Rainbow Studios finally goes on-road... with mixed results.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: June 20, 2006
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For years now, Rainbow Studios has been pumping out what most would consider the definitive off-road experience. Their motocross and ATV (and, uh, motocross & ATV) experiences have melded the concept of a "racing rhythm" that stresses proper weight transfers and momentum while adjusting terrain into something that just feels right. Which is perhaps why is so surprising that so much of Cars just plain doesn't.

At no point does Cars feel like a bad game; the visuals are polished to a near-system selling level (really, it's a gorgeous game, but we'll get to that), the presentation is superb, and yet something just feels... off. "Off" isn't something I thought I'd ever associate with a Rainbow game, as they've managed to tackle off-road (and indeed completely off-land) with such aplomb that I thought they could do no wrong.

Part of the problem is just in the way the vehicles in the game handle, which is to say they're not terribly agile, and this extends not only to the main car, Lightning McQueen, but to all the vehicles in the game. The powerslide feels sloppy and underwhelming, and the whole two-wheel popup move is great for show, but it's not especially useful in races, leaving you with a decent sense of speed, but vehicles that seem unfit for it.

The game loosely follows the events of the movie, though it'll take a little putting two and two together to figure out that McQueen is stopped while speeding through the desert on the way to California (exactly why he was speeding or where he was headed in particular isn't really explained enough to give the game its initial reasoning). The short story is that he's stuck in Radiator Springs helping the denizens of the town with various tasks here and there. Mostly, it's just racing, but as the movie helps explain in its 90 or so minutes, Lightning still has a few things to learn about racings -- particularly when he's not confined to a track going left all the time.

To help flesh out the world Rainbow based everything on a hub system. It's more spread out and interactive than, say, a static screen, since you're more than welcome to drive anywhere while you seek out your next race, but there are times when the world, as pretty as it is, just feels a little lifeless. As you complete simple tasks and run what amount to mini-games to help learn and unlock new skills (or refine the ones you have from the start), you'll earn trophies, which in turn unlock the next major milestones in the "story".

I quote that only because the game never really manages to feel like it's making any real headway, which again may just be a byproduct of having tons of personality, but no real direction in what's going on. This is an experience meant to be digested alongside the movie, where that story can fill in the cracks, and if you haven't seen it yet, it's going to be a bit of a head-scratcher as to why you're doing certain things, or what events are connected when the cutscenes don't make it obvious. That's not a huge deal, since the target audience will both likely barrel through without caring too much and will probably have seen the movie on opening weekend.

There also seems to be a conscious effort to keep things hemmed in despite the fact that you're in the middle of the desert. Oh, you can drive quite a bit over flat land to be sure, but in town, where you'll be doing most of your item hunting, you'll constantly slam into stuff that in other games would probably end up being far more destructible like fences or boxes. Ping-ponging around just isn't a whole lot of fun when the turning radius of your car at what feels like a modest clip (though the game will tell you you're way over 100 miles an hour) is that of a drunk tortoise. If the game didn't encourage you to zip around back yards and alleyways, it wouldn't be huge deal, but if you want to earn a lot of points to unlock movie clips (which you should; they're awesome), or concept art or outtakes, you'll want to go a-fetchin' from time to time, and the level design sort of penalizes you for it.

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