Back in the 1980s, when I was but a fresh faced boy of ten, there were three constants in life: Bedtime was always too early, the weekends were never long enough, and if a film was released at the cinema, there would inevitably be a video game made of it.
Some of these were very good – the game of the first Batman film on the SNES being a personal favourite – but there were tie ins for such classics as Alien, Predator and even Robocop all to be played and enjoyed. There were some real stinkers as well however, the kind of cynical cash-in that would be unthinkable today. Wouldn’t it?
This leads me neatly on to the subject of this review, Cars 3: Driven To Win. Avalanche Software have released a game based on the new Cars movie that is currently doing the rounds at the local multiplex, so the question that I will attempt to answer is have they done a decent job, or is it a cash grab like in the bad old days?
First impressions are good, with the attract sequence looking like it was ripped straight from the films. Graphically this game is absolutely fine, the models of the Cars characters themselves are modelled impressively and look exactly as they should, right down to individual stickers on Lightning and rust patches on Mater. My six year old son – who is acting as co-reviewer on this piece with me – was very excited by the visuals, shouting out the characters’ names as they appeared. So the graphics are obviously doing their job. There are a number of new characters as well that can be picked from the roster and unlocked as you progress in the game. These range from the new main rival, the all-electric Jackson Storm, to older characters pulled from racing history, from Doc’s vintage and even older.
Sonically, things are a lot worse. As soon as Lightning opened his mouth, as he does whenever you pick him as a character, my son’s head snapped up… “That’s not Lightning, Daddy!”. It appears that the licence to produce a Cars 3 game didn’t include access to any of the voice talent, and so Lightning sounds like someone doing an impression of a drunk Owen Wilson down a bad mobile phone connection. I can do a more accurate “Ka-Chow” than whoever the voice actor is in this game, and that’s saying something with my broad Northern accent. It’s the same story with the rest of the Cars; Mater sounds like a generic American South accent, Sally has changed to someone doing a bad American accent, and so on. I can’t stress enough how much of a disappointment this is. My son and I must have seen the Cars movies hundreds of times, without a word of exaggeration, and to suddenly be presented with a game where they look right, but sound all wrong, is jarring at best, and downright off-putting at worst. This affects all areas of the game, as even in the heat of a race event, your chosen character will keep chatting away to themselves and taunting the rivals, so it is inescapable. As my son said when I asked him about this – “You could just say everyone doesn’t sound right!”.
It’s not just the character voices that are flat and uninspiring, the engine sounds are the limpest I’ve ever heard on a video game. You’re driving a “precision mix of speed and aeromatics” as Mater would say, but the engines are a vague kind of hum in the background. Even weirder, Mater, a battered rusty old tow truck, sounds just like Lightning, a thoroughbred NASCAR racer. How is that even possible? It is another example of how bad sound design can have a detrimental impact on a game, I’m afraid.
Content wise, and the picture is a lot rosier. Driven to Win offers a variety of modes, and more can be unlocked as you progress in the single player mode and unlock nodes in the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is a way of tracking how you are progressing through the game, with different sections for Racing, Battling and so on, and also feats that can be performed to open up new nodes and tick things off your in game to-do list. These can be as simple as winning a race, or as complicated as hitting a rival with a rocket while performing an air trick. Some of them appear to be quite luck based, as in using a certain weapon whilst in first place. Weapon drops are random, so there’s no skill involved in obtaining said weapon, so it seems a bit odd that would be a node, but there you go.
As nodes are filled, new characters, race modes and visual effects are unlocked, so checking what you need to do before a race begins and trying to play for that is a good idea. The visual effects range from different Turbo effects, to multiple under car neon colours, through to various sounding horns, so there is a nice degree of personalisation to play with. Weirdly, the multiplayer mode is locked away behind these nodes as well, rather than being open from the beginning. This seems odd to me, as I had to play the game for 45 minutes alone before I could get into some head to head action with my son, which he found very frustrating, and instead wandered off and started playing Splatoon again.
There are a number of different modes to master in the game. When you first begin, there is only Racing open to you, but once you’ve won a few times, Battle Races are available. These have the same basic rules as racing, with the added fun factor of random pickup weapons that can change the order of a race in a heartbeat. The weapons are suitably fun, with rapid fire chain guns, guided and unguided rockets, mines, electro guns and even a missile that will home in on the player in first place, but takes out anyone it hits on its way to the front. As you can imagine, firing this from about 10th place is incredibly satisfying.
Also waiting to be unlocked is a mode called Takedown, where you have to take out waves of drone cars and trucks using the full array of weapons. There’s also a time trial event, called Best Lap Mode, although there doesn’t seem to be any sort of global leaderboards, so I can’t tell how poorly I’m doing against all the other people out there. Stunt driving is another category, where only points scored by pulling off tricks in the air, using the right stick, count towards victory. When you also add in the cup events, in Race and Battle Race flavours, and an open arena type level that you can explore at your leisure, it’s clear this game doesn’t suffer from a lack of content. But how does it play, I hear you ask?
The answer to that question is a tricky one, with the pleasure found having a lot to do with how old you are.
Me being old and wizened, I’m used to racers like the Forza series where everything is just so,lo and the result of countless hours of fettling and adjusting tyre pressures. This game is the antithesis of that – you get in the car and drive, locked to a third person, behind the car perspective. Now ever since I was old enough to play racing games, I’ve been a front bumper cam kind of guy, and I hate third person perspectives with a passion. However, with a large part of the appeal of these games being attributable to actually being Lightning or whoever, I can see why they did this. With my cynical, game reviewing head on, I can say that the game suffers from a lack of feeling, a lack of a sensation of speed and a lack of “soul”. However, the first time my son played Battle mode he laughed so much he got hiccups, so if you are six years old that’s about as high a recommendation as you can get. The joy on his face as he shot me in the back again and again was something to behold, and as I write this he’s playing, as Lightning, shouting “Got you!” as he blasts CPU controlled racers to kingdom come.
He’s also a big fan of the Takedown mode, but finds the pure Racing a little dull by comparison, without explosions all over the place every five seconds. Speaking from my perspective, the Racing seems a little slow and pedestrian for the Cars series, with even drifting and stunt driving failing to add any sparkle. Driving backwards, or on two wheels, earns you turbo energy, as does drifting and air tricks. If you manage to fill the turbo meter at the bottom of the screen, you can double tap X to go “In The Zone”, where your car’s speed increases, they glow and become invulnerable, spinning out any car that they crash into. Obviously if someone has a lock-cars on weapon trained on you, then going In The Zone may well save your bacon.
The other thing with the gameplay that seems odd is that there are three difficulty levels, as you might expect – Easy, Normal and Hard. On Normal and above, the AI characters appear to have been blessed with precognition, as they will jump over rocket shots and never miss when they fire at you. There’s also no reward for playing on the harder levels, so sticking Cars 3 on easy becomes second nature.
There are a good number of tracks to play with, not including the Playground, and with different layouts based around the same location, they are also well planned and largely a pleasure to drive on. There are a number of animated obstacles such as a convoy of trucks or cranes moving tree trunks around, which adds to the uncertainty as you come screaming round a corner to find a giant earth mover blocking the way in the Mines levels, for instance. The game is sometimes a little dim witted when you collide with these obstacles, sometimes resetting you a good way back the track, and sometimes resetting to an off track location, which is annoying as the speed off-road is a good deal less than the speed you can attain on the racing line. Worst of all is when the game seems to think that your collision isn’t bad enough to merit being reset at all, and so a truck can bounce you backwards down the track multiple times and ruin your entire race.
Other than this, the racing and shooting action is normally fairly flawless, being fast and furious, especially in co-op or multiplayer mode. The multiplayer is couch centred, with no online play, which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. However, it does support four way play if you have sufficient friends/children and enough controllers to go round. This can quickly devolve into a raucous shouting match, especially in 2v2 mode. My nerves could only bear this once, when my son had a couple of friends round, and after ten minutes I was ready for a long lie down in a darkened room.
All in all then, Cars 3: Driven To Win is a game of two halves. If you are six years old, or have children scattered about the place to play with/against, then the game makes a lot of sense and you can easily add half a star to my review rating. It is loud, spectacular, and full of explosions, which appeals to the kid inside me. As an adult though, the game is passable at best. The sensations of speed are missing, the racing is dull and some of the Hall of Fame nodes seem to need the gods of chance on your side to have a chance at finishing. With content locked behind these nodes, having fortune based unlocks does grate with me a little.
This game is great for those younger players, but adults may find it a little too samey, a little too quickly.