There's an interesting thing happening in the world of animated movie-licensed games, and it's made plainly clear by Cars, THQ's adaptation of Pixar's most recent entry in the animated life-given-to-inanimate-objects genre: the lines are being blurred. We are finally getting to the point where controlling the avatar on-screen is actually like taking on the role of the movie's protagonist, except adding the concept of choice allowing the player to make decisions in a human way rather than a Pixar/Disney sugarcoated bad-car-goes-good kind of way. I mean, this isn't Ultima or Fable or anything along those lines -- you're not going to be able to make your version of Cars' Lightning McQueen fall to the dark side, running over unsuspecting roadsters or anything like that -- but there's a whole new plot to be explored in the Cars video game, and you can explore it at your own pace with the voices of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Tony Shalhoub, and the great John Ratzenberger around to entertain you the whole way.
Predictably, the kids love this game. The visual and audio presentation of Cars is exactly what needed to be done to draw the movie's audience into the game, regardless of whether that audience happens to be old enough to understand the nuances and choices involved in a free-roaming atmosphere such as the one that this game features. Mostly, young children quickly realize that they can pick up the controller and drive around as their favorite cartoon character of the moment and run into stuff without consequence, stuff that looks and sounds like the world that Lightning McQueen inhabited in the movie. If that's what they want to do, that's all they have to do, and the mere presence of that choice sets Cars apart from the typical, linear, story-based movie adaptation that forces plot development and level-beating on players whether they want any part of it or not.
Don't get me wrong, Cars is, at its heart, a racing game, as it probably should be. As a racing game, it's not bad, although older players used to things like the F-Zero and Gran Turismo series will find the racing to be pretty useless. The difficulty level is skewed heavily toward younger players, and there aren't a lot of subtleties involved when tearing around the tracks. Cars does, however, do a good job of reminding you that you're playing a cartoon, with such unrealistic (and fun!) in-race options as jumping and flipping around for a little backwards driving, an option especially useful for taunting your opponents whether you're in one-player or multiplayer mode.
What makes Cars interesting, however, really does come down to the fact that THQ didn't just want to make a racing game, which they easily could have gotten away with. Instead, we get a huge, free-roaming atmosphere with all sorts of different terrains and navigational challenges, all of which need to be explored thoroughly thanks to one "mini"-game that sends the player on a search 'n collect mission that only the most patient players will be able to complete. The fact that mini-games even exist, however, is yet another thing that sets Cars apart from an awful lot of other games of its ilk. It's like Grand Theft Auto for the eight-year-old set, a whole set of different challenges, some culled from the movie, some not, but all of which unlock new challenges, allowing the world that the player inhabits to expand and get more interesting as play continues. Tractor Tipping, in particular, is a bit of excellent sneak-based gameplay that's actually more difficult than expected for a car game whose straight-up racing never presents a challenge. Each of the main characters from the movie has his or her own mini-game at some point in Cars, all of them fairly different (though all, obviously, involving driving), and all of them at least mildly entertaining.
As a matter of fact, if there is anything troubling about Cars (the video game), it's the issue of continuity, with a heaping side of character regression. I don't think it's giving away too much to say that Cars (the movie) was a story about a cocky protagonist who finds humility and heart via a change in his surroundings. In the game, which takes place after the events of the movie, Lightning McQueen is once again cocky, conceited, and a little bit too sure of himself for the "character development" of the film to have truly taken hold, thus unwittingly making the character more one-dimensional than the movie would have us believe. This isn't even to mention that you can go all Pimp My Ride on your car, giving it different paint jobs or super-sized off-roading wheels, if that's you're thing. These sorts of touches take a movie about heart and turn it into a game that rewards the most materialistic of inclinations.
There are other minor problems as well, as there are far too many load times (making the kids go "UGGGGHHH!") for an animated adaptation, and graphical glitches rear their heads on occasion. Even so, for the most part, Cars is a step in the right direction for the much maligned genre of film-licensed video games, allowing for the oft-sought-after feel of actually inhabiting the characters from the game, while offering gameplay elements that will be pleasing to five-year-olds and 50-year-olds alike. Would that more developers with movie licenses in hand allow themselves the aspirations of THQ.
14 July 2006