Pixar don't go wrong with their children's movies, but the video game adaptations of said movies are rarely anything to get excited about. Strangely enough, Cars hasn't been as unanimously praised as previous Pixar movies, but the game is one of the best movie licensed products in some time. Cars the video game follows on from the movie, and is set in the same fun world where cars talk and interact as if they were people. While obviously targeted at a young audience, players of all ages will like the free-roaming gameplay and plethora of fun mini-games, even if a few problems with the actual racing prevent it from being the game it should have been.
Set within the town of Radiator Springs, you predominantly play as Lightning, the race car from the movie, once again voiced incredibly well by Owen Wilson. The free-roaming area of the town and a fairly large surrounding area is basically a hub for accessing races and mini-games, but you'll also need to spend time driving around collecting various items. Races that take place within the free-roaming area feature numerous fences and the like, designed to keep you within a certain boundary, while the more serious races take part on proper circuits.
The Piston Cup is where the serious action takes place, and it's pretty much the Cars equivalent of NASCAR, complete with fairly dull oval raceways. These races are essential to progress through the game though, and sadly reveal the game's biggest weakness: its driving model. For a game of this type, made for kids and based on a children's movie, a driving model that felt something like that seen in the Mario Kart games would have been ideal. Sadly, the cars are a little sluggish around corners, and the powerslide mechanic doesn't work all that well. It's certainly functional and easy to pick-up, but no where near as fast or as exciting as it should have been. A few of the less straightforward events rely less on traditional racing, and see your car being able to jump, and these are much more fun, but sadly not the norm.
Throughout the game you'll get to take part in quite a few different mini-games, and they're surprisingly original and fun to play. The tractor tipping mini-game, for example, sees you take control of Mater, with control moved entirely to the left analogue stick. He must sneak around and honk his horn to tip sleeping tractors (the Cars version of cow tipping). The problem is that it's the middle of the night, and there are numerous spotlights keeping a lookout. On top of this, Frank the Combine is keeping guard, and if he catches you (a meter shows how aware he is of you) it's game over. This mini-game in itself features numerous levels, and while simple enough for adults, each stage must be navigated and completed within a time limit, making it a nice challenge for kids.
Not all of the mini-games are as entertaining, with the pit-stop game being a prime example. This thankfully only occurs during races, but it seems like a completely pointless exercise. During each Piston Cup race you'll have to enter the pits and then press buttons at the right time to perform a quick pit-stop. Failure to hit the correct buttons will result in you losing a few positions in the race, but seeing as the opposition cars function on a fairly player-friendly rubber band, even big deficits can be made up without too much trouble.
Difficulty on the whole isn't all that taxing, but developers Rainbow Studios have gone one stage further than simply offering varying levels of AI dependent on difficulty setting. You actually get two options at the start of the game: the normal Cars experience, or the shorter kid-friendly experience. The basic races are still too complex for anyone totally new to gaming, but the free-roaming nature of the town hub does provide a fairly nice play area to get the hang of things. The only real obstacle to a free and easy 'drive anywhere' experience comes from the various scenery objects that stop you in your tracks if you hit them.
Although clearly not a patch on the stunning-looking movie, the in-game cars have been created to closely resemble their movie counterparts. For the most part you'll be looking at an emotionless rear-end of a car, but the game features plenty of in-engine cutscenes that demonstrate the work gone into animating their faces. Even though you can't see them while racing, you do hear the odd one-liner, making you believe that the car you're driving is a character, and not just an ordinary car. Voice work on the whole is outstanding, with all the stars from the movie giving great performances. The soundtrack is also full of great tunes, but it will grate a little once you've heard them all numerous times.
Had Cars featured a really great arcade-style driving model, it would be recommendable to anyone with a passing interest in the movie, but as it stands the game is left riding in the slipstream of the movie and a number of great mini-games. The racing is by no means terrible, and will serve its purpose for those interested in a Cars video game, but had that aspect been nailed, the whole experience would have been elevated a notch or two. Still, with a two-player mode to dabble with and a number of bonus features to look at once the main game is completed, kids wanting a fun game to while away their summer holiday could do a lot worse.