Cars: Mater-National Review
As one of the most entertaining and popular movies of 2006, "Cars" broke through age boundaries and managed to appeal to just about anybody. The ensuing game wasn't anywhere near as good as the film - hardly a big surprise - but it was mildly fun for fans of the game, and the sales numbers were good enough for THQ to publish a sequel. Enter Cars: Mater-National, which takes a slightly new approach to a straightforward racing game and gives the gamer a moderate sense of freedom. We hesitate to say it's like Need for Speed blended with Grand Theft Auto (such a title would be far more epic than this one), but it's not a bad description. There are some problems with the execution and the world is too small and bland to warrant a replay, but this sequel shouldn't disappoint its target audience. In fact, if you're looking for a Christmas gift for the kids, and they loved the movie, Cars: Mater-National would be a good idea. For the rest of us, the game proves fun for a few hours, but its appeal quickly begins to wane when we realize it's simply not as deep as it initially pretends to be.
We've already seen some pretty amazing visuals on the PS3 in its first year, and as expected, this title doesn't really qualify. It's a consistent graphical presentation, though, and one that doesn't hinder the overall experience. As hinted at earlier, the three town areas you explore in the game seem too much like ghost towns, and the detail ranges from basic to average. There are several nice cut-scenes peppered throughout the adventure, but they don't exhibit the same technical achievement we saw in the movie; most of the scenes are comprised entirely of dialogue. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but after a while, it almost seemed as if the characters didn't have anything left to say. The graphics never shine, primarily due to a lack of effort in designing the miniature world, which rarely shows us anything but sand, bushes, and one main street with a bunch of cookie-cutter buildings. On the other hand, there's some nice detail in the vehicles themselves and some of the tracks are semi-attractive, so there's no reason to say the visuals are actually poor. They're just not impressive in the slightest, which translates to a ho-hum score of "passable."
The sound is certainly better, thanks to great voice acting and a surprisingly diverse soundtrack. We probably should've expected this, considering the movie had fantastic music and voiceovers, but it's just nice to have that kind of plus in the video game adaptation. Many of your friends are back - with Lightning and Mater taking center-stage - and they're all properly voiced; fans of the movie will immediately recognize their favorites. The soundtrack, which doesn't play much of a role while exploring the towns, really kicks in during races and provides the player with the appropriate upbeat enhancement. There are several covers of popular songs - most of which every player will be familiar with - and the sound effects aren't too bad at all. The biggest flaw in the effects is the fact that hitting an object when driving doesn't ever sound right. You don't get that scraping, sickening metallic sound you should get; you just hear this generic thud. And while we wouldn't want to be assaulted by all those pop/rock tracks all the time, we could've used a little something more when driving around town. Beyond that, though, this category stands out as being the best part of Cars: Mater-National. The voices and music are big bonuses.
Sure, games based on movies are rarely any good. But the original Cars was pretty solid, possibly due to the influence of an accomplished racing developer: Rainbow Studios. Therefore, because they're back for the sequel, we had to assume we'd see a relatively similar racing experience. And we do, only this one tries to add a few fun little extras that are specifically designed to appeal to the avid fans- by obtaining points, you can unlock all kinds of artwork for the game, from character designs to environmental sketches. Of course, that's hardly the crux of the game. You need to gather up as many Stickers and Lightning Bolts as you can; if you can get them all, you will officially beat the game. However, that's easier said than done because there are plenty of races and mini-events to tackle, and they're more challenging if you choose a higher difficult setting at the start. On the surface, it appears as if this game has a lot going for it, but despite the multiple game styles, things get very repetitive. Furthermore, while the racing physics work well, they're a little erratic and not as fine-tuned as we would've liked. Still, it all kinds of blends together into a fairly enjoyable little game.
You play as Lightning McQueen, and while you'll race as the charismatic main character in most events, you will also race as Mater in other races (like the Rustbucket events). You're dropped in the middle of the first town, Radiation Springs, and you can roam the countryside, participating in any even that is available to you. This sounds like a fantastic concept, and it is to some extent, but the areas are actually quite small and devoid of any lively content. There are a few main streets that crisscross the town section and longer roads that curl around the outskirts, but you'll likely see everything there is to see during the first hour of exploration. The good news is that you will open up two new areas in the Story Mode, complete with their own sets of events and hidden pick-ups to find. These pick-ups aren't exactly "hidden;" you just have to drive all over the place to locate them, and you can pick up new paint jobs, tires, and Lightning icons that will grant you 1,000 and 10,000 points. As we said before, those points are used to purchase artwork and other extras in the Options menu, so that's a big benefit to loyal fans of the movie.
The controls are pretty straightforward, although they might be a touch more advanced than the novice gamer is accustomed to. Not only do you have the typical gas, brake and e-brake, but you also have power slide (R1) and tilt (L1); the former is exactly what it sounds like, while the latter puts you up on two wheels for a tight turn. The power slide is relatively easy to pull off, but the Tilt is a little screwy, as it doesn't typically result in a better turn. You lose far too much momentum and you'll soon realize that "riding the rails" (simply slamming into the wall with the gas full on) tends to be more effective than the tilt. That's no good, of course, but this isn't Gran Tuirsmo. In the end, you only really need to power slide and that's about it; the challenge is mild, but can be tougher if you choose Pro instead of Rookie when you start a new game. We'd definitely recommend Pro for gamers who have experience with other racing games, but perhaps Rookie is best for those under the age of 10. There is some realism; for example, hitting an obstacle in the racetrack (or an opponent) means you won't be able to execute anything special, like the e-brake, power-slide or tilt. It adds a bit more dimension to the races, but the racing physics are basically straight-up arcade-style, and not very polished.
Some of the mini-games include the Rhythmic Rumble, Fuel Frenzy, and Tag. Rhythmic Rumble will prove the most problematic for younger gamers, as those who aren't familiar with something like Gitaroo-Man will find it inordinately difficult. Fuel Frenzy has you racing around a track, attempting to complete as many laps as possible before running out of gas. There are fuel can pick-ups scattered all over the track, and the key is to be efficient. Tag is just what it sounds like: you and another opponent try to tag each other and race back to your respective goals without being caught. And in addition to typical races, you also have Relay races, but they're essentially the same thing, except you "tag" a new car at the end of every lap. You do race with monster trucks - a jacked-up Lightning - and even as Mater, so it's not like you'll be stuck using Lightning the race car for the entire game. However, it's very hard to tell the difference between these cars, despite the fact there are statistics (acceleration, braking, etc.) for each one, and too many of the courses feel the same. Oh, and is there any particular reason we have to press down and then up on the left analog stick in order to jump? Couldn't that have been done with any one button?
It's too repetitive and the towns are far too empty, but there should be enough here to satisfy "Cars" fans. You can get new paint jobs and tires (and not just for Lightning), the story is somewhat lame but still genuinely amusing, and the races do feel very much the same but they're almost always fun. Some of the mini-games get annoying, especially because you have to do them seven times in order to fully complete them, but that's okay. There's a good deal of gameplay here, especially if you want to "beat" the game. In order to do that, you need all 7 Stickers and all 350 Lightning Bolts, and that means you've got to win everything. Yes, everything. For veteran gamers, this won't take very long at all, though, because it only took us about two and a half hours to rack up 70 of those Bolts. But for younger gamers, there's definitely plenty to do, and you can even unlock the more challenging Stadium races; one each at the 25, 75, and 160 Bolt mark. See, they're building a new Stadium for Lightning in the game, and you will get a chance to race on it during every stage of development. Unfortunately, the developers don't do anywhere near enough with these big races, because they just end up feeling like all the other ones.
Cars: Mater-National turns out to be one of the better games geared toward the younger audience. It's easy to get a hang of the controls even though the tilt seems useless, and the open world - while depressingly very empty - still lets you drive just about anywhere you wish, letting you participate in any event at any time. That's not the kind of freedom you normally see in games like this, so we'd have to say it's a big positive. The characters are as likeable and charming as always, and with plenty of things to do and even a bunch of extras to unlock, most will be able to get their money's worth out of this sequel. The graphics aren't bad, the sound is great, and if all those events didn't tend to blend together after a while, we'd have to say the gameplay is both appealing and even addictive. You always want to get more Bolts and inch ever closer to the next big Stadium race! No, we won't be recommending this one over games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Assassin's Creed and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, but we will recommend this for parents who have children. Children who like their video games and who thoroughly enjoyed "Cars." ...and we're willing to bet there are a lot of kids out there who fall into that category.
11/19/2007 Ben Dutka