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Cars: Race-O-Rama

Score: 69%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Incinerator Studios
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Racing/ Action/ Family

Graphics & Sound:

The Wii seems to be in a constant process of improving, from the perspective of developers finding new and different ways to make the Little Console That Could put out good-looking product. Cars: Race-O-Rama is an upgrade from the previous two Wii installments, each one a bit better than the last. That's saying something, considering we were duly impressed by both those games. The best thing here is a snappy interface that is uncluttered and keeps your focus on the road ahead. You can adjust your view all the way from a dashboard camera to close or far rear-view, depending on how you like to drive. The mini-map planted in a corner of the screen helps you navigate, making it possible to play from the dashboard perspective and not be constantly lost. Cars: Race-O-Rama is the first in the series that really gives the impression of being open world, with wide, open spaces you can drive to, explore, and race. The reality is that there are limits to the amount of drivable real estate, but the impression of an open horizon is exciting enough.

Also exciting are the details to which the developers clearly paid attention, such as sunlight blazing over hills as you drive, jet contrails in the sky, and plenty of activity throughout the world as you drive around. Custom liveries for the characters you can unlock in the game are broken down by various parts that you must also unlock, and that must be purchased through points earned by collecting items around the game world. Other unlockables include concept art, which unfortunately remains at postcard size, making it hard to appreciate. Audio is cued perfectly to various actions you take, whether driving recklessly or passing competitors during a race. The jokes are funny, especially the snarky comments Lightning McQueen makes that are so in-character for any fan of the movie. Music is forgettable but cute, and largely in the background where it belongs.


Gameplay:

Rather than take the approach of a linear racing title, Cars: Race-O-Rama (if you can believe it) borrows from open-world Racers of recent years. Players (still only two at a time, unfortunately) can first jump into the action through Arcade Mode, racing around any open tracks. At the outset, this amounts to one track, so no joy there compared to the fun you'll have when all the tracks are unlocked. Opening additional content comes after you win a series of gold-starred races in each area, and there are a host of other racing elements to be had for ambitious players. The mini-games we saw in previous Cars games return, but are worked into the flow of things more smoothly. We don't love load times, and there are plenty of them here, but the breakaway games are at least consistent with the feel of the overall game. Examples early into the game include racing around revving your engine to tip tractors, which we've seen before in this franchise. Similar treasure hunts or delivery missions show some good attempts to energize an otherwise standard racing formula, but poor control completely sabotages Cars: Race-O-Rama.

Jumping action is less a focus than before, but drifting is in with a vengeance. You don't have to do it, but you'll earn points both when drifting curves and launching big air off steep hills. Knowing how to do this stuff doesn't make it integral to the game, although it helps to be able to access certain places in the game where you'll pick up hidden items. Being able to play as different characters is a fun trick, but doesn't change handling to any great extent. By the time you get to special races like the monster truck rally, you'll really notice the difference, but the overall impression we had was of poor handling. Inconsistent response to movements of our wheel meant we were often pinballing back and forth between the two guard rails or smashing into obstacles at a critical point in the race. Using turbo, braking, or drifting helps to alleviate some of the squirrelly nature of the vehicles in Cars: Race-O-Rama, but nothing really takes the place of good, tight controls. Even after hours of playing, there was not a moment we weren't thinking about the shoddy controls, a problem worse in this installment than in any of the previous games. Replay value should be high, considering the layers of challenge and unlockable items in each level, but we'll wager that anyone keeping this game around for longer than a rental period just wants to race their buddy.


Difficulty:

Thankfully (maybe intentionally, in recognition of the poor controls) the A.I. opponents you'll face in Cars: Race-O-Rama are a pushover. No amount of error on your part seems to put you so far behind that a liberal application of turbo can't pull your fat out of the fire. The ease with which you can gain the lead is only tempered by the terror you'll feel at the possibility of side-swiping an obstacle or roadside object due to the control issues. Placing in the Top 3 is all you really need to move forward in the game, so you'll quickly unlock every track and then have the opportunity to go back and perfect your score through item collection, or just play with customization. The nature of an arcade-style racing game is to allow for reckless driving without great penalties, so Cars: Race-O-Rama delivers along those lines, in certain respects. Our problem comes from trying to see this half-baked racing in a positive light, considering how many strong racing games are already on the market, and seeing the ultimate arcade-style Racer (Mario Kart) still flying off store shelves for this platform. The movie is a little too far back to expect that kids are crazy enough about these characters to overlook obvious flaws; the third Cars game on this platform is by far the weakest yet in terms of how easily you will pick it up and play without running into unnecessary frustration over controls. A shame, especially because of how much here is given a quality treatment.

Game Mechanics:

Control via the Wii-Mote or by adding the Nunchuk is very much what we've seen in previous games. We'll allow that adding the Nunchuk makes things somewhat better in the control department, but why should we have to add the Nunchuk for a simplistic driving game? Using the Wii-Mote on its own is perfectly acceptable, considering how few options you have during play. Step on the gas with the (2) button, or hit the (1) button for turbo. Braking is managed by tapping the trigger (B) button or punching the (A) button, both fairly awkward considering the layout when you hold the Wii-Mote sideways. Drifting is on the D-pad, a strange choice considering most racing games would have the drifting triggered automatically once your brakes release or you grab the hand brake. Things just don't feel well thought out as you hold the Wii-Mote, and heaven forefend you put the controller into a Wii Wheel accessory. It's not like we expect perfection or simulation from something like Cars: Race-O-Rama, but three games into the series, we expect at least minor improvements.

Instead of improvements, we found this to be a giant step back for the series. We'd easily recommend either of the previous two games over this one, even with their less sophisticated graphics and less sophisticated career/story progression. Racing isn't a game where you expect much story, anyway. The key is control and responsiveness to what a "driver" does, and Cars: Race-O-Rama frequently just feels like it has a mind of its own. You may be the kind of person that can overlook the issues or laugh them off as part-and-parcel of arcade-style racing, and you have a friend that loves Cars characters. No question that the license is represented well here, in some nice visual settings that show lots of hard work, but it baffles us why more time and attention didn't go into the bit of fine tuning that would have made Cars: Race-O-Rama feel like a real racing game.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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