The game's kart-racing fundamentals are fluid and enjoyable, especially when experienced in multiplayer. With an expansive and likable roster of characters, Cars 2: The Video Game is a decent alternative to Mario Kart, though the game's limited array of tracks and circuits leave it a little short on gas.
Disney Interactive's relationship with Avalanche Studios has eschewed the typical expectations of licensed movie releases. Last year's Toy Story 3 was a confident release, providing the perfect accompaniment to the massive Pixar summer blockbuster. Coming from the same studio, Cars 2 is a touch less ambitious than Avalanche's previous outing, but it's still packed with polish and good ideas.
Leaving the story-telling to the masters at Pixar, Cars 2: The Video Game drops the movie's narrative in favour of a sequence of top-secret training missions at the Command Headquarters for Recon Operations & Motorized Espionage (or C.H.R.O.M.E). Outside of a few short (and genuinely humorous cut-scenes) there isn't much of a story at all in Cars 2. And it's actually for the best. It means Avalanche has been able to focus on making a game, rather than shoe-horning the events of the movie into a slew of disparate gameplay sequences.
At its very core, Cars 2 is a kart-racer taking inspiration from the Mario Kart series. The game does very little to advance the familiar genre, but is good enough to stand side-by-side with Nintendo's mega-franchise. The differences are purely cosmetic. Instead of flinging turtle shells at your opponents, you'll fire machine guns. Instead of dropping banana skins, you'll squirt oil slicks. You'll also do more than just racing in Cars 2. Some modes will see you chasing enemy cars, aiming to take them out in order to extend your time. Others will see you hunting down opponents in a massive arena. There's a good number of modes in the game, all of which are complimented by instantaneous drop-in four-player multiplayer — which is nearly always the best way to experience the game.
Despite its family oriented appearance, Cars 2 should appeal to a broad range of gaming demographics. While the game is pretty easy to pick up and play, there are some deeper mechanics that make the title inviting to more serious gamers too. For example, you can drift, turn your car backwards, ride on two wheels and perform tricks in the air. Each of these activities reward you with boost, which can be used immediately or stored up for a super-charged turbo once you've collected enough. You can even side-swipe your opponents, knocking them off the track. There are a lot of options and mechanics for you to learn if you want to.
With such a competitive focus, Cars 2 is best enjoyed in multiplayer, and Avalanche's implementation is spot on. You can play the entirety of Cars 2's campaign with up to three other players locally, really bringing the game to life. Sadly there's no support for online multiplayer, but, while it may sound like a cop-out, Cars 2 is definitely best enjoyed on the couch with friends or family. It's the kind of game anyone can play, and everyone will have a good time doing so. We're just not sure the experience would be as fulfilling online, though obviously some kind of Internet-based multiplayer component would have extended replayability when you've not got a set of friends nearby.
Being a Mario Kart-clone, Cars 2 does struggle with some of the hallmarks that have plagued Nintendo's series for the past ten years. Unavoidable weapons and rubberband AI do become frustrating, but the game is never really challenging enough to punish you in these areas. Getting hit by an unavoidable satellite strike as you're inches away from the finishing line is still curse-inducingly irritating though.
The game also lacks content. While there are a good array of modes and vehicles to select from, the game's track roster is disappointingly slim. Locations such as London and Tokyo look fantastic, but there's just not enough visual variety to keep the game feeling fresh. Sure there are alternative routes based on the game's main locations, but disappointingly they are all set in the same hub areas.
The vehicles themselves are brilliantly realised though. Based on the same characters from the movie, we spent most of our time playing as Francesco, the Italian sports-car. They are complete stereotypes, but in a comical way. Francesco for example is an arrogant stallion, spouting phrases such as: "I hope-a-you did not miss me too much, but of course you did," when he gets knocked off the track. Pixar's eye for detail is as keen as ever, and the characterisation is spot-on. The voice-acting is top-notch too, with the likes of Michael Caine lending their voices for the game.
In addition to sounding great, Cars 2: The Video Game looks gorgeous too. It's clear that Avalanche has worked closely with Pixar nailing the nuances of each character's personality. In all modes the game includes a video feed of your character's face in the top-left corner of the screen, allowing you to observe their reactions to the action. It's a lovely touch, which brings Avalanche's hard-work to the centre of the experience without distracting you from the main action. The game is similarly technically proficient too, with a rock solid frame-rate and good motion blur implementation providing an appealing style.
While the game starts to lose its appeal in single-player, Cars 2 is a fantastic fun when played locally with three other players. The game does little to advance the familiar hallmarks of the kart-racing genre, but it's a rock-solid racer enhanced by the personalities of Pixar's movie franchise. By not trying to shoehorn the narrative of the Cars 2 movie, Avalanche has concentrated on making an enjoyable compliment to the summer blockbuster. It's not the most ambitious game in the world, but it's finely executed and an enjoyable ride — especially if you've got friends and family that adore Pixar's automotive series.