But make one wrong move on a course and your challengers will leave you in a cloud of dust. (It should be noted, however, that unless you're playing on more difficult settings, the artificial intelligence isn't always realistic, and opponents sometimes seem to slow down if you're lagging behind.)
Beyond the racing, the setting of Cars is an open-ended terrain waiting to be explored, à la (of all things) Grand Theft Auto. Thankfully, you don't score points in the Radiator Springs/Ornament Valley area for drive-bys or beating up old ladies. In fact, the questionable parts of this game are few are far between. True to the movie, there's a mini-game of "tractor tipping" with Mater that hints at vandalism. Some expressions reminiscent of the movie ("holy shoot," "dadgum," etc.) get tossed in. And the main story line involves a gang of hired goons stealing auto parts while weaving through a stream of cars with The Fast and the Furious-like foolishness. Though you play the scene as the villains, the worst actions you can take are running innocent drivers off the road. This is followed up with Lightning chasing down these bad guys through oncoming traffic (not exactly a trick you'd like your child imitating one day).
Though the driving includes realistic elements such as traction and drafting, gamemakers obviously kept the younger crowd in mind when it came to the level of violence and realism. Crashes—even head-on collisions at 140 mph—leave no dents, only redirected cars and bruised egos.
Setting a New Course
In the past, Pixar's attempts at putting its lovable characters in the hands of gamers were simply underwhelming. The animation studio was top-notch at making sure things looked great, yet seemed to have skipped the class on creating a game people would actually want to play.
With Cars, however, they've surpassed expectations by offering a kid-friendly game with just enough appeal for an older crowd. Solid gameplay. Great visuals. Even the same all-star cast contributing their vocal talents. As with the big-screen version, there are a few minor disappointments. Still, with minimal road bumps along the way, this is one ride the entire family can enjoy without getting derailed.