Where there's a Pixar movie, a game will surely follow. The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. were all treated to average tie-in games, and the chart over the last year has been crammed bumper to bumper with titles based on animated films. The really cynical would say that these movies only exist to flog a range of spin-off merchandise - Cars the game doesn't exactly disprove this theory or spring any surprises, but in giving its target audience (ie. kids) what they want, it does the job.
The game is set after the movie, but it pretty much recycles the same plot - bar all the icky 'message' stuff about friendship, family and sportsmanship that wholesome American cinema audiences love. So hot-shot racer Lightning McQueen is now fully settled in the nostalgic desert town of Radiator Springs, yet must still complete numerous warm-up races and nonsensical tasks for other characters before being allowed to take on Chick Hicks in the annual Piston Cup.
As expected, this basically takes the form of a series of samey races punctuated by short cutscenes that advance what little story there is. You're free to drive around the dusty roads of Radiator Springs picking and choosing your races and side missions by stopping in designated markers next to one of Lightning's friends. Some relate to the story, others teach you (and therefore unlock) new skills such as powersliding and driving on two wheels, and some are merely there to complete for completist's sake.
Navigating your way through the sandbox-style town is much harder and more painful than it ever should have been. There are lots of invisible barriers blocking you from getting to certain roads and areas, but there's never any indication that you aren't supposed to try to reach them. Likewise, Lightning's jump ability is made somewhat redundant by obstacles that are impossible to leap over, even though your car can actually jump higher than them. Eventually you're able to enter two other towns, but again the game stupidly fails to mention when this becomes possible and whereabouts they are. What ought to have been a fun and distracting way to explore the game world is a lesson in frustration; if it tests our patience then we can imagine a younger gamer just giving up altogether or suffering the indignity of having to ask a parent for help. The shame!
The strange, confusing design continues with some of the mini-games. There aren't many of them, but each includes a number of increasingly difficult levels - the emphasis being on 'difficult'. For example, Tractor Tipping involves scaring a set number of cow-like tractors so they fall over within a time limit, all the while avoiding a vehicle's searchlights. We genuinely struggled after the first few levels, and so kids will no doubt come crying to mum and dad after repeated failed attempts.
Racing itself is much more fun and well balanced, despite the odd control set-up. Instead of the right and left triggers controlling acceleration and braking like in pretty much every other racing game, Cars inexplicably uses A and X. There's also a general lack of polish that smacks of either the game being rushed out so it's released at the same time as the film or lazy design because it'll sell truckloads of copies regardless. There's no sense of speed for one, even though you can zip along at almost 200mph, while the lack of destructible objects is a travesty, with fences, walls and other vehicles all treated as solid, immovable objects. The handling is also loose to say the least; the back end of your car constantly slides all over the place and the track surface seemingly makes no difference whether it's tarmac or dirt. Try taking a shortcut and a three-second countdown is triggered to get back on the track before you're reset and lose a few seconds. Not that it really matters - you'll be so far ahead thanks to the wretched opponent AI that you can get away with plenty of crashes and resets and still have time to make a cuppa.