Prepare for the shocker of the century: Cars 2 is a racing game. It also has the misfortune of being a licensed product for a film that a lot of adult Pixar fans don't particularly like. While plenty of grown-ups hold films like Wall-E and Ratatouille up with reverence, they stick their noses up at Cars as they look down on the franchise for its over-merchandising and appeal to children.
These people are unlikely to ever play Cars 2. Hell, you'll probably hear them groan as they walk by the box in your local game store, mentally berating it for being an obvious cash-in. A shame, since Cars 2 is a surprisingly fun, arcade-style racer.
The basis is that you're a secret agent training through a series of missions in a high-tech simulator. These missions effectively have you play through all of the game's tracks and modes, some of which will feel pretty familiar.
For instance, Combat Mode is basically Mario Kart. You race against various opponents while driving through floating power-ups that give you random weapons. You're just dropping oil behind your car instead of banana peels and shooting missiles instead of turtle shells.
Okay, so is Cars 2 just a Mario Kart clone? Not exactly. Taking a page out of Burnout's playbook, you can gain "boost" by drifting, jumping, attacking, or performing other tricks. Your meter fills in segments, and filling all of them will let you go "in the zone," a longer boost that makes you invulnerable to attacks and damages any other vehicle you run close to.
The title offers other modes that are surprisingly unique. Survival, for instance, has you collecting batteries throughout a track in order to power a force field. These levels also offer a surprising challenge, forcing you to maintain long drifts and make tricky jumps if you want to keep your shield up as long as possible.
You start the game with a handful of characters to choose from, but you'll quickly begin to unlock more by completing missions and unlocking badges (in-game achievements). Each car has a unique personality and a number of phrases they'll spout during play. Some of the dialogue is actually pretty amusing. For instance, Francesco, a cocky racing car from Italy, says, "All this and I can fly, too!" during a long jump. Okay, so it's not hilarious, but lines like these are often smile-inducing at the very least.
The tracks, all based off of locations from the movie, offer multiple shortcuts and secret paths to discover, as well as a few hazards. For example, trains drive toward the racers during the London level, forcing you to quickly change lanes or attempt to leap over them. This also gives you an excellent chance to bump your opponents into the oncoming traffic.
I would have liked to have seen more clever moments like this throughout the courses, since some of the levels feel a bit bare and plain in comparison. And while the environments look vibrant and colourful, they're populated by 2D, cardboard cut-out spectators that awkwardly bop up and down in the stands. I probably wouldn't even have noticed how cheap they looked if it wasn't for the janky animation.
But these minor bumps in the road (ha!) don't send the game off course (another driving pun!). Instead of trying to retell the story of the movie, Cars 2 evokes the experience of the film through gameplay. Children who wear Lightning McQueen shoes and Mater backpacks are sure to love this racer, but their parents will be surprised by how much fun they have, too.