There was a time when you weren't anyone in the school playground unless you had some Micro Machines in your pocket. Like the Pokemon cards and Yu-Gi-Oh cards that followed, the tiny little vehicles were a toy phenomenon. As with all things, the fad didn't last forever, with the toy line now all but phased out - the one-time superstars being relegated to car boot sales and eBay. However, things from the past have a habit of coming back and biting you on the arse. While more of a playful slap than a malicious bite, Micro Machines V4 isn't quite the joyous blast of nostalgia that it could have been.
Released on PlayStation 2, PC, PSP and DS (although we're only looking at the PS2 and PC versions here), Micro Machines V4 is pretty much what you'd expect from a Micro Machines title, and seeing as it's been developed by Supersonic Software (the people behind Micro Machines 2 and the rather excellent Mashed) I had very high hopes. The fact that the game fails to live up to its predecessors and the mighty mashed is disappointing, but there's still an enjoyable multiplayer game to be found in Micro Machines V4.
Even for a game aimed at kids, the game modes are sparse. The lone player won't be too thrilled by the basic single-player mode that simply asks you to tackle races in four different divisions, with very little in the way of cohesion; it's just race after race. Race types vary, but they're pretty much limited to straight out races or battle races, where you must repeatedly take a short lead over your opponents. It's typical Micro Machines stuff, but lacks a certain spark. The fifty courses keep things quite fresh, but there's no real standout course, and many are far too short.
As you work through the single-player races you'll unlock up to 750 cars. This initially sounds rather great, and you can see all your unlocked cars in your 'garage', but in reality you get 25 cars, painted in different colours and slightly modified. It's also rather disappointing to only find cars. Previous Micro Machines titles had included some nice variety in vehicles, but in V4 you have to make do with four wheels, so no speed boats for us. Despite not being all that thrilling, you'll need to stick with the single-player in order to unlock all the courses for use in multiplayer, which although a video game standard, is still something I don't understand.
As expected, multiplayer is considerably more entertaining, if only for the fact that four people can play on a single console or PC. The battle races work with the same tug-off-war mechanic, with one player pulling ahead in points, before he's pulled back by another contender. This tends to mean that races can last quite a while, especially if everyone is evenly matched, but you can make races a little more worthwhile. Multiplayer games can be played for fun or for keeps. This essentially means that you can acquire a friend's car if you win a race. The rather limited set of cars makes this less thrilling than it ought to be, but ten-year-olds still living for trading cards in the school playground may find this a feature that's hard to resist.
Weapons often play a huge part in multiplayer gaming, but in Micro Machines V4 they are pretty uninspiring. Everything is nice and twee, with the vehicles looking over-encumbered by relatively oversized weaponry, but the lack of originality echoes the general lack of spark throughout every aspect of the game. You get missiles, giant hammers, health pick-ups, bombs and all the others you'd expect to see. This might be exactly what kids want, but other than the way cars are slowly blown apart when taking damage, the combat seen in the game left me rather cold.
The ability to build your own courses might sound great, but your options in the game are pretty limited. Obviously designed for ease of use rather than depth, you simply choose a themed area and then join up pre-placed markers, identifying pick-ups as you go. The results aren't spectacular, but considering the age group that is most likely to find Micro Machines V4 appealing, it's a simple way to introduce user-created content. PC Players also have the option to go online, either to race others or to trade cars.
For a non-full-price release Micro Machines V4 looks rather nice, despite failing to capitalise on the source material. Courses often feature some suitable over-sized hazards and there's a nice variety of locations to race in, but it all reeks of playing safe. If you weren't addicted to these games as a kid, then you likely won't find this a problem, as it'll all seem fresh, but I just expected more. While totally different in style to Supersonic's Mashed, that game's harder look and feel made for a better, more modern multiplayer racing experience, and Acclaim's Re-Volt offered better combat racing on a small scale.
If you wake up in the middle of the night, longing for the sound of a whining engine, fret no more, as that's pretty much all you'll hear during your time with the game. To be fair, you also hear numerous environmental sounds, such as chickens in the coop or a pneumatic drill tearing up concrete. It's not the type of game to feature a stunning orchestral score, and the simple sound effects are perfectly suited.
As a harmless game for kids to play together, Micro Machines V4 serves its purpose, but a bit of flair and a larger scope could have made it the ultimate party racing game. Mashed felt like Micro Machines for the grown-ups, and in its wake Micro Machines V4 seems like a step back. Kids today probably don't even know what Micro Machines are, and V4 only just manages to keep the franchise alive. Codemasters' latest is perfectly inoffensive, but completely uninspired - not what I'd hoped for.