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Cars 2: The Video Game (PS3) hands-on preview

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Last week, Sony made a pit stop in New York City to show off Cars 2: The Video Game. TheĀ adaptionĀ is coming to multiple gaming platforms but only the PlayStation 3 version will offer exclusive support for 3D displays. We got to spend some time playing the game and chatting with Avalanche Studios’ John Warner about some of the features.

It’s easy to write off a Cars 2 game tie-in as a family-friendly cash grab and nothing more. While there may well be such an element to this release, it should be said up front that this is a game that will appeal to fans of Mario Kart. It is essentially a kart racer, complete with single-use weapon pickups and nitro-boosting drifts, only instead of driving dinky little go-karts you’ve got self-aware automobiles.

While the game pales in the visual department when held up against the eye candy titans of the gaming industry, it still looks like a perfectly acceptable high-def release and seems to do a good job of capturing the universe that Pixar created for the upcoming summer sequel and its predecessor. The 3D effect in the PlayStation 3 version of the game is actually pretty impressive as well, adding quite a bit of depth to the colorful environments.

Cars 2: The Video Game is set after the events of the upcoming movie. Players are new members of C.H.R.O.M.E., the Cars equivalent of MI6 which features into a spy/espionage subplot in Cars 2. In what is almost certainly a nod to maintaining a family-friendly appeal, the use of weapons in the game’s races and other modes (more on those later) is justified by the fact that all of the events you compete in are technically training exercises. Cute, right?

In addition to the usual single race and circuit modes, the game also offers up an assortment of competitive challenge/battle-style modes. Arena is the most familiar, a basic deathmatch mode similar to Mario Kart‘s legendary Battle Mode in which players can compete in a free-for-all setup or in 2v2 and 1v3 versus matches. Also on the competitive front is Disrupter, a 2v2 capture the flag battle. Lastly, there’s Hunter, a chase mode in which players must pursue and take down a target vehicle.

Players also have the option of setting up a Squad Series, which pulls together as many as six individual matches to be played in a single circuit. There is also a freeplay mode, in which a range of elements can be tweaked prior to hitting the track, from the number of laps and racers to which weapons are and aren’t available from pickups.

No matter which mode you are playing in, you earn Spy Points. You earn more for performing well of course, but you’ll always pick up at least a few. These points go toward the game’s unlockables, which include vehicles, skins and tracks. Avalanche promises more than 20 tracks in all, split up over the movie’s four locations — London, Italy, Tokyo and Radiator Springs — although some simply offer alternate layouts. Still, the developer estimates that it will take most players roughly eight hours to obtain all of the available unlockables.

The single-use weapon pickups are fun and easy to use. You deploy them with the press of a button; some need to be lined up on a target first while others, such as oil slick, are laid out behind you. It’s all in the service of slowing down the competition. Players can grab machine guns, missiles, an energy (ie nitro) leech, mines and a satellite beam, which is analogous with Mario Kart‘s first place-seeking blue shell.

It was tough to get a real feel for the racer after only a few minutes of play, but our kneejerk reaction is that the turning — even with careful application of the handbrake — feels a little stiff. It’s probably just a lack of familiarity with the controls, but it’s worth noting. The movie isn’t out until the end of June so there’s also still some time left to tweak something like that.

The game’s standout feature is support for up to four players — also with 3D, in the PS3 version — in split-screen play. Unfortunately, this functionality does not extend to the online space. Cars 2: The Video Game is an offline play-only affair. Avalanche argues that this is to further the family appeal of the game, but frankly, that doesn’t make any sense.

Consoles feature built-in parental controls, so online access can easily be limited. Kart racing is also quite popular among older gamers who grew up playing Mario Kart, so it’s not like there’s no demand for an online play feature. More likely, Cars 2: The Video Game needed to stick to a tight development schedule so that it could be released alongside the movie. The absence of online multiplayer isn’t surprising, but it is unfortunate.

Overall though, Cars 2 is looking like a solid enough kart racer that should appeal to fans of Mario Kart and its ilk.