Lately, we've seen a lot of movie-based games that try to expand on - instead of directly adapt - the story of the film they're based on. The Godfather did it, Over the Hedge did it and this summer, Cars will do it. Picking up where the movie left off, Cars casts players as red stock-car Lightning McQueen and sets them loose to explore the colorful desert town of Radiator Springs.
Like the movie, the game takes place in a driver-free world of anthropomorphic cars. Playing out like a kid-safe Grand Theft Auto, it gives players free rein to wander around the town and the surrounding desert, hills and forest at their leisure. Because you are a car, though, you can't just get out and jack new rides, meaning you're stuck with the same car through much of the game. You can, however, play as several other characters when the story calls for it.
Not that playing just as Lightning is so bad; as a national racetrack star, he's fast and versatile, able to pull off stunts and do little hops. When that gets boring, he can smack into the trundling locals to make them yell at him. He'll also be able to take on assorted missions that advance the story, which appear limited to two types: minigames (which we can't talk about just yet) and races, which look to be the mainstay of the game.
We recently got a chance to try out a couple of these races for ourselves (on the PS2 and GameCube versions), and while the game was still unfinished, it felt polished. Lightning handles well, aside from hopping balance on two wheels to get an edge during the races. The tracks themselves run a pretty good variety, ranging from NASCAR-style speedways to high-octane runs through town. Lightning himself looks more like a plastic toy than an actual supercar, but his appearance goes well with how ridiculously expressive he is. If you pan the camera around, you can watch his eyes move with your steering as his expression changes. Even from behind, you can see him constantly moving his eyebrows (or whatever it is cars have where eyebrows would be).
In addition to its bright look, smooth animation and vividly realized characters, Cars will sport performances from Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy and the rest of the cast from the movie. So while this might be a movie-licensed game for kids, it's certainly not a slapdash one. We're not sure how well endless races and minigames will fill out a Grand Theft Auto-sized game, but so far, Cars is shaping up to be a sweet ride.
May 11, 2006